Ethan Slater Makes a Splash as SpongeBob on Broadway
Ethan Slater didn’t initially intend to audition for SpongeBob SquarePants — The Broadway Musical. When the actor was a sophomore at Vassar College, he applied for a summer internship at Shakespeare on the Sound, and the casting director asked him to come in for the mainstage season. After landing a role in the theater’s Romeo and Juliet, Slater was called in for The Untitled Tina Landau Project.
In the audition scenes, Slater read for the part of “Bubble Burt” and landed the role, a thinly veiled version of SpongeBob, in an exploratory movement lab with director Landau. That was five years ago. Now Slater is gearing up to make his Broadway debut as the under-the-sea pineapple-dwelling sponge at the Palace Theatre, where the musical opens on Dec. 4.
“One of the benefits of the process moving slowly is I was able to finish college, and I also grew as a performer and as an actor with the role,” says Slater. “I feel like I’m in a much better place to do it on Broadway now than I was five years ago.”
Slater was familiar with the Nickelodeon show from his childhood, but he didn’t have cable television at home, so he would watch episodes while visiting friends. It was never his goal to imitate the eponymous character. Even at his first audition, he didn’t try to do a SpongeBob voice or mimic his memorable laugh.
“I approach the role by putting the character first and then doing the iconic things after,” Slater says. “The voice and the laugh came from me as opposed to being this impersonation I had been working on for 20 years.”
In the musical, none of the actors wear elaborate costumes or makeup like you might see in a theme park. Instead, they embody the characters as people, with slight homages and hints to their animated alter egos through wigs and outfits. Slater is the first to admit that he kind of looks like the character — as much as anyone can look like a sponge. “I’m already a square looking person. I’m short and have wide shoulders,” he says.
One thing he never thought he’d get to do professionally, as SpongeBob or otherwise, is sing songs by pop stars like Panic! At the Disco, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and more. Slater is particularly geeking out over the John Legend song he sings. “I’m such a huge fan,” he says. “I’m really hoping I get to sing it with him someday.”
The cast is close, and they do weird bits “all the time,” Slater says. For example, whenever someone does something great or something exciting happens, everyone immediately breaks into a yoga posture. Slater stands in tree pose to indicate this as he’s telling the story. After the opening night curtain call when the show premiered in Chicago in 2016, everyone struck a pose in full view of the audience.
His time with SpongeBob has also run parallel to another personal journey: He started dating his now fiancée a month before the first movement lab and proposed to her over the summer before rehearsals for Broadway began. “It’s been a big year,” he says.
And it’s only going to get bigger.
Styled by Drew Jessup
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