About five years ago, Ethan Slater faced the following question: Shakespeare or SpongeBob? Then a student at Vassar College, he had already been cast in “Romeo and Juliet” at a Connecticut theater when the casting director called to gauge his interest in an untitled Tina Landau project. Torn between his love of the Bard and the opportunity to work with Landau, whom he had actively been studying at the time, Slater sought advice from the head of Vassar’s drama department.
“[He] told me, ‘Shakespeare will always be there, but if you pass up an opportunity to work with Tina Landau, you’ll regret it.’ And he’s right,” says Slater.
After watching 200 “SpongeBob” episodes, studying comedy acts like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, spending hundreds of hours in the gym and completing countless voice and dance lessons, Slater plays Nickelodeon’s jovial little sea creature in the Broadway adaptation of the show and book by Kyle Jarrow, now showing at the Palace Theater. Slater has mastered the character’s silhouette, voice and mannerisms, including the silly way he moves his hands when he walks. At this point, the only thing separating Slater from SpongeBob is the fourth dimension.
The show is a test of endurance, both vocal and physical. The varied score is comprised of songs written by stars like John Legend, the Plain White T’s, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. In one particularly taxing scene, Slater belts out a song penned by Panic! At the Disco while hanging upside down from what looks like a life-size metal web.
Of course, accidents are bound to happen, and lucky for Slater, his castmates are responsive and quick to improvise.
“Earlier this week, when I was climbing the ladder wall, I got a little cut on my hand,” he explains. “It was an intense moment that everyone noticed, but we didn’t want to stop the show and let the audience know anything was happening. It was during the scene leading up to the song ‘Best Day Ever’ and I made eye contact with every person on stage, which I do every night. We always look at each other and what’s special is we always see each other. It’s a really beautiful thing. But this night, not only did I look at them and see my friends, but they saw that I needed help. Four people found times to run off stage and grab me gauze or a bandage. I was able to bandage my hand during the number.”
Eye contact — and acknowledgement — between cast members is a noticeable aspect of the show. It’s a testament not only to their bond, but to their long-term familiarity with the script. Landau first pitched the show to Nickelodeon 10 years ago, and most of the main cast has been working together for five. Despite their time invested, all members were repeatedly made aware that the show might not happen at all.
“Each step of the way, we have been given the same speech, which is: This might not move any further than this stage,” says Slater. “The only reason to do a SpongeBob on Broadway is if it’s gonna bring something new to the brand, something new to SpongeBob and also something innovative to theater and to Broadway. It was led creatively [with] an artistic approach.”
Everything from the script to the score to the costumes to the set has been carefully considered. There’s even a pineapple chandelier right as you walk into the theater. And for the hardcore fans, there are plenty of Easter eggs, “My leg!” included.
“Our executive producer Susan Vargo read us part of Tina’s original pitch 10 years ago,” says Slater. “I’m going to paraphrase because I obviously don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was something along the lines of creating a party, a live experience, something that you can’t get anywhere else, an immersive underwater thing, but also to find the heart of these characters and the true grounded nature of the story we’re telling. It really feels like the ideals she pitched we landed with in the show. As a company, we’re really proud of that.”
Bikini Bottom has arrived.