DC ‘SpongeBob’ vies for Tony Award

Ethan Slater stars in "SpongeBob SquarePants" on Broadway. (Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via AP)

WASHINGTON — When the 72nd annual Tony Awards honor Broadway’s biggest stars on Sunday night, the two most nominated shows will both feature ties to the nation’s capital.

“Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” lead with 12 nominations apiece. The former debuted at D.C.’s National Theatre last fall, while the latter stars Ethan Slater, who grew up right here in D.C. and graduated from Georgetown Day School in Tenleytown.

“It’s really surreal,” Slater told WTOP. “I’m not gonna lie, I feel pretty amazing about it. To be a part of the legacy of the Tony Awards is just something that I’ve watched every year since I was a kid. I’ve been such a fan, not just of the night, but all of the performers involved in it.”

Slater is nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, competing against Harry Hadden-Paton (“My Fair Lady”), Joshua Henry (“Carousel”) and Tony Shalhoub (“The Band’s Visit”). But in true humble form, Slater says he is more excited for his creative collaborators.

“It feels pretty amazing to have our show be nominated so highly,” Slater said. “We got 12 Tony nominations, which is incredible. It’s really awesome to see all of these people that I’ve been working with who are working so hard at the top of their game and put so much love and energy into the show being recognized with these nominations from top to bottom.”

Like the Nickelodeon animated series, the stage musical is set in a pineapple under the sea.

“The basic story is there’s a volcano that’s about to erupt in Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob and all of his neighbors live,” Slater said. “They have to figure out how to stop the volcano before it destroys the town. They also have to figure out how to save the town from itself when the fear of the impending apocalypse starts to change the way everyone acts toward each other. So it’s really a story about community and how they react in the face of fear.”

The musical features a book by Kyle Jarrow and songs by a collection of music industry stars.

“There’s a song by John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Aerosmith, Plain White T’s, Panic at the Disco, David Bowie,” Slater said. “Tom Kitt, who wrote ‘Next to Normal’ and did the music supervising for ‘American Idiot,’ took this score and wove it together to make it a cohesive unit, while keeping the flavors of the individual songs. It’s a really unique and new score.”

What are Slater’s favorite songs from the show?

“There are so many good ones I get to sing,” Slater said. “One of my favorites is the John Legend song ‘I Guess I Miss You.’ It’s really beautiful and I get to sing this duet with my real-life best friend Danny Skinner, who plays Patrick. It’s a really special moment every night.”

Friendship has always been a key theme of “SpongeBob SquarePants” for Slater, who first discovered the show on Nickelodeon while visiting friends back in elementary school.

“It came out when I was like 6 or 7, so it was the perfect age for me,” Slater said. “I would watch it at friends’ houses after school. It was definitely a big part of my childhood, but I didn’t watch a ton of it in my actual home, because we didn’t really watch TV that much.”

Slater discovered theater arts while attending Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School up until eighth grade, then switching to Georgetown Day School (GDS) in Tenleytown for high school.

“I did school plays here and there through elementary school. I did ‘Music Man’ in fifth grade. … In high school, I got more into it with each passing year. I started taking voice lessons at the Levine School of Music. … But it was at GDS that I learned a lot about myself as a theater marker, because we had an amazing theater department. … We did ‘The Producers’ my junior year and it’s still one of the best shows I’ve done. It was really formative.”

Along the way, his family encouraged his creativity.

“Everyone was always incredibly supportive,” Slater said. “I don’t think they thought it was something that would be a career for me, but as soon as I started getting jobs and pursuing it professionally, they continued to be incredibly supportive. … I went to the Shakespeare Theatre Camp and Round House. There was a lot of support that I got from my family.”

He pursued it further at Vassar College, where during his sophomore year, he learned of the “SpongeBob” audition and commuted to Manhattan from Poughkeepsie, New York.

“I had applied for a summer job at a theater company in Connecticut that happened to be in the town that one of my good friends lived in. I thought we could hang out all summer,” Slater said. “The casting director cast me as Benvolio in ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ which was going to be my first professional gig. A week later, that same casting director called: ‘We actually have this other project, ‘The Untitled Tina Landau Project.’ We think you might be the right shape.”

That shape, of course, was a square sponge in “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which became his Broadway debut. Slater admits that he was initially skeptical, but was immediately won over.

“Like everyone, when I really first off the bat heard that there was a show created about SpongeBob, I was skeptical,” Slater said. “For about 12 hours I was like, ‘This is a crazy idea.’ Then I went into the audition room with the director, Tina Landau, and she was just totally visionary. … Her vision has led the way every step of this process. I totally bought in quickly.”

He was impressed by Landau’s commitment to make the show as realistic as possible.

“It was really important to her that it wasn’t an arena show,” Slater said. “I’m not wearing this big, square, foam costume. … I’m just wearing a button-down shirt and pants. … These are the human representation of these characters. … I was a total fresh face, so they really took a chance on me, and fortunately, I got cast [and] I have been brought along ever since.”

Now, that journey brings him all the way to the Tony at Radio City Musical Hall, where he’ll sit beside fellow nominees, including Denzel Washington, Amy Schumer and Tina Fey.

“I’m gonna do my best not to be star-struck. It’s going to be wild, but it’s going to be fun. … I don’t know what I’m going to do being so close to Denzel Washington. It’s gonna be crazy!”

Win or lose, Slater invites his hometown folks to make the trip up to Broadway to see him.

“‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ is like nothing else you’ve seen on Broadway. You should jump on a bus or train or drive up. Whether you have young kids or you just want a weekend away, it’s a show that’s great for everyone. … We have so many adults who come to the stage door who say they’ve never seen the cartoon, they did not come with kids, and they absolutely adored it. … It’s a thoroughly unique experience and a show with a lot of heart.”

Find more details on the Tony website. Hear our full conversation with Ethan Slater below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Ethan Slater (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

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