Photo by April Saul
It is an improbable tale: A local actor sets foot on a Broadway stage for the first time, not as an understudy or walk-on, but as the star of a multimillion-dollar undersea extravaganza produced by Nickelodeon, Sony Music Masterworks and others. The critics swoon, especially the cantankerous chief theater critic of The New York Times, Ben Brantley, who compares the young star to legends Joel Grey and Carol Channing.
Ethan Slater, 25, who was raised in Silver Spring, is living this million-to-one shot as he plays the sea sponge in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical at the Palace Theatre. The Georgetown Day School and Vassar College grad is raking in reviews (and a possible Tony nomination) that most actors wait a lifetime to receive. “Even after years of preparing for this role, it’s still hard to believe I’m part of this amazing spectacle,” he says.
The highly lauded show, conceived by director Tina Landau, who also directed the comedy Superior Donuts, features songs from stars including John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. Soaring vocals, an imaginative set, skateboarding and an in-show ovation for Squidward Q. Tentacles (actor Gavin Lee tapping with four legs) are among the highlights.
The large ensemble cast is praised, but SpongeBob soaks up the top accolades. “A knockout central turn from Ethan Slater” (Chicago Tribune). “You are never going to see as convincing an impersonation of a two-dimensional cartoon by a three-dimensional human as that provided by Ethan Slater at the Palace Theater” (New York Times). New York magazine devoted a two-page spread to a photograph of Slater buried in yellow sponges.
We caught up with Slater three hours before one of SpongeBob’s eight weekly shows, as he headed for one of his two weekly physical therapy appointments. The former high school wrestler is onstage for most of the two-hour show, singing, dancing athletically and climbing scenery with high-octane enthusiasm.
He is modest and well aware of the rare waters he’s in, playing the stage lead in a worldwide TV cartoon phenomenon. “I fell into a huge opportunity and had no idea of the scope when I auditioned,” says Slater, who watched SpongeBob at his grandmother’s house as a kid because his family didn’t have cable. He and his college roommate stayed up until 4 a.m. rehearsing silly physical comedy routines on the quad at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, New York, before he auditioned for the yet unnamed show as a sophomore in 2012. For his 90-second audition, he wrestled with an imaginary sweater, ending with a dive roll. At his callback, he was such a rookie that his routine lasted four minutes, far longer than normal. He began dancing to “Billie Jean” and then, borrowing from a classic Three Stooges routine, was attacked by a bee, turning the dance into a karate fight, ending with him swallowing the bee.
“I took taekwondo at the JCC in Rockville for eight years,” he says. “That really helped me here.”
The creative team agreed, contacting Slater a mere 45 minutes after the callback to give him the part. His dilemma? Amazingly, he had been cast the same day to play Benvolio in a newly imagined musical version of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare on the Sound in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“My college adviser told me, ‘Shakespeare will always be there, but if you pass up this opportunity to work with Tina Landau, you’ll regret it,’ ” Slater says. Thus began his five years of preparation to become SpongeBob, working with choreographer Christopher Gattelli (from Newsies), dance and voice coaches, and trying out the show in Chicago before it opened in New York City this past December.
The SpongeBob musical does not use cartoon costumes or even the show’s signature theme song, which is sung by the cast (along with most of the audience) only during the curtain call. Slater uses his own auburn hair and wears plaid pants and a red tie. He’s developed a unique character laugh, voice, walk and mannerisms based on his lifelong love of comedians Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and, of course, Larry, Curly and Moe.
Slater grew up performing, attending summer camp at Round House Theatre in Bethesda and taking voice lessons at the Levine School of Music in North Bethesda. He took guitar lessons starting in fourth grade, when he was a student at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. He played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Round House and Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Georgetown Day School. His favorite role was Leo Bloom in his high school production of The Producers.
Acting on Broadway in a historic theater where the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire performed remains a bit unreal for him. “I’m blown away every day at the professionalism I’m surrounded by,” Slater says. “Not just the cast, which has become my second family, but the costumers, the prop folks, the dressers. They are all at the top of their game.”
Broadway perks have come his way. The show’s cast performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and sang “Bikini Bottom Day” on Good Morning America, and Slater has hordes of fans waiting to get his autograph at the stage door after every show. His handlers cut off the line after 20 minutes to save his energy, and also insist that he stay silent on his Monday day off, a typical voice rest requirement.
Opening night was a special thrill. “I got to share it with my [two] sisters, my stepbrother, my bubbe and my fiancée.” He’s engaged to Lilly Jay of Bethesda, a high school classmate. His parents were there, along with other family members and friends from Montgomery County and Vassar College. “There’s something about Broadway that’s just so shockingly special. I am very, very lucky.”