Ethan Slater, unanimously acclaimed for his high-energy performance in the title role of SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical, tried to play it cool the morning Tony Award nominations were announced.
The actor, who was making an omelette while listening to the nominations in the background, told Playbill later that morning, “I was wrong. I had to stop everything and just watch.” And, with good reason: Slater picked up a Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, and the production earned 12 nominations in all.
Slater, who also starred in the Chicago world premiere of SpongeBob, says he was “pretty flabbergasted” when he heard his name announced. “It's amazing! It's a surreal thing, being nominated and in such amazing company. The names that were read before mine in my category are all actors of whom I'm a fan.” Those names include Harry Hadden-Paton (My Fair Lady), Joshua Henry (Carousel), and Tony Shalhoub (The Band's Visit).
“I'm a fan of their work, so it felt really special,” Slater continues. “And, listening to all of the names of the SpongeBob artists that I've been working with for years, getting nominated for their work, that was really, really special.”
It's been a life-changing year for the actor, who makes his Broadway debut in the new musical based on the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon set in Bikini Bottom. “[Life is] totally different but in the really good ways,” Slater says. “I feel like I've had to change my lifestyle so that I could keep up with the show. I hesitate to call them sacrifices because they're so worth it. But, in a lot of ways, it's exactly the same. I'm still sort of making art and getting to play with my friends and collaborators. I'm just getting to do it on the Palace Theatre stage, which is an unbelievable privilege.”
And, how does Broadway compare to what Slater thought it would be?
“I have to say, it totally lived up to and exceeded my expectations, which were honestly pretty high,” he says. “It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but I think it's something about the audiences. The audience at a Broadway theatre
is discerning, but they're there to have a good time and then they're excited, and it feels really special. When I'm in the audience of Broadway shows, I feel like I'm in the presence of something really special with artists working at the height of their craft and doing the best work that they possibly can. And, I know that's how we feel about our show. I feel very proud of everyone I've worked with on SpongeBob because they're all brilliant artists working at the top of their game to make something really special, and I think audiences feel that.”
Slater, who bursts with an irrepressible exuberance onstage, has been on the SpongeBob journey since his callback for the first workshop in April 2012. Although there have been many special moments during the six-year period, the actor says opening night on Broadway was a major milestone. “Danny Skinner, who plays Patrick, was also involved in the very first workshop. We got to have this really special moment after all of the hubbub. Everyone was so excited about opening night, giving out gifts and cards and saying hi, and we closed the door to my dressing room, and we sat there really quietly. I don't think we said a whole lot. We were like, ’We made it, we're here.’ That was a really unbelievable feeling that I didn't necessarily expect because we had already been performing for a month, but it was really special.”
Slater also enjoys his post-show interactions with audience members of all ages at the stage door. “There are so many kids for whom this is their first Broadway show,” he says. “Lots of teenagers and young adults for whom this is their first Broadway show, and it’s really cool to see that and to hear that they've come to the show, they've loved it, and they're now gonna go see more Broadway shows…
“But, I will say, my favorite interactions, and I've had a lot of these, are adults from their 30s to 70s telling me that they had very low expectations, they were dragged there against their will, they were expecting and hoping to hate it, and they're converted and can't wait to see it again. That feels really good. We're all sort of aware what SpongeBob the Musical could be in the hands of the wrong people. And I really feel like, and I think we all feel like, [director] Tina Landau is the hands of the right people.”