This article was originally published June 21, 2016. The four actors below have been officially announced as part of the cast for the Broadway bow November 2017.
They live in a pineapple under the sea! Meet Ethan Slater, Danny Skinner, Lilli Cooper and Gavin Lee, the four actors chosen to lead the new Broadway-bound musical about Nickelodeon’s favorite superhero sponge that’s now premiering at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.
With a score of original songs by leading pop artists that have been woven together to fit a concept by director Tina Landau and book writer Kyle Jarrow, SpongeBob tells the story of how a sea sponge attempts to save the undersea world. It’s not based on a specific Nickelodeon episode, but it’s the Bikini Bottom audiences know and love from television (complete with SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary). The four leads spill details on the show, including how their sea creatures will differ from what we see on TV and how the underwater world will come alive on stage.
Role: SpongeBob SquarePants
Life pre-Bikini Bottom: Slater has been with SpongeBob since its onset, when he was cast in an early workshop during sophomore year at Vassar College, where he attended with his co-star Lilli Cooper. “We were doing a play together during my sophomore year,” Slater says, “and I actually had just auditioned for an apprenticeship program, and the casting director from that apprenticeship program was working on SpongeBob, so three weeks later, they called me in and asked me to audition for it. It was four years ago. Since college, I’ve done some Off-Broadway shows. I did a show at NYMF this past summer. I did Claudio Quest, which was pretty awesome, and that’s about it. I did Diner in Delaware, but other than that, I’ve been working on this since college.”
His audition: When Slater went in for the then-titled The Untitled Tina Landau Project—after opening an email attachment with a picture of SpongeBob to hint at his role—he was asked to demonstrate his physical skills. For one of his tasks, “I was trying to put on a sweatshirt, but it was rebelling against me,” he says. “The one that I got to make up totally on my own was I did a dance to the entirety of ‘Billie Jean,’ but I was being attacked by a bee. I was up all night on the quad in front of my dorm until like four in the morning doing different versions of it, and I ended up just coming in and making it up on the spot, which was great and so fun.”
How his SpongeBob will differ from TV: “It’s different in that I am the human core of SpongeBob, and I’m not the sponge,” he explains. “But, in that way, it’s actually sort of similar because the more we’ve worked on the characters, the more we’ve found that human core—that center of truth in each of the characters. I think we’re able to bring that out onstage, and I think it’s actually more similar than different in that way. From a more superficial standpoint for me, finding where to lean into the voice—[voice actor] Tom Kenny’s amazing high-pitched voice—and where to make it clear that this is SpongeBob and that voice is present, but also when singing, to sing in the style of artists who wrote these amazing songs.”
Rehearsal room fun: Upon walking into the rehearsal room, director Tina Landau told Slater, “Do as many bits as you want. Just like: go! Do stuff, and I’ll pull you back.” Being free to create the cartoon character for the stage, “I feel like every second of rehearsal is crazy and just so much fun because, to a certain point, we have all just been playing and being immensely imaginative,” he says, “and everything sort of feels wild and fun until we pull it back, and we have these very touching moments.”
Favorite SpongeBob episode: “Bubble Buddy, when his buddy is a bubble, and everyone is telling him that it’s not. Then at the very end of Bubble Buddy—spoiler alert!—the bubble turns into a man with a top hat and a cane, and he waves down a bubble taxi.”
Role: Patrick Star
Life pre-Bikini Bottom: Before landing the audition for the workshop of SpongeBob, Skinner had just graduated from Syracuse University. He got a phone call from the project’s casting director, who said, “Hey, we got this untitled project that’s pretty unique, and we need a big, round guy who can do a bunch of falling around.” Skinner replied, “Sign me up. Great!” Six auditions later, Skinner was cast in the workshop and has been working on the piece alongside Slater for four years.
His audition: Just like Slater, Skinner was given a list of tasks to choose from to improv at his audition. “I did: ‘Try to put your shoes on, but they can’t get on your feet.’ So [I did] the whole mix up. For the original [task], I played Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and did a guy who really wanted to fit in at the party—really wanted to dance with everybody—and kept getting shut down. It was a three-minute [scene] of this guy just absolutely failing and then going back and getting more punch that was spiked and just continuing to fail.”
How his Patrick will differ from TV: Skinner loved the character of Patrick Star since seeing him come to life on Nickelodeon. To create Patrick for the stage, he’ll be “using that television show and seeing how that cartoon character moves,” he explains, “and, of course, using the inspiration of the wonderful voice acting that’s on [the show]—but making it human because there’s things that Patrick does a lot that translates differently when you [have] a human body doing it. The opportunity of finding where the voice sits and how the character moves in this space and interacts with these other characters that are also based on completely different animals is really a unique opportunity that Tina [Landau] and Nickelodeon have allowed us to have.”
Rehearsal room fun: Skinner says that the early stages of SpongeBob were exploratory—the cast was enlisted to see if the project could even function with human beings behind the iconic sea creatures. “The do-it-yourself vibe of this show is pretty amazing,” he adds. “A pool noodle can become so many different things, so exploring very early on, we had the opportunity to play some games and get to really interact with each other and…make each other laugh. The craziest thing was just seeing how explosively inventive everybody around you is, and then when you start working together, it just really popped. It was really amazing.”
Favorite SpongeBob episode: “The bubble lessons one [Bubblestand], where [SpongeBob] charges 25 cents [to blow bubbles], and Patrick has to constantly borrow the 25 cents and just gives it back to [SpongeBob]. And then, of course, Squidward’s house gets blown away.”
Role: Sandy Cheeks
Life pre-Bikini Bottom: Cooper is best known for originating the role of Martha in the 2006 Broadway production of Spring Awakening. Since then, she understudied Elphaba in Broadway’s Wicked and, before heading down under in SpongeBob, was in Boston with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, in which she played the sultry Hélène (not transferring with the show to Broadway, instead taking on Sandy Cheeks). “I’d be home in my apartment in Boston rehearsing [for my audition],” she says, “and asking my friends, ‘Is this funny? Does this work?!’ So I’d just be doing all of these stupid things. I never took a karate lesson in my life, but I was just able to play around with it, and I think in the audition, I pulled a pencil out of my hair, and I pretended like I was going to chop it in half, but then I just broke it on my leg, and I dropped it on the floor.”
Her audition: Why karate, you may wonder? Cooper was instructed to show up at her audition with a prepared karate dance to show the creative team. “[During] my first audition, I had no idea that we were moving, so I was wearing this like denim jumper,” Cooper explains, “and [Tina Landau] was like, ‘The piano player is just going to play some music, and how about you just do some…karate! Just play around.’ I was like, ‘Okay, sure… Let’s do it!’ Doing karate to piano music is very…! But I just sort of flung my body around, and I think she just wanted to see how willing we were to go the full mile. It was just like playing around for 30 seconds, and the callback, they told us we had to do a minute-long karate dance, specifically for the Sandys.”
How her Sandy will differ from TV: “What I really love about working with Tina is that she reminds us every day to just be grounded in reality, and she will tell us every day to bring it down,” she says. “When I auditioned, they made it very specific that they didn’t want us to imitate the voices, they wanted us to very much bring our own selves into the voices. Sandy, for example, is from Texas, so I have a little Texas twang in my Sandy voice, but I’m not doing an imitation of the actress who played Sandy. I’m doing the Lilli Cooper version of Sandy.”
Rehearsal room fun: The most fun Cooper’s had in the process is getting to be a kid again. “SpongeBob and I pretty much climb a mountain in this show,” she reveals. “David Zinn’s design of said mountain is so beautiful, and we get to [climb] it in so many different ways. I don’t want to give up any good gems, but the design is truly incredible, and the fact that we physically utilize that design and climb all over it is just like a dream come true. It’s like a childhood dream come true, just being able to climb all over everything.”
Favorite SpongeBob episode: “I watched the—what was it?!—MuscleBob BuffPants episode, where he wants to start working out and get really strong, so he buys these blowup arms. Ethan can literally do that—he can do everything—and they have this anchor toss competition. Of course, Sandy is so strong, so she brings SpongeBob to the anchor toss competition, and chaos ensues.”
Role: Squidward Tentacles
Life pre-Bikini Bottom: Lee originated the role of chimney sweep Bert in the 2006 Broadway production of Mary Poppins and was recently seen as Thénardier in the current revival of Les Misérables. “I’ve had an extremely busy life since we started,” he admits. “I just finished Les Miz Sunday. Rehearsal is 10-6, and then it’s straight up to the show for a seven o’clock show, and I have kids… I’m up at 6:30 [AM] with kids.”
His audition: Just like his co-stars, Lee was asked to perform a minute-long routine that would show off his special skills. Luckily, he explains, his audition material was a scene where Squidward was auditioning to be in a show. “It led into, ‘And Squidward does a dance…,’ so, before I started the scene, I said, ‘Just so you know, my one-minute variety act is within the script,’ and [Tina Landau] went, ‘Great, great, great!’ I did it, and I blocked out this stupid routine,” he says, “and then once I finished the audition and came out and talked to other [auditionees], I was hearing that they weren’t seeing the one-minute special skills thing, so I was like, ‘Ugh! I didn’t need to do all of that.’ I was the only one who made a fool of themselves; everyone else just read their script and sang a song.”
How his Squidward will differ from TV: Television audiences know and love Squidward’s iconic “SPONGEBOB!” yell, but director Landau is working with Lee to humanize the squid as much as possible. Lee says that he can’t be grumpy the entire time or theatre audiences will be unable to relate to him. “In the stage version, I talk to my dead mother quite a lot,” Lee explains, “and they just want to show that I have got a heart and am perhaps misunderstood all this time. I have a dream and just want to play my clarinet and be onstage. It’s very hard with the lines that have been written for me to not just be a grumpy, grumpy neighbor that shouts the whole time. So it’s good that Tina wants to play, play, play. She keeps saying, ‘Bring it back! Remember, you are a person. You are not a 2D character.’”
Rehearsal room fun: Squidward gets a big song-and-dance number in The SpongeBob Musical, and navigating his tap choreography (as a squid) has been quite a challenge. “I don’t look like a squid,” he says, “but I have his extra legs, so for the whole show I have four legs. It’s hard to be in these legs for the whole show, but [when] I walk across the stage, I’m pretty sure Squidward is going to get a laugh because they’re fabulous. When I move, these four legs move. It’s crazy to look at myself in the mirror. In my Broadway number, I’m tap dancing, and there’s four tap shoes on the feet. It’s hard, but it’s so cool and wacky and who’d ever thought I’d be tap dancing with four legs? So that’s my favorite and wackiest thing that I’m doing.”
Favorite SpongeBob episode: “I’ve literally only watched about ten episodes. I intend to watch more when I go to Chicago,” he says, admitting that his schedule was jam-packed. “We have DVDs here. Like a library, you can take them out. People come in every day and go, ‘I watched the episode last night with…!’ And, I’m just like, ‘I do not have a minute to turn the TV on.’”