Before being seduced into theater, Ethan Slater was a high school and college wrestler — the sport a source of discipline, work ethic and body awareness.
“I knew where my body was at all times, and it allowed me to do things that I didn’t know I could do,” said the compact 25-year-old actor with flaming red hair.
So credit wrestling for helping Slater in the title role of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” the new $20-million musical in which he climbs an 18-foot ladder and sings upside down. That’s just one of SpongeBob’s feats while trying to save his underwater home, Bikini Bottom, from apocalyptic devastation.
“Those things sound impossible, but if you work on it, you can make it happen,” Slater said.
Few actors have arrived on the fanfare accorded to Slater’s Broadway debut. Comparisons in the press to Joel Grey in “Cabaret” and Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!” have coincided with a Tony nomination for lead actor in a musical, one of 12 nods the show has received.
“It’s bizarre,” Slater said, genuinely stunned at the attention he is receiving for a role that he got with a laugh. When he auditioned for director Tina Landau, he didn’t attempt to mimic Tom Kenny, who voices the character on the Nickelodeon series. But he did add a chuckle that led to callbacks and workshops. More surprising, to the uninitiated, might be the viability of a musical populated with a sponge, a starfish, a squid and other quirky habitués singing a score from a who’s who of pop music, including David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend and Sara Bareilles, who’s co-hosting this year’s Tony ceremony.
The Legend song, “(I Guess I) Miss You,” holds the most resonance for Slater, who lost his mother when he was 7.
“It’s inherently a part of my childhood and my development as a person and an artist,” he said, “this childlike feeling knowing that something is missing but not quite knowing how to fix it. I’m always drawing on it.”
Growing up in Washington, D.C. — “not exactly a beach town” — Slater wasn’t all that familiar with the aquatic life he inhabits in “SpongeBob.” He said sports lost out to show business because of Buster Keaton, Danny Kaye and the Marx Brothers (“Duck Soup” was annual family viewing).
“You always believed Danny Kaye, the character was bigger than him,” Slater said. “That’s what made him great. He was something else.” Which is exactly what many people are saying about Slater.
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Total Tony nominations: 12
Other key races: Musical, director (Tina Landau), featured actor in a musical (Gavin Lee as Squidward Tentacles), costume design and scenic design (both David Zinn)
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