Monday, June 11, 2018

Tony Awards 2018: 'SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical' Cast & Crew Interviews

To celebrate Nickelodeon's smash-hit SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical receiving 12 nominations in the 72nd Annual Tony Awards, many media outlets have released sponge-tastic interviews with the cast of crew of the critically acclaimed Broadway production. Check out a super selection of the interviews below!:

From The Hollywood Reporter:

Tonys 2018: Ethan Slater on Humanizing 'SpongeBob SquarePants' for the Stage

The nominee for lead actor in a musical talks about becoming one with the sponge and his six-year journey to bring the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon to life.

Ethan Slater remembers the day he was cast in SpongeBob SquarePants: April 30, 2012. He was on a train back to school at Vassar when he received the call that he'd landed the role as the eponymous sponge in an early workshop of the musical. Cut to six years later, and Slater, who turns 26 next weekend, is nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in the show, which earned 12 noms in total, tying with Mean Girls for the most of any production this season.

SpongeBob SquarePants is an original story by Kyle Jarrow about how the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon's porous hero and his friends save their underwater home, Bikini Bottom, from the threat of a volcanic eruption. But instead of being dressed in amusement park–style costumes, the performers rely on movement and voice techniques to bring the animated characters to life.

"I just had this great moment where I was like, 'Oh, I don't have to think about my posture at all anymore,'" Slater says. "When the show starts, I am in my SpongeBob stance, and I walk like SpongeBob, and the first step that I take, I am SpongeBob."

In his review of the show for The Hollywood Reporter, chief theater critic David Rooney wrote: "Rather than stuff Ethan Slater in a box as the squishy title character, [designer David Zinn] puts the fit young actor in a yellow shirt, plaid clamdiggers, suspenders and a red tie, leaving him to evoke SpongeBob with his helium voice, irrepressible otimism and bouncy walk."

During the run-up to the Tony Awards on June 10, THR spoke with Slater about bringing the cartoon to the stage, keeping himself healthy in order to do eight physically demanding shows a week, and his inspirations for the role.

You just found the email inviting you to a final SpongeBob callback. What did you prepare for that audition?

My callback was a dance to the entirety of "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson, and while I was doing the dance, a bee was trying to sting me. That was a bit. It was my mimed bee.

The movement of the character is so key. Do you have any dance or gymnastics training?

The main gymnastics training I got was through wrestling. I was a wrestler in high school, and that was a pretty big part of my life. When you warm up for wrestling, the more flamboyant warm-ups are cartwheels and flips. It's a fun game that people do, which is to get crazier and crazier warm-ups. Those really played into the SpongeBob physicality in a good way.

You have a famously long warm-up to get ready for a performance. What do you do to prepare?

I start with a pretty yoga-based warm-up. I do jumping jacks and burpees, and I do a lot of dynamic stretching. And then over the course of the past six or so months, I’ve been adding my physical therapy workouts into it. I do a headstand and handstand series, so I do a lot of inversions. I've just started taking yoga classes for the first time this month, and I'm loving it.

Who were some of your inspirations for SpongeBob?

Some of the major influences were the the physical comedians of the 20th century. I watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I watched Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello — even the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges a little bit.

You were a fan of SpongeBob growing up. Did you watch all of the episodes to prepare?

I definitely watched all of the episodes in the first five seasons. The rest of the episodes, I have probably seen 85 percent, or maybe more. They've been coming out at such a rapid pace, and I revisit old ones so frequently.

Did you get to meet any of the pop stars who wrote the musical's score?

I got to meet Cyndi Lauper yesterday, which was pretty awesome. She's such a rock star. I've gotten to meet Sara Bareilles a couple of times. I'm just a such a massive fan of hers, from her albums to Waitress to everything that she does. To be a fan of somebody and then find out that they have a good heart and are kind is really heartwarming. Tom Higgenson of The Plain White T's has been incredibly supportive, and we've gotten to perform together a couple of times.

Have you met Tom Kenny, who voiced the cartoon?

I got to meet him at opening night [of the pre-Broadway tryout] in Chicago, and we showed up wearing the same thing to the party, which was pretty incredible. We were both wearing a grey blazer, white shirt, red tie and jeans. He said we were like two different takes on James Bond.

Did he give you any advice about playing the character?

He has steered a little bit clear of that. The big piece of advice he did say was: never wear yellow, always wear a red tie.


From Entertainment Tonight:

Tony Awards 2018: Ethan Slater on Bringing SpongeBob to Life on Broadway (Exclusive)

Ethan Slater, nominated for playing SpongeBob SquarePants in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, is one of ET’s Standout Performances on Broadway.

When Ethan Slater was invited to audition for the lead in a secret project then known as “The Untitled Tina Landau Project,” the now-25-year-old actor was still a sophomore at Vassar College, where he was performing in a school production of Romeo & Juliet.

That project turned out to be SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, which has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. But the only thing Slater knew at the time was “this is going to be something unexpected and weird,” he tells ET.

The musical, written by Kyle Jarrow and directed by Landau with original music by popular artists like John Legend and Lady Antebellum, tells a new story about the nearly 20-year-old Nickelodeon cartoon character and the townspeople of Bikini Bottom, which is threatened by a volcano eruption. SpongeBob (Slater, who has since graduated from Vassar and is making his Broadway debut) and his friends Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) and Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) set out to stop a volcano from destroying their homes.

While adapted from a popular kids series, the production, it should be pointed out, is far from a commercialized show for its core demographic. “The first thing I say [to people] is that it's going to surprise you,” Slater says. When audiences walk into the theater, not only are they immediately transported to a tropical paradise, but the massive, moving sets designed by David Zinn (including two Rube Goldberg-like contraptions on either side of the stage) and oversized props of giant jellyfish and bouncing balls were built to impress. “Julie Taymor took The Lion King and made something completely new, and I think that was Tina's goal -- to be innovative with this character and with this world. I think she succeeded, personally,” Slater adds in praise.

Donning a fitted yellow square-patterned button-down shirt matched with a red tie, suspenders and checkered trousers -- no, there’s no sponge suit here -- Slater embodies SpongeBob through his physicality, body language and, of course, acting. The laugh he projects emulates the character (voiced by Tom Kenny in the series and subsequent films) so well, you’d think the television was on.

It takes the actor 90 minutes to warm up backstage to sustain his stamina throughout his performance, which he likens to a “two-and-a-half-hour CrossFit workout.” Not only does his preparation involve massaging his voice, he also stretches his body because the show requires climbing, contorting and tons of challenging choreography. Slater cut out dairy, sugar and bread from his diet and spent four to five days a week at the gym for six months prior to opening to be able to maneuver in and out of the hoisted jungle gym set 18 feet in the air, attached to a harness while singing upside down. “That’s one of my favorite parts of the show,” he admits, partly because it was his idea and thought it would be funny. "’I don't know if funny's the right word for it, but it would be cool,” Slater recalls Landau saying of his suggestion. “I was like, ‘Great. Why don't we try that?’ And I've been doing it ever since.”

Slater’s also made it his mission throughout the show’s run to “mess up” percussionist Mike Dobson, who is literally a one-man-band Foley artist. He’s set up on stage, in full view, crafting SpongeBob’s signature walking sound in addition to hundreds of other sound effects. “Oh, man, he's going to be so mad, but I got him once. I got him so bad. There’s a moment when I take three steps downstage, and then I hover and take a fourth step. I faked him out with that fourth step and I got him real good.” In six years, Slater says he’s made Dobson flub a cue once, but Dobson claimed backstage after the show that it was Slater who messed up.

It’s all fun and games on stage, because SpongeBob loosely pays homage to Hollywood’s greatest comedians. “In the TV show, it’s there, the Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello when you look at SpongeBob and Patrick,” Slater says. “But the comedy style is Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and everybody loves that.”

But it’s icon Mandy Patinkin who gives Slater his personal inspiration, possibly because he reminds him of his father. “In college, I got to perform a couple of songs from Sunday in the Park With George, and I think the reason that I chose those numbers is because I've been watching videos of Mandy Patinkin singing it on YouTube since I was a kid. And ‘Finishing the Hat’ has always been a dream of mine to sing.”

Now, nominated for his first Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Slater is still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s now part of the Tony legacy -- going from watching past ceremonies on TV to being in the room. “It’s pretty unbelievable,” he says.

His next dream, believe it or not, is a serious play. Slater concludes: “That's what I really focused on in school -- straight drama -- and I would love to get an opportunity to do that.”

The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.


From Deadline:

Tapping Squidward: Broadway’s Gavin Lee Gets To The Heart Of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ – Tony Awards Watch

That old Broadway dictum – Never share a stage with fuchsia sea anemones – is blown to smithereens when Gavin Lee taps his way through “I’m Not A Loser,” the gleeful 11 o’clock number of Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants musical that all but guaranteed Lee his Tony Award nomination this year for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. An homage to Broadway panache, cartoon anarchy and good old four-legged tap dancing, “I’m Not A Loser” is, night after night, capped by the kind of sustained applause that combines Bravo! with What Was That?

And that’s right, four-legged. Lee, in top hat and tails cleverly outfitted by designer David Zinn with an extra pair of legs and in a just-right shade of (perfectly described) celadon, plays Squidward Q. Tentacles, the grouchy but starry-eyed cephalopod forever carping at the underwater denizens of Bikini Bottom.

Lee, a British actor whose Broadway performance as Bert in Mary Poppins was Tony-nominated in 2007, is probably best known to American TV audiences for his recurring role as the deadly Alan Woodford on USA Network’s White Collar.

Here, Lee tells Deadline how an actor goes about playing a squid, tap dances in quadruped fashion and gets a cartoon voice just right by being just a little off.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Deadline: So how did Squidward Q. Tentacles come into your life? And I’m giggling just saying that.

Gavin Lee: Well, he wasn’t in my life before I got the audition. I didn’t really watch SpongeBob. But about three years ago they were doing a six-week workshop, one of many readings and workshops that were done over the previous, say, seven years. BMI was trying to see whether it could make SpongeBob into a musical, and the wonderful director Tina Landau had this vision and had been granted by Nickelodeon to do these workshops and develop it. I binge-watched about eight episodes of SpongeBob, and recorded Rodger Bumpass, who does the Squidward voice on the cartoon, onto my phone, and listened to him a lot and tried to adapt his voice into the scripts I was being sent.

What was great was, as soon as I walked in the room, Tina said, “First of all, I’m not expecting you do a carbon copy of the cartoon, and I don’t want you to be the cartoon. I want these characters to be fully-fleshed human versions of the cartoon.” She said that we’d take the DNA of these cartoon characters and try to flesh them out into our own human versions. As an actor who’s not an impressionist, that made me very relieved. That, and the fact that we weren’t going to be zipped up in big Squidward and SpongeBob costumes.

Deadline: Your number “I’m Not A Loser” [written by indie rockers They Might Be Giants] is one of the high points of the show – the audience just goes nuts.

Lee: The arc of my story that Kyle Jarrow wrote is, you’re just waiting for Squidward, poor old downtrodden Squidward, to get a chance to show off. And three times, in act one and then in act two, he gets shut down. As soon as he sings one note of a song someone comes in and shuts him down. So by the time he finally gets to sing in act two you can tell the audience is just gagging for Squidward to finally express himself. And then of course Chris Gattelli has choreographed such a brilliant number that just couldn’t be more Broadway if you dumped 1,000 sequins on my head. We have a chorus line of bright pink sea anemones. What else could you look for in a Broadway cabaret scene?

I love it when we start the kick line and they bring down my name in lights, Squidward! With an exclamation point. I mean, it’s genius that it drops in as we do a kick line. It’s just so well-choreographed and staged that the audience just goes wild. And I’m the lucky guy who gets to put on those tap shoes. And those extra legs.

Deadline: Was the tap dancing always meant to be part of the show, or was it something tailored around you?

Lee: Squidward was always going to go into a big old Broadway tap routine. But when we got into rehearsals, obviously Chris Gattelli had no experience of tapping with four tap shoes, as I didn’t. He was very gracious and generous in saying, “Gavin, go off into a rehearsal room with those legs on and work out what the heck you can do with an two extra tap shoes stuck onto the back of your own tap shoes.” I’d tapped for years, and most of the shows I’ve been in I’ve done tapping, but obviously I never had the challenge of trying to make four noises instead of two. So I worked things out in front of the mirror, and then I came back to Chris, and we’d tweak it, look at it, change it. And together we developed the tap solo break in the middle of the number, and it went from there. So it was a collaborative-type thing. Obviously it’s Chris’s genius, the whole number is his genius. He’s been very generous to me, working out what worked best on my legs.

[See a bit of Lee’s four-legged tap dance at about the 0:47 mark here]:

Deadline: And so are we actually hearing four distinct taps?

Lee: Yeah, I’m trying my best to make four noises. And it’s hard, but I learned that to make those back legs work, you just have to be more sloppy with your dance style. Having loose ankles, but also having the tension there to make the noises with the extra [taps]. You want them to kind of bounce onto the floor after you’ve made the [initial] noise, like immediately afterwards. I found that being kind of sloppy with your taps makes all that extra noise.

Deadline: Who’d have thought?

Lee: It’s something completely new to me, and quite fun. I’ve been able to really work it and master making those extra sounds.

Deadline: Let’s talk about the voice. You said you don’t imitate [cartoon voice actor] Rodger Bumpass, but you certainly capture him.

Lee: If you watch the cartoons, SpongeBob, Squidward, Patrick, Mr. Krabs, the voices are all so extreme. It’s a kids’ TV cartoon. And Tina very rightly and quickly said, “An audience will not want to hear that SpongeBob voice or that Squidward voice for two-and-a-half hours.” It would have been grating, and anyway she was trying to make us human.

At points [in the musical] we get quite emotional or serious, and you don’t want to hear that in the nasal Squidward voice. So Tina would say in rehearsals, “Okay, for this line kind of drop out of the Squidward voice. I want to hear you, I want to hear your emotions coming through.” It sounds a bit deep – bottom line, I’m a squid and he’s a sponge, and so you can’t get that deep. But Tina would say, “We do want to go there and find the heart. There needs to be a human element so that the audience can connect to your story line.”

Deadline: I hear bits of Paul Lynde in the voice, I hear bits of Charles Nelson Reilly. There’s a whole sort of history behind that voice.

Lee: That’s exactly right. Rodger, the cartoon voice, has an ability to place the voice somewhere so high up in his nasal passage that it’s almost coming out of his eyes. I was like, Well, I can’t keep that up, and so I kind of brought it down. And you don’t want it to get too camp. Squidward’s not gay, necessarily. I mean, maybe Squidward living in his little house, not having any friends, maybe that is his whole complex. A sexual thing. But again, he’s a squid, and SpongeBob is a sponge. We’re not going there.

But I love that you said Paul Lynde. It’s so easy with that sort of voice and these lines to go into a Paul Lynde-from-Bewitched type thing, just do a dastardly kind of voice, which I love, but then again, I don’t want to just sound like that all the time. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, he’s doing Paul Lynde,” even though Paul Lynde’s voice was just one of the best voices to listen to, just so funny…You can pick out a lot of characters from various TV shows or musicals and say, Yeah, that’s that character, the grumpy neighbor, the sarcastic friend. [Squidward] is definitely that role, which is so much fun to play in such a happy, upbeat, bright, colorful musical. It’s nice to be the one character who comes on and puts a big thumbs-down on everything.

Deadline: Which makes it all the more satisfying when he finally gets his big number.

Lee: Exactly. When you finally see me smile. I’m pulling the sides of my mouth down for the whole show, and then when I think my dreams are coming true, and I’m in the spotlight, and I’ve got a chorus line of sea anemones behind me, it’s so nice, tap dancing and smiling with a spotlight on you.

And then of course it’s genius that instantly, when that number ends and the chorus disappears, I’m left back on my own. He’s back to being grumpy old Squidward. After getting, hopefully, fantastic applause at the end of the number, they see that I’m left alone, and if I can hear a sympathetic “ah,” or sympathetic applause, then I know I’ve managed to switch the audience from absolute joy to absolute pity. It was all a dream, and Squidward’s back to square one.

Deadline: Often when a movie or a play works for both children and adults, it’s because there are double meanings, naughty references or political references that kids don’t get but the parents do. That’s not really the case with this production. So why does SpongeBob work?

Lee: On a Wednesday matinee we usually have school kids, but then in the front row I’ll see two 80-year-old women, with their little handbags on their laps, and their Playbills. And you’re like, What made you come to this? And they’re having the time of their lives. We are connecting with 80-year-olds, how fantastic!

And as you say, it’s not that we’re sneakily doing adult humor, like a Simpsons or a Family Guy. It’s just intelligent family humor. From day one Nickelodeon said to Tina and Kyle, “The only thing we don’t want is toilet humor.” In the TV show there’s often like, farting and things like that. But Nickelodeon said ”For this we don’t want to go down that road.”

And they said that by the end of the two-hour show they don’t want anything to have changed [within the SpongeBob universe]. So by the end of our show, the community couldn’t have been devastated by Mount Humongous, and SpongeBob couldn’t have been promoted to Manager [of the Krusty Krab], and Squidward couldn’t have actually become a Broadway star. Whatever happened, by the end of the show it has to be back to normal.

Deadline: So, why does it work?

Lee: I think it’s the cleverness of the script, and the visual cleverness, of having imagination with the props and the sets. To represent boulders tumbling down from the mountain we have these Rube Goldberg machines on the side of the auditorium that basically spit out these, like, soccer balls. At one point Larry the Lobster, he’s supposed to be in the Army or the police, so he’s got a weapon, but the weapon is blatantly a stick with a tiny pink jellyfish on the end of it. And SpongeBob goes, “Is that a jellyfish on a stick?” And Larry says, “Don’t make me zap you, bro.” We don’t need a gun in a SpongeBob musical.


From ET:

My 5: Tony Nominee Kyle Jarrow’s Favorite Moments From ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ Musical (Exclusive)

Opening in the fall of 2017, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical was perhaps the most unusual and surprising show to take over Broadway. But an original musical about the beloved Nickelodeon anthropomorphic sea sponge and his underwater friends of Bikini Bottom proved to be a hit with theater fans and critics alike, earning 12 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical. (The production is tied with Mean Girls for the most nominations this season.)

Written by Kyle Jarrow, a nominee for Best Book of a Musical, the show tells the story of SpongeBob SquarePants (brought to life by Ethan Slater -- also nominated), who teams up with his two friends -- Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) and Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) -- to save Bikini Bottom from a volcano eruption.

“It feels pretty much how you’d imagine -- exciting, humbling and a little bit surreal,” Jarrow tells ET about being nominated, especially alongside writers -- Tina Fey, Jennifer Lee and Itamar Moses -- who he admires so much.

“When you work so hard on a project, for so long, there are two things you hope for: One, to make something you think is good. Two, to have the world think it's good too. That second thing you really can't control. It's wonderful when it happens. And when it happens to this degree? There are few things that feel as good as that. It's a real testament to the talent, vision and hard work of the entire cast, crew and creative team.”

Ahead of the 72nd annual Tony Awards, which will be hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, Jarrow breaks down his favorite moments from the musical:

1. The end of the opening number

“At the end of the first song, ‘Bikini Bottom Day,’ the curtain lifts up to reveal this amazing cavalcade of sea creatures. The costumes (by David Zinn), the direction (by Tina Landau) and the choreography (by Chris Gattelli) all work perfectly together in that moment to make an eye-popping, energetic spectacle that gets me a little goose-bumpy every time.”

2. When Jai'Len Christine Li Josey sings in “Daddy Knows Best”

“Jai'Len Christine Li Josey, who plays Pearl, has one of the most amazing voices I have ever heard. When she starts belting at the end of ‘Daddy Knows Best,’ the audience always goes wild.”

3. "And I carry you in mine, Gary. Always."

“SpongeBob is about to head out on a dangerous mission, and he says goodbye to his pet snail, Gary, by promising he'll always carry him in his heart. I don't know why it's so funny, something about the context I think, but it's my favorite joke in the show. I also love the line because -- as weird as this sounds -- it was inspired by an E. E. Cummings poem that my wife and I included in our wedding vows. So, it's kind of an inside joke to her, too.”

4. When SpongeBob climbs the 18-foot ladder wall

“A giant, bright orange, 18-foot-diameter ladder wall lowers from the flies. Then Ethan Slater climbs it while singing upside down. Bada**.”

[An added tidbit: Slater cut out dairy, sugar and bread from his diet and spent four to five days a week at the gym for six months prior to opening to be able to maneuver in and out of the hoisted jungle gym set, while singing upside down. “That’s one of my favorite parts of the show,” he admits, partly because it was his idea and thought it would be funny. "’I don't know if funny's the right word for it, but it would be cool,” Slater recalls Landau saying of his suggestion. “I was like, ‘Great. Why don't we try that?’ And I've been doing it ever since.”]

5. The moment where the bubbles appear

“No spoilers, so I won't explain this is in too much detail, but there's a quiet moment near the end of the show where bubbles appear onstage. To me it's the emotional climax of the show, the moment where the show lands the message under all its fun spectacle -- which is that we need to come together, in the face of crises, not turn against each other.”


From Billboard:

The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne Calls Tony Nomination for 'SpongeBob Squarepants' Musical 'So Cool'

If you'd have told 19-year-old Wayne Coyne that someday his band would be nominated for a Tony Award for writing a sunshiny ballad that appears in the Broadway adaptation of a popular Nickelodeon cartoon about the underwater adventures of a plucky talking sponge, he probably would have been like, "Whatever, man." But there Coyne was on Tuesday morning (May 1), waking up at home in Oklahoma to the news that the Flaming Lips' contribution to SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, "Tomorrow Is," had landed the long-running rock band their first Tony nom.

"It would have been weird then, but it doesn’t seem that strange necessarily today," Coyne tells Billboard about his feelings upon learning that the prestigious nod could put his group halfway to an EGOT. "The first time you get nominated for a Grammy it's a shock, but a pleasant shock. If all this would have happened in the first couple years when we were a young group, we would have had a reaction like, 'We’re cooler than that. We’re more punk rock.' But after being a band for a long time, it's different and we can think about what it means, and even today getting all these texts early in the morning I was thinking, 'Man, this is so cool.' You don't ever really get used to that."

​The Lips were nominated in the best original score category for the lyrics and music they wrote for the show alongside an impressive roster of other contributors that includes Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Plain White T's, They Might Be Giants, T.I., John Legend, Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman, Lady Antebellum and others.

"It's hard for me to take credit for it, because it's been such an insane production and the stuff they did with the music... we provided them with layers of demos and lyrical ideas over time, but the story kept evolving," Coyne says of the years-long collaboration that resulted in the inspiring song with lyrics such as, "We only have tomorrow/ To try to save the day/ The world will end tomorrow/ SpongeBob we have to find a way." Coyne has enjoyed watching how the show has evolved since it first opened in Chicago two years ago.

"There were all these texts back and forth where they would give me a scenario -- like in the beginning when SpongeBob and Patrick talked to a fortune teller on Bikini Bottom who tells them that the world will end tomorrow, which sets everything in motion -- and that gave us this idea about how if the world is ending tomorrow we should make the most of today," he says; the fortune teller got cut, but the Lips' song remained.

That scenario immediately felt like a fit for a band whose psychedelic rock has often pondered life and death in the same breath. "I think the Flaming Lips were the perfect people to make this an optimistic song," says Coyne. "That's the greatest compliment you can have." Without knowing the final plot, the Lips crafted their tune and by sheer "dumb luck" their demo ended up working perfectly with the story about a volcano eruption that threatens to wipe out Bikini Bottom.

Coyne was excited that such friends as Ebert were nominated alongside him, as well as Legend, whose "(I Guess) I Miss You" is one of the singer's favorite set pieces from the show, which he recalled watching for the first time on Broadway in the most Coyne-y scenario possible. "I was sitting there and you have a list of songs and I would look at the program and didn't know when ours came up and then I was like, 'Cool,' because I honestly forgot about our song and as it was rolling out my girlfriend said, 'Here comes your song.' In my head I'm like, 'I like this one, I wish we'd written it, it's cool!'"

The idea that a track the Lips wrote for the smash Broadway hit is connecting with audiences young and old is like sunshine for Coyne's soul. "I don't think that a younger audience thinks of something like SpongeBob being on Broadway is so absurd," he says. "Even though you and I might think it's fucking weird. I certainly hope we win, it certainly deserves it." If nothing else, Coyne can appreciate the insane amount of work that goes into a Broadway show, what with the singing, the dancing, the acting, the playing a lobster and all the million other factors that have to come together.

When it's suggested that most of that sounds sort of like the multimedia concerts the Lips have been putting on for years, complete with characters in costume dancing along to elaborate light shows, Coyne admits that's no accident. "I think some of them told me they would be at Flaming Lips shows and they'd get some of these ideas," he says. "I think that’s great."

Listen to the cast recording of "Tomorrow Is" below. The Tonys will air live June 10 on CBS.


From Live Design:

How did one of the edgiest lighting designers on the planet come to light a Broadway musical about a yellow square sponge? Well, that's show business! Kevin Adams, once known for his use of everything from A-lamps to neon stripes, has helped transform SpongeBob SquarePants, the animated Nickelodeon kid's show into a hit, one that garnered 12 Tony Award nominations this year, including one for Adams' lighting, as well as for the sets and costumes by David Zinn, and sound by Walter Trarbach and Mike Dobson, not to mention Best Musical, Best Direction, and more. Live Design chats with Adams about his lighting, which entails a major use of LED. No surprise from Adams on that account—why be conventional if you don't have to? [...]

"This is by far the largest amount of electrics I have used in a Broadway show. The rig is large and there is a long list of set electrics that are spread across the entire Palace Theatre," says Adams.

"For the walk-in, we painted the entire Palace Theatre with a really pretty water effect from a device that is made by Rosco," the LD adds. "We have 16 of them, and they cover every wall and ceiling surface there."

"I’ve never worked on a Broadway show that had this scale of electrics and that occupies such a large amount of space in the theatre," admits Adams.

"We literally had no more room in the theatre to hang small specials," Adams notes. "Between sound, scenery, projection, bubble and confetti devices, and lighting, every inch of available space in the palace is used."

"We have 56 LED movers on all of the portals, and they do a lot of work of lighting scenes and pointing back into the theatre as blinders," Adams explains. "They are on almost the entire show in both of those capacities."

For research, the SpongeBob TV show was a reference for Adams. "I had watched the show here and there over the years mostly because it was created by a fellow California Institute of the Arts grad," he says. "The show always seemed to me very Cal Arts. And when Tina Landau called about this project, I did dig back into the show."

In terms of artistic intent, "the show uses all kinds of snappy storytelling devices, and those are useful for a musical that contains many different story lines and a wide variety of song styles," Adams points out.

"There is a wide range of musical genres in the show, and that’s partly what attracted me to the project," notes Adams. "My frequent collaborator, Tom Kitt (musical supervisor and orchestrations), did a great job of pulling them into the same show and still leaving the unique spirit of each song intact."

"The show was rented from PRG, and they did a stellar job helping us make a useful package that we could afford," concludes Adams.

See light plots and gear list for SpongeBob SquarePants here.


From Playbill:

The Moment Now-Tony Nominee Ethan Slater Will Never Forget From SpongeBob’s Opening Night

The actor, who’s been with the production since its first workshop, reveals a private moment and his favorite Broadway stage door interactions.

[Click here for video]

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.”


From Playbill:

How Broadway’s Ethan Slater Perfected SpongeBob’s ‘Range of Laughs’ and Optimistic Essence for His Broadway Debut

The contagiously cheery Broadway musical's leading man discusses crafting his performance as the world’s favorite yellow sponge.

About 30 seconds into SpongeBob SquarePants, star Ethan Slater lets loose a laugh. Not just any laugh, but an eerie facsimile of the title character’s signature high-pitched, bouncy chuckle that cascades to a sudden stop, a laugh that is familiar to anyone who’s seen the Nickelodeon animated series.

But there’s more to the laugh (and the performance) than mimicry.

“He actually has a really wide range of laughs throughout the show; people sometimes don’t realize that,” Slater explains. His SpongeBob laugh began as any impression would: listening and repeating with gradual accuracy. But with any role, imitation must give way to authenticity. “That’s what was most crucial,” he says, “making sure the laugh is genuine, and that it comes from my joy as SpongeBob and not just, ‘Do the laugh here.’”

The process was comparable to learning a dialect, but instead of listening to someone guide him through an Irish lilt, Slater was listening to voice actor Tom Kenny bring to life such SpongeBob phrases as “I’m ready!” and “It’s the best day ever!” Eventually, those recognizable sound bites became a resource, not a lifeline.

“At the end of the day, you have to say the lines from your character and you can’t think about the accent anymore. Once we started rehearsing the show, I had to trust that it was in me. The more you see somebody else’s version of something, the harder it is to make it your own.”

The physicality, however, started with less of an impression and more of a study guide on how to move like an energetic sponge.

Slater is quick to list some essential early-20th-century physical comedians: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello. He recalls one Keaton scene in particular, from The High Sign, in which Keaton unfolds a seemingly normal newspaper while on a bench; it continues to get larger and more unmanageable until Keaton topples over.

“That’s what I think about when I think about the show,” he says. “It starts with this small idea, and then it gets so huge.”

With voice and movement down, what Slater contributes is the core of the character, what director Tina Landau refers to as the eau de SpongeBob. “It’s the best day ever!” is not just a sound bite, but a mantra that exemplifies SpongeBob’s optimism.

Near the musical’s end, SpongeBob and his fellow Bikini Bottom denizens prepare for apocalyptic doom, but it’s still the best day ever. The sentiment has rubbed off on Slater: “I’m significantly more optimistic than I used to be. SpongeBob is way better at it than Ethan, but Ethan is working on it.”

[Click here for video]


From Playbill:

How Kyle Jarrow Puzzle-Pieced Songs From 21 Artists for One Seamless SpongeBob SquarePants

The Broadway book writer reveals the unconventional process of writing a SpongeBob story to fit songs by Sara Bareilles, David Bowie, John Legend, and more.

Back in 2015, Nickelodeon announced it would dive into the Broadway scene with SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical with a score penned by multiple pop stars. As songwriters were gradually announced, the list of artists and musical styles grew to what seemed like an insurmountable variety for a book writer to tame into a single script. But book writer Kyle Jarrow says it was “a fairly traditional working process.”

In fact, Jarrow claims his greatest challenge was not wrangling the multitude of voices, but the creation of a full-length musical based on a cartoon that clocks in at 11 minutes per episode. To tackle it, he determined three pillars of the SpongeBob universe—optimism, surreality, and humor—and submitted five potential plots to director Tina Landau, including one last ditch idea he thought they’d never go for.

That “crazy” idea saw Bikini Bottom threatened by the impending world-ending eruption of Mount Humungous. For someone looking for an event to propel a simple sponge to legit musical theatre, “you couldn’t have higher stakes than the end of the world,” Jarrow laughs. And as fans of SpongeBob on Broadway know, Landau and Nickelodeon signed off.

With this foundation, Jarrow built storylines for secondary characters Squidward Tentacles, Sandy Cheeks, and Patrick Star. “People obviously deal with fear and crisis in different ways,” says Jarrow. “Squidward ends up being the idea of, ‘Wow if your time is running out then you’re desperate to fulfill the dreams that you never fulfilled.’ Sandy, her storyline is about how people in times of crisis often turn on outsiders. Patrick’s storyline is about how in times of crisis people often look for answers, turn to religion or, essentially, people to tell them how to get through.” Peppering in other favorite characters like Plankton, Mr. Krabs, and more, Jarrow had a launchpad for his stable of composers.

After penning his 20-page outline, Jarrow knew where he needed songs, what those songs needed to accomplish, and who would sing them. With slots ripe for filling, the team reached out to artists best suited for each musical moment in the show.

Jarrow remembers the “casting” process for SpongeBob and Patrick’s “best friends song.” “[It] feels like it wants to set up the relationship between these two guys. It feels like it wants to be simple and sweet, but not cheesy,” Jarrow recalls. “Plain White T’s feels like a great fit.” Sure enough, the band known for their sweet-strumming “Hey There Delilah” composed the show’s “BFF.”

Musicians who signed on early received a scene synopsis from Jarrow and guidance about the overall message and emotion of the song. Artists who signed on later received pages to the fully formed scenes before and after the number. But the exchange between Jarrow and his nearly two-dozen composers was constant. “Even though the artists weren’t always in the room with us, we tried to keep an organic dialogue going,” he says.

While Jarrow sent off plot points and emotional beats to his composers, he also adjusted the script to fit the music that boomeranged back. “One of the first songs that we got in was They Might Be Giants’ ‘I’m Not a Loser,’ which is [now] Squidward’s 11 o’clock number,” says Jarrow. “They came back with this amazing song all about how he’s not a loser and really exposing his insecurity. But the word ‘loser’ is probably said like 30 times in the song. And they had this idea of this kickline of sea anemones that he imagines.

“Once we got that in a couple of things were clear: 1) The idea of Squidward being called a loser and being dismissed on a personal level … needed to be woven into the piece to set up the song. The idea that the word ‘loser’ is a trigger word for this guy” became part of the show’s early scenes. “And 2) knowing there was going to be this big kickline informed the position of the song in the show.” What theoretically could have been an early-on expositional song to establish Squidward’s character and his dreams, became the Act 2 showstopper.

The positioning of songs remained in flux up until Broadway. Numbers like “No Control” and “BFF” swapped places after the Chicago run to move the apocalypse plot sooner and emphasize the importance of having a best friend when it’s the end of the world rather than an ordinary day.

When songs needed changes internally, writer Jonathan Coulton, who wrote the opener “Bikini Bottom Day,” was on hand for minor lyric rewrites, which the original artist either approved or used Coulton’s notes as a reference for their own fix.

But just like the Bikini Bottom residents facing disaster, the most crucial element to the success of SpongeBob was a united front. So in addition to Landau and Jarrow’s vision, music supervisor and orchestrator Tom Kitt was integral to creating a fluid score from the song submissions and he represented the musical voice at the creative team table. “Above all, the show needs to capture the spirit of SpongeBob. [In] the world of Bikini Bottom there’s all these bizarre, nonsequitur things—SpongeBob lives in a pineapple under the sea,” says Jarrow. So it seems fitting, in hindsight, that Jarrow would puzzle-piece these sounds that wouldn’t ever been heard together in any other universe. “There’s a feeling that anything can happen.”


From American Theatre:

Tina Landau, World Builder

The ‘SpongeBob’ director has built a career on experimentation, even within traditional forms. Her next assignment: a musical of ‘Dave.’

Tina Landau is showing me a collection of her hand-decorated Adidas shoes—not IRL, but in a Photoshop collage on her laptop. We’re sitting in her dressing room on the sixth floor of the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where the giddy juicebox musical SpongeBob SquarePants is running to enthusiastic if not-quite-capacity audiences. The show will take several Drama Desk awards in the coming weekend, including one for Landau’s inspired direction, which will in turn lead to fevered Tony speculation: Might this criminally underrated undersea tuner cobbled together from a Nickelodeon franchise and a grab bag of pop tunes manage to nab some of Broadway’s top awards?

For now, sitting in this narrow cubicle—after all, what does a director need with a dressing room?—Landau, her black hair half-pulled back from an inquisitive, quietly bemused face, looks less like a Broadway macher than the kind of inveterate theatre nerd who’s most alive and at home in a rehearsal room or a design shop or tech. In our interview she visibly lights up when I ask her about the her visual inspirations; does she use Pinterest, I wonder? No, she replies, but she happily shows me a computer desktop cluttered with files, including the aforementioned collage of sneakers, many given as hand-decorated gifts to commemorate specific shows. “That’s from The Brother/Sister Plays in Chicago,” she says of one with graffiti-like swoops of color and the word “Marcus” visible on it. Many of them are commemorative, worn just once (or never). I will not be surprised if she appears at the Tony Awards in a special pair.

Landau has cut a singular path in those signature shoes since bursting on the scene in the 1990s with works along two very different if interrelated lines: avant-garde work with En Garde Arts and the musical Floyd Collins, co-written with Adam Guettel. The latter led to an overture to direct at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, then an invitation to become a member of the storied company, which she joined in 1997. She’s since made a name for herself directing the work of fellow Steppenwolfer Tarell Alvin McCraney (she’ll direct the playwright himself there in a production of Wig Out! next spring), as well as the form-breaking collagist Chuck Mee, often at New York’s Signature Theatre. Though it’s hard to pin her down to any single style or aesthetic, the Mee plays in particular—as well as a revisionist take in 2002 on William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life at Steppenwolf, which she has called her favorite work yet—have given her a rep for wildly physical staging, often abetted by startling design choices.

Which is one reason why SpongeBob seemed like such a good fit for Landau on paper—and, in a production defined by David Zinn‘s Day-Glo, 99-cent-shop design and a game, ebullient cast, it turns out to be a great fit onstage too. Our conversation began with this unlikely but fortuitous pairing, and ranged from her aesthetic of experimentation to her next project, a musical adaptation of the 1993 film Dave at Arena Stage, July 13-Aug. 19.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I know this is not your Broadway debut, Tina, but it feels in some ways like your Broadway arrival, right?

TINA LANDAU: Thank you, I guess.

I mean, because it feels like there’s a Tina Landau kind of show—though you’ve directed all kinds, there’s a kind of wild aesthetic you’re associated with, particularly the Chuck Mee plays. This feels like a perfect marriage, in a way.
I would say that’s true. I’d done two previous Broadway shows. The first one, Bells Are Ringing—I was just young enough and in awe of working with Betty Comden and Adolph Green that I kind of, in retrospect, feel like that was the show in on which I learned how important it is to stick to your vision. Because I felt ultimately that production got watered down over time. A couple years after that, I said to myself, “If and when I get to do something on Broadway again, I have to be so clear about my vision and my purpose, and just stick to it no matter what, otherwise I’d rather not do it.” Then with Superior Donuts, that was a play where I was in service of Tracy Letts’ work and the story we were telling. But Spongebob definitely felt like, “Ooh, I’m being given support and time and toys to make a mess in my own playground.”

From what I’ve read, you had a lot of time to build it, and while you had to argue for some things, basically Nickelodeon hired you and knew what they were getting.

They did, and you know, they were the ones that kept saying to me, “Well, that first step you took is great, now take the next one, but stick to your vision.” They were the ones reminding me that, which was unexpected.

I want to talk specifically about the show, but I also want to ask you about your process and your aesthetic. You’ve been described, and described yourself, as “visual” a lot, but I think there’s a specific way your work is visual—it’s not just pictorial. Can you talk a little about where that comes from?

You know, I do think I have a visual sense, and I feel passionate about a visual world being created, but I consider that part of the storytelling—I don’t think of it as a separate entity that functions on its own. What’s really important to me is that somehow all the elements of sound, music, light, space, story, language, character, have an interesting and somewhat equal and fluid hierarchy. It’s true that often when I start on any show, even as I look at the source material, the play or the idea or whatever, I like to work both from my brain and my heart and my imagination. So I’ll study, and at the same time I will just fill up with images, or music very often also. You mentioned Chuck’s plays—a lot of times on Chuck’s work, I spend hours and hours and hours just listening to music.

That seems appropriate.

And this past year, when I did Head of Passes, Tarell’s play, which I did it four times—at Steppenwolf, at Berkeley Rep, the Public, and the Taper—that’s an example of a play where I found myself in rehearsal often talking about it as a piece of music. My background is musical—I play the piano. You know, one of my first jobs when I had to make some money outside of directing was playing cocktail piano at parties.

Wow, I did not know that.

Yeah, see, that’s not in any other interviews. That’s a scoop, baby. When I was young—now, I hadn’t thought about this, here’s another scoop, I’ve never talked about this in an interview—in kindergarten or pre-kindergarten, the first time my parents sent me into school, I refused to talk to anyone. I sat in a corner and I drew, and the school called my parents and said, “We think there might be something wrong with your daughter, and you should really take her to a psychiatrist.” My parents were concerned; they took me out, they consulted with our GP, Dr. Gribitz, and he said, “There’s nothing wrong with your daughter. Take her out, let her draw as much as she wants to, and one day soon, she might say to you, ‘Can I go back to school now?'”, which apparently I did, when I was ready. The point being that growing up, I was a draw-er and I was a piano player, and I feel like those two interests or passions for me bear fruit in something like SpongeBob.

Right, the two ways you expressed yourself pre-verbally.


The other thing I wanted to ask you about is your process of experimentation in rehearsal, which I’ve read a bit about, and which it sounds like you got to do on SpongeBob, though it’s hard to imagine you doing it on every play. I’m talking about exercises, Viewpoints—is there a Tina Landau way to rehearse, or does it vary with each project?

It varies within the basic approach. Maybe the degree or how long we end up doing something changes according to what the piece requires, and how much rehearsal time we have. But I have only not done Viewpoints once, and I did it as an experiment to see what would happen if I rehearsed a different way. It was on a production of Mary Rose by J.M. Barrie at the Vineyard Theater, and during tech one of the actors who I’d worked with previously raised his hand and said, “You know, we should have done Viewpoints.” It was because something was happening onstage where they couldn’t figure out spatially where to be or something, and he was like, “If we had done Viewpoints, this all just would have solved itself.”

I did a SITI workshop years ago in L.A., and so I have some familiarity with Viewpoints, but I’ve never worked on them in a rehearsal room. Just for the layperson or the uninitiated, how would you define Viewpoints?

Well, first of all, the thing is, Viewpoints really are different for everyone who works with them, so I obviously can only answer for myself. I know I work with viewpoints very differently than Anne Bogart does, very differently than Robert Woodruff or Kim Wield or whoever. Viewpoints for me are points of view that one can have while working or creating. There are 10 separate individual Viewpoints I work with now, so we spend time in rehearsal putting one or the other foremost as our point of view, as the thing we are paying attention to.

It’s also a physical methodology and training technique I use for creating ensemble, so that actors get to know each other in a way that breaks through barriers quickly and deeply. And it’s exercises I do that help create the play world, like, what is the definition of this very particular, specific universe we want to make onstage? Viewpoints are a shortcut for language, for direction. If I’m doing a large-scale piece, instead of me saying, like on SpongeBob, “Okay, now you move a little further stage right, and you come down one step.” I can literally just say out loud “spatial relationship,” which is one of the Viewpoints, and the cast will adjust, and I’m like, “Okay, and moving on…”

Wow, okay.

Very often in acting, in the way people are trained and where they go instinctively, we do onstage what we do in life—we stare at things with a hard focus, so that we cut out much that we might hear or be aware of. And Viewpoints is a way of training that opens us up to listen with our entire bodies and beings to everything that is happening, so that we have the opportunity to work off of and use more stuff.

And to just be conscious of the things you’re not paying attention to—this rings a bell.

Totally, and I feel that Viewpoints—really the end goal is the same values held dear in all types of theatrical training and methodology, which are openness, spontaneity, boldness, listening, playing off your partner. Those are the things we’re going for. So there’s both a training aspect, which helps create an openness and fearlessness in the performer in general, and then there’s a very concrete use of the Viewpoints for actually making the staging and the movement of a given piece. For me, it’s equally applicable to something like SpongeBob or Dave as it is to Superior Donuts.

Since you mentioned your childhood before, I wanted to ask a bit about that. You’re from a showbiz family, right?

I am. My parents were film producers, Edie and Ely Landau. They did films going back to Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Katherine Hepburn—a bunch of films with her, actually—and The Pawnbroker, and then they did the American Film Theatre, and much more. I’m from New York, but we moved to L.A. when I was just going into high school. My brother is in film too.

So in a way you’re in the family business, but a different branch?

I was actually kind of the black sheep of the family. Growing up, the refrain always in my household was, “When are you doing a movie, when are you doing a movie?” I don’t know if it was really that I wasn’t interested, or more that I was just being the black sheep, and it was my own little personal form of rebellion. I know that I have always been drawn toward the live experience, and grew up going to the theatre. Some of my earliest memories are of the original Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, things that took over my whole being. I just really never thought about doing anything else.

So I get why theatre, but why directing?

I don’t know, but I swear to you, when I was six years old, if you had asked me, I would have said, “I want to be a director.”


Somehow, maybe from film sets or from going to theatre, I thought, “Oh, a director is the person in charge.” You know, as a kid, you make stuff up, you make believe, and I was one of those that liked acting out and putting on shows.

And you were always the mastermind, the boss?

Yeah. I never, ever, ever wanted to be the performer. That was horrifying to me—the thought of people staring at me, no.

And directing is what you’ve pursued pretty single-mindedly ever since?

I really did. I mean, there was a little period, which I’ve talked about just recently, where I also thought I might want to be an oceanographer.

Yes, there’s an obvious SpongeBob tie-in there.

It was a short time, but I do think the two were actually borne of the same impulse. I loved being underwater, I loved swimming. So I could either be underwater, which was a world that was separate from our everyday waking reality, or I could be in a theatre, also a world separate from our everyday waking reality. At times, I wanted to write, or thought of myself as a writer, but it was always in the service of, “I have to write the thing I want to direct.” And you know what? I’m so grateful for knowing what I wanted to do, because I know one of the hardest things in life for so many people is figuring out what they want to do.

Being single-minded has worked for you. But what do you to refuel when you’re not doing theatre, so it’s not just job after job after job?

Oh my gosh, that sounds like a nightmare to me. There are many directors who are able to do that—direct five shows a year or six shows a year. I couldn’t possibly do that. Which I think is why I’ve remained kind of poor always, and why I’ve not had as much of a career as I could have if I worked more. I’ve never been able to go show to show; I have always planned a month, two months, in between for that very reason. I daydream, I read, I drive around, I like to go places, I like to talk to people. That period, exactly what you called it, of refueling, to me feels as important as the time in the room.

But there’s no specific thing you like to do, like scuba diving or something?

Well, I paint. I drive.

You drive.

Really, driving is one of my favorite things to do, I like to drive places.

You get out of the city though, right?

Absolutely, get out of New York City, that’s the first thing I do. Now I actually have a place in Connecticut, as of two and a half years ago, and that really has been regenerating in a big way. I paint; I wish I had a piano right now, because I’m not playing the piano. I pick out pictures for my collages. I spend a lot of time online, I will admit—a lot. I follow the rabbit’s hole, I learn about things. And I have a ridiculous amount of books, a very big library, and I finally feel a little better about it, because I read an article that talked about how an unread library is as much a signifier of wisdom as a read library, and it made me feel much better. It basically said, if you surround yourselves with unread books, it is a reminder to yourself of the constant possibility of future knowledge, and it reminds you to be in a place that is one of humility about what you know and don’t know.

That’s good to think.

You know, I buy books, I touch books, I look at books—sometimes I read books.

I wanted to ask you about Steppenwolf, because I think of you as associated with a certain kind of aesthetic, and it’s not the same aesthetic I think of when I think of Steppenwolf. How did that come about, and how has it worked out?

From the first year I directed at Steppenwolf, which was 1997, up until 2013, I pretty much directed every year at Steppenwolf. I directed two shows before I got asked to join the company. Over two decades, that has definitely been my artistic home, and a place where I could go to do almost anything I wanted—well, not really, because there were lots of things I pitched that I didn’t get to do.

Sure, and there are things that other members ask you to do; it’s a give and take there, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

It seems like such a huge company, and I don’t know how they program their seasons.

It’s amazing, and it’s changing now, because it was a standard five- or six-play season, and Anna Shapiro has now made it a much more fluid structure where there’ll be some shorter runs and some longer runs, programmed a little more like the Public Theater.

So how did the connection happen?

I did Floyd Collins at Playwrights Horizons, and Frank Galati, who was a Steppenwolf member, came to see it, and called Martha Lavey, who was in her first year of being artistic director there, and said, “We have to do this show.” Martha came to see it, and we started talking, and ultimately it became clear that they had no idea how to do a musical, and it didn’t make sense to her. She said, “But would you like to direct something else?” I suggested Chuck Mee, and she said, “Who?” I ended up doing a play of his called Time to Burn, an adaptation of Gorky’s Lower Depths, as my first Steppenwolf show. And then the next year, she asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “Well, I have this play I’m kind-of-sort-of writing that I want to do,” and that was called Space, and I did that the second year, and then I got invited to join the ensemble.

So was there an aesthetic clash between your approach and Steppenwolf’s, or am I stereotyping the company too much?

There were stories I had heard, and I was nervous about it. I thought, “Here’s a company that is hardcore kitchen-sink naturalism, and I’m going to come in and say, ‘Let’s work on shape or gesture,'” and I really thought, this is a disaster waiting to happen. However, what happened was, I said right at the beginning, “Y’all don’t have to like this or understand it, you can roll your eyes internally all you want. Give me half a day of rehearsal, and try to work with an open heart and see what happens.” The Steppenwolf actors took to it like fish to water, the ones I first worked with that year. Because what they were after and what I was after was the same thing, which is what I said before, spontaneity, boldness, a kind of presence—the ultimate goals we were after were the same, we just had completely different ways of getting there. I think when they understood that, and that I also wasn’t shoving down their throats a single way to do something, because Viewpoints for me is just another possible and available way in addition to others—it’s like, Why wouldn’t we try that tool and that tool and that tool and that tool and that tool? They really ended up loving it.

It ended up being a good combination. You know, the other thing you think of with Steppenwolf—I remember one year I went in and saw the advertising for the season on a sign, and it said, “Cutting-edge, bold,” and I remember saying to Martha, “You know, that’s not what this theatre is anymore, it’s become safe and traditional. But that old Steppenwolf—that interests me, so what can we do?” I was able in my first shows there to do stuff that was not typical Steppenwolf fare, but somehow belonged there because of its energy.

Yeah, because in addition to the kitchen-sink naturalism the company is known for, people also talk about their work as a sort of rock ’n’ roll theatre—that there’ a certain visceral attack to it, and I associate your work with that too.

I would hope.

Visual and visceral would be two “v” words I’d associate with you.

Well, I like those both, so I’ll accept them.

So tell me about the Dave musical. How did that come about?

I started working on Dave probably four years ago, intermittently. My first love was always musicals, the American musical, and so Dave feels like part of my being and my heritage and who I am; it’s on some level a very well-made, traditional book musical. What’s great and fresh about it is the content and the timing, the moment we are in. Dave was a little different piece for me four years ago; what I was attracted to then was the notion that the little person, the forgotten figure in our society, contains the potential for great things and real efficacy in the world.

Of course since then, my greater interest has become, what would it mean if we could replace a very destructive, dishonest, selfish president with another model? How would that work, what would it be like, what would we dream? I’m very excited about the way Dave speaks to the moment we find ourselves in, without being burdened with topicality. There are no names mentioned—it’s still a fable. Also I was working with composer Tom Kitt already on SpongeBob, and I love Tom, so I was interested to work with him, and I felt that it was a really smart, funny piece with a lot of heart.

Yeah, the movie is sort of Capra-esque. Would you say this is going to be a slightly more traditional work than SpongeBob?

Well, on my spectrum. People will sing songs and then talk in scenes. But just in the past six months, working on the design and how the thing is going to move, I’ve gotten really excited about what it’s going to be theatrically. We just did a reading of the script yesterday, and I turned to Sam Pinkleton, the choreographer, and I said, “You know, there aren’t musical dance numbers in this, Sam—there are montages.” If you think of “The West Wing,” and those tracking shots where everyone’s walking and talking. That’s a little what it feels like, so I’m really excited about the movement and visual vocabulary we’re developing. I’ll just say I’ve never quite seen anything like it…I hope it works.

So we haven’t really talked that much about SpongeBob. Had you worked with David Zinn before?

No. The very first workshop we did, there was no story, there was nothing. All Nickelodeon wanted to see was if what I was basically pitching, a hybrid theatrical form with no prosthetics, could work. What would SpongeBob look like? We had a two-week workshop in a room, where there were multiple designers, not just David. There were puppeteers, there were clowns, there were actors, there were choreographers. I was very candid, and I said to everyone, “I don’t know if this is ever going to turn into anything, but if you all want to come in and put all your ideas into the big pile in the center of the room, and know that you will own none of them, and we’re all just going to play and invent for two weeks—then welcome!”

Was this like a reality show, with people competing to get the job?

I didn’t feel that. The idea was like a think tank. They might have felt competitive, but I don’t think that was the vibe in the room. I said to them all, “I know this is weird, but you’re not vying for jobs. If you’re interested in dreaming together, come into the room and play with other artists for two weeks.” That’s what everyone did. But David—I have a picture of him that I love from that workshop, where he is making a sculpture out of plastic cups. Downstairs at this very theatre onstage, I can point to you where there is a sculpture of plastic cups. I ended up asking him to do the next workshop, and then the next one.

It does seem like in this show particularly, but maybe for a lot of your shows, that the key relationship is with the designers. Not to slight Kyle Jarrow, your book writer, or the composers, but on this one especially.

Yeah, and it’s why, when Nickelodeon had people come in to pitch, they didn’t start with writers, they started with directors, because what they needed to know was, “Could this two-dimensional thing be translated for the stage in a way that would make it feel necessary, or like it was bringing something new to the brand?” It’s interesting, because when Kyle and I eventually did go to L.A. and visit the SpongeBob studio, we learned that the way they write the episodes is by drawing them. There was a room we walked into with post-its all along the wall that was the story. They write it visually, then add the dialog. In a way, we ended up following that same model of, Let’s make bits of action first, and then ask, okay, now we have all this stuff—what is our story?

Did the Julie Taymor model hang over the whole enterprise—as in, let’s hire a visionary director to realize this cartoon onstage?

You know, people sometimes bring that up, and people sometimes to this day confuse me for her.


Oh yeah. It makes no sense. There have been some comparisons along the way, and I guess I had Lion King in my mind only insofar as that was a really successful version of bringing an animated property to the stage. But I always asked, what’s our version? What makes sense for SpongeBob? Again, I credit Nickelodeon in that, because they walked the walk and talked the talk, and let us explore enough to start to answer that question in an organic way. It was not what I expected. I was scared to get in bed with a big corporation, and they proved me wrong.

How do you feel about the show, how the show’s doing now, the response?

It’s amazing and surprising, honestly. When we were in Chicago doing it two years ago, I was talking to the producer, Susan Vargo, and we were saying, “Well, the show won’t get nominated for any Tonys—we know it’s not that kind of show.”

Wow, really?

I remember that conversation specifically. And we didn’t care. We were like, “Let’s just do our thing.” I will say, the critical response and this award season have all been stunning and thrilling, and a gift. But the thing that makes me really happy is what it’s like in that theatre during some shows—it’s like magic happens in there with audiences of all ages, and I love that. We have had to battle the stigma, I guess, of being SpongeBob. It’s like the title is our greatest liability and our greatest asset.

You had to know that going in, right?

Yeah, I didn’t. I really just thought it would be an asset. In Chicago, we started discovering: Oh, most people would rather kill themselves than come see this show. It was a little like, wow, what do we do about that? We’re still fighting it. The reviews helped, and the fact that everyone who sees it loves it so much helps, and honestly, all these freaking nominations, not just the Tonys but the Outer Critics and the Drama Desks helped so much. There are people who now say to me, “Oh, I’m finally coming—I really have to see the show now.” I feel like saying, “You mean you needed all these…”

Validation from critics and awards.

They did.

That’s what you’re up against.
Yeah. But how I feel about the show is great. When I look back on my initial little tome that I wrote that I marched into Nickelodeon with, in terms of our goals and what I wanted to do, I go back and I can look at it now and say, “We did that,” and I’m really proud of that. We’re reaching a lot of people, and I’m very happy.

What’s your favorite moment in the show?

It’s honestly the curtain call. It’s not the bows. Lilli Cooper, who plays Sandy, asked if she could, when they’re singing the theme song at the end, run up the aisle and high five people, and I was like, “Yeah, try it.” She did that, and now we have people in all the aisles. When those actors come to the back of the house, and there’s a four- or a five- or a six-year-old who’s screaming and jumping up and down but can’t see a thing because everyone’s standing up, and Sandy Cheeks the squirrel comes right up to that little kid and high-fives her…I live for that. I stand in the back of the house—I’ll sometimes sneak in just to watch the actors running up the aisles at the end and reaching those little kids in the back of the house.


From Parade:

How Tony-Nominated Director Tina Landau Brought SpongeBob SquarePants to Broadway

The most fabulously creative director on Broadway this season is Tina Landau, the genius behind SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical. In making a Broadway show from a Nickelodeon cartoon, Landau turned all expectations upside down. Not just for kids, her SpongeBob brims with color, creativity and joy and is a perfect show for adults who want a full Broadway experience. It has received 12 Tony Award nominations—including Best Musical—making it the most nominated show of the season. Landau is nominated as best director of a musical and won the Drama Desk Award earlier this week. It’s a strong category—but she deserves to win. When we talked a few days ago, I discovered that in person, she is every bit as smart, original and delightful as her work on stage.

Congratulations on the Tony nomination. How are you feeling about the current whirlwind?

I’m thrilled and I decided that I’m not going to get stressed or freaked out about anything. I’m going to have fun and buy cool clothes and expand my sneaker collection—because I do collect.

Several actors have told me that one of the joys of developing SpongeBob was being in the same room as Tina Landau. What is the magic you bring to a production?

It’s not my magic, it’s their magic, because it’s really about empowering people to explore their own possibilities. I feel that I am doing my best work when I can make an environment which lets people feel safe and full of abandon and able to play. I’m happy to be the first one in the room to make a fool of myself as an invitation for others to do the same.

Related: Meet the 2018 Tony Nominees

How did you take a cartoon that many people know and turn it into something so fresh and original?

I credit Nickelodeon because they said from the beginning that they only wanted to do this if it could be brought to life in a fresh way that didn’t feel like a copy of the TV show or movie. I asked to bring in a lot of people from different disciplines, so they left me alone in a room with writers, designers, acrobats, dancers, clowns, puppeteers and pool toys. It was like that for eight years of development, and they just kept encouraging that and supporting it.

What inspired you to bring in clowns and acrobats?

I knew the only way this could work was with a sense of abandon and passion. I was without inhibition because I thought, Well, if they don’t want to do it, nothing lost, nothing gained. I felt like this only once before with a performance I directed at Steppenwolf when I thought, I want to do something extraordinary—because if we can’t do that, I’d rather go work in a bookstore.

Do you feel like you’re taking a big risk when you’re creating something so original?

It’s weird because it’s about not caring—and also caring a lot. The not caring is about the paycheck, the critics, the corporation, the producers. The caring is about the art. You really tip the scale when you can ignore the internal demons that talk to you the whole time about “will they like that or not?”

You’re the only woman nominated for Best Director—and you were the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season.

I actually find, as most people do, that labels are constricting. I think of myself as a director who’s a woman, not a woman director. I acknowledge my womanhood but also that gender identity doesn’t limit who I am and what I can do as a director. There’s always this tug between wanting to fit in and wanting to identify differences. In general I like to think, as Walt Whitman said, that “I contain multitudes.”

It seems liberating not to get caught in labels or identifiers.

Absolutely. I remember the first time someone asked me about being a female director, and I was shocked. It was stunning to me, because I had never thought of it that way. I know many female directors who feel like they were looked down on, but I didn’t. I never felt that. I don’t know if that’s part of my upbringing or part of who I am, but I always felt kind of entitled to be here, in a humble way.

A lot of little girls grow up wanting to be stars. How did you focus on becoming a director?

I knew I wanted to direct from age six. My parents were film producers and I guess I had entertainment in my blood—although I’m considered the black sheep in my family because I do theater and not film. Often if I’m in a conversation and it comes up that I’m in theater, the next question is, “What have you acted in?” I say, “I’m not an actor”—and there’s the confusion of “Oh, what do you do?” There are still so few women directing and writing and doing lighting and sound and set design.

How would you describe your style as a director?

A lot of directors like to give orders—they tell people where to go and what to do and sometimes even what to think or feel. I think there comes a time where some of that is necessary, but first I try to choose the right ingredients and invite people into a play world. I’d say a lot of the directors I know who are the most authoritarian are actually the most insecure—and that’s not male or female. They’re trying to hold onto a sense of control and power. To me, the beauty of theater as an art form is trusting that there’s something that’s not about my own ego or desire, but that will come from some mysterious alchemy beyond me.

That’s quite lovely.

I will also say that there comes a point when it is appropriate and necessary for me to grab the handles and steer the ship, because at that point, it’s a big ship. I joke about my alter ego Thelma who appears as we’re getting close to opening and she orders people, and she says, “Faster, louder, funnier.” I joke about it, but it’s my way of saying “You all trust me enough at this point.”

I believe early in your career you directed Jodie Foster, who is now a good friend of yours.

We were at Yale together and yes, I directed her and we were very close. I was very serious then, and after Yale, I realized that I wanted to dedicate myself to being openhearted and work out of love. Jodie came to see SpongeBob recently and loved it.

Anybody seeing this show leaves filled with joy and optimism. Is that intrinsic to your nature?

I still do some very dark, heavy, serious work, and I have a searching and spiritual side that has infused a lot of my work. But I think in my heart of hearts, I am a kid that likes to make a mess and get wild and break the rules, and mix ice cream with mustard and lettuce and see how gross it is, and throw stuff at the wall and splatter paint. That feels like my truest inner being.

You had different famous musicians write the songs in the show. Is that a first?

I don’t think there has been a show on Broadway with songs by different people written specifically for the show. I did it because the world of SpongeBob is all about juxtaposition and mashup and contrast. It’s an homage to the surreal, which is all about placing unexpected things next to each other. It’s made up of a million different things that don’t look like they go together but form into a kaleidoscopic whole. The different kinds of music just seemed like an obvious way to do this.

The show has gotten critical raves, but it’s hard to explain it to people that it’s not a kids’ show.

We’ve had to battle the title because it’s our greatest strength and also our greatest weakness. The audiences that are flocking are young and we have the highest percentage of first-time theater goers. We sell out the $30 seats before the $180 seats.

In addition to directing, you wanted to be an oceanographer when you were young. Now you’re directing a show about being under the ocean.

I see now that the feeling I had being underwater was a journey away from the everyday waking world. I had a new way to perceive what things look like and feel like and sound like. I think it’s been my draw to be gravitationally pulled towards worlds that are other, whether they are fantasy or versions of our world or proposals for a way a world might be.

Your show definitely helps us see how a better world might be. Good luck at the Tonys.

Thank you. Whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy the experience!

Interview conducted and edited by Janice Kaplan from a longer conversation with Tina Landau.


From Playbill:

25 DAYS OF TONYS: Gavin Lee Talks Tapping on Four Legs in SpongeBob SquarePants

The 2018 Drama Desk winner and Tony nominee talks about the trickery behind his four-legged character’s design.

Actor Gavin Lee is now a Drama Desk winner thanks to his performance in the Broadway spectacular SpongeBob SquarePants. On June 10, viewers will find out how the 2018 Tony nominee fares in the category for Featured Actor in a Musical.

Awards aside, he’s having the time of his life in Bikini Bottom playing Squidward—which requires as much choreographic prowess to play the four-legged character as was required for his first Tony nomination as Bert in Mary Poppins, in which he tap-danced upside down across the proscenium.

“Obviously, Squidward has these great appendages, these extra legs that we worked on for many days with the designer,” says Lee. “I wanted them to be really asymmetrical with my own legs so you couldn't perhaps tell which ones were the fake ones but because of this and because I wanted them to be so secure, it's very uncomfortable. It's like wearing the tightest corset around your hips.

“I'm very glad to get them off at the end of the night, but I'm very glad I have them for the whole show because they're a great gimmick and the audience just loves every time I walk across the stage.”

With such intense design craft, Lee says there is one person behind the scenes without whom he would not be able to do his job onstage. “Patti, my fabulous dresser, is there to rip off my fake legs and put my tap legs on and things like that,” says Lee. “A dresser for an actor is always so important and so valuable and I value her a lot!”

Watch the full video interview [here].


From Live Design:

By Design: David Zinn's Sets and Costumes for SpongeBob SquarePants

David Zinn designed the sets and costumes for the Broadway musical, SpongeBob SquarePants, earning him a pair of Tony Award nominations for his zany work. In all, this stage version of the animated Nickelodeon kid's show garnered 12 Tony nominations, including Kevin Adams's lighting, sound by Walter Trarbach and Mike Dobson, Best Musical, Best Direction for Tina Landau, etc.

"Making the translation from cartoon to stage was the primary goal of some of our early workshops, whether it was about how the characters moved or what the town of Bikini Bottom looked like," says Zinn. And RE-inventing it—capturing its essence but making it new—was the brief both from Tina and from Nickelodeon from the get-go. But the spirit of the cartoon, which is equal parts anarchy, comedy, surreal smash-up, and a preponderance of found-objects (everything in Bikini Bottom is made out of things that theoretically could have floated to the bottom of the sea) has been our guide all the way through. Just seen through our own lens."

"Scenically the show is pretty simple—there’s a two-level curved blue surround and a sky-drop behind. Stuff flies in and out of that surround (and the sky-drop flies too) but that's our basic envelope for the show, our 'Bikini Bottom,'” explains Zinn.

"Then there’s a front-of-house installation, which involves making the audience feel like an underwater party even before the show starts," Zinn adds. "Part of that party are our two Rube Goldberg machines, which both represent some of the spirit of the show’s visual language, but also a part of the (spoiler alert) impending destruction of Bikini Bottom by Mt Humongous.That’s really all it is—we just try to get those basic units to do as much as humanly/mechanically possible."

Zinn notes that "PRG was our primary shop and Spoon built the Rube Goldberg machines with the help of our two Rube engineers (a real job!) and yes, there’s lots of automation but it’s all pretty darn simple. Mostly straight up/down flying and a little bit of tracking in the floor. We also have a little dais that rises out of the stage for Patrick Star’s ascension during the 'Super Sea Star Savior' number. Juniper Street were our technical supervisors, and Buist Bickley was our heroic prop supervisor."

As for the colorful costumes, Zinn notes: "I'd say for our principals—chiefly SpongeBob, Sandy, Patrick and Squidward— the journey of the clothes was simplification.Taking away stuff that felt super-costume-y and finding the essence of them, the human-ness of them."

"Among the other citizens, however, of Bikini Bottom, I feel like the journey was towards explosion—how much could you change their human shape, surprise and delight us, but still allow them to dance like crazy—and quick-change like crazy," adds Zinn.

"Hair and makeup was a big part of this," points out Zinn, "and Chuck LaPointe and Joe Dulude were great partners in finding the line between Crazy-Explosion-New-Wave-Flaming-Lips party and guy-who’s-supposed-to-be-a-sponge."

"People are definitely suspicious of this enterprise before they come to the show, which I understand," admits Zinn, when asked about the success of this musical. "But I think they’re taken by how much incredible, well, heart, actually, but also sheer theatricality is present in the show."

"This is a show put on by smart smart crazy vaudevillians who love show business and drag queens and pop culture, and shiny things and tap dancing, and awesome music and great dancing, and who really f-ing know how to do a NUMBER," says Zinn.

"And we tell a beautiful story about community at the same time. Its deeply un-cynical and made by people who love the theater and also understand and care about the modern world, so I think people are registering the love we’ve brought to the show and also that we’ve been as generous as we know how to be in trying to show you a great time. What’s not to like about that?" Zinn concludes.


From Bucks County Courier Times:

Vineberg: Talking Tonys with double nominee Christopher Gattelli

The 1991 Bristol High School graduate is up for best choreography for “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “My Fair Lady” at Sunday’s 72nd Tony Awards, making him only the fourth person in history nominated twice in the same year in this category.

You don’t have to be a Tony Awards historian to know that Christopher Gattelli has accomplished something remarkable this year.

The Bristol Borough native is nominated for best choreography for two shows, “SpongeBob SquarePants” and the revival of “My Fair Lady.” The Tonys began in 1947, and this is only the fourth time a choreographer has been nominated twice in the same year.

No wonder Sunday’s 72nd Tony Awards (8 p.m., CBS) will be such a special night for him.

“I truly can’t believe they recognized me twice. That alone is kind of the icing on the cake,” Gattelli, 45, said Wednesday morning from Chicago, where he’s working on “The Cher Show,” scheduled to open in December at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre. “The fact that people are going to see snippets of both of my 11 o’clock numbers on the Tonys is also truly exciting. For people to see what I helped create this year, that alone will be something special.”

Not that Gattelli hasn’t been here before. He’s been nominated three times previously, winning in 2012 for “Newsies.” But the magic hasn’t worn off.

“I know it sounds cliché, but it really is an honor to be recognized by your peers,” he said. “I don’t think it ever gets old.”

Gattelli’s two shows are among Sunday’s most honored productions — “SpongeBob” received 12 nominations, tying it with “Mean Girls” for most by a musical this year, and “My Fair Lady” has 10. Last Sunday, the two shows won Drama Desk Awards for outstanding musical and outstanding revival of a musical, respectively.

Still, you could argue that Gattelli isn’t the favorite. Neither, it seems, are veteran choreographers Casey Nicholaw (“Mean Girls”) and Steven Hoggett (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”), who have been nominated in this category six and four times, respectively, but have yet to win.

The favorite looks like 30-year-old Broadway newcomer Justin Peck (“Carousel”), who last week won the Drama Desk Award for best choreography. In the 43 years the Drama Desks have chosen a best choreographer, the recipient has gone on to win the Tony 34 times.

Peck, who was the focus of Doylestown native Jody Lee Lipes’ 2014 documentary “Ballet 422,” is already a big name in the ballet world.

“Justin choreographed a full ballet, which is an achievement in and of itself,” Gattelli said. “And Casey and Steven, they’re so talented … being alongside them, I can’t even believe it. Just to be among these gentlemen, knowing the work they put out there, to have my name up there at all and to feel like I’ve contributed something that people thought was worth noting, there’s truly nothing else you can ask for.”

Gattelli laughed when asked if he thought his two nominations might steal votes from each other. For what it’s worth, two of the previous three two-time nominees did win the Tony: Susan Stroman for “Contact” in 2000 and Jerry Mitchell for “La Cage aux Folles” in 2005. (The other two-time nominee was John Carrafa in 2002.)

Win or lose, it’s hard to imagine a choreographer having a more artistically fulfilling year than Gattelli, given how different his two shows were. “My Fair Lady” reunited him with director Barlett Sherr, who he worked with on “South Pacific” (2008) and “The King and I” (2015), both of which earned Gattelli Tony nominations. And “SpongeBob” gave him the rare opportunity to choreograph songs by a long list of contemporary artists, including John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Panic! At the Disco and the late David Bowie.

“I’m fans of so many of them,” said Gattelli, a 1991 Bristol High School graduate who still has family in the area. “It was kind of a pinch-me moment every time (director) Tina (Landau) would be like, ‘Oh, here’s a new one from Cyndi Lauper, here’s a new one from T.I., here’s a new one from Aerosmith.’ I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’

“Of course, I wanted to do the show proud, but then there was that extra layer of ‘Wow, I’m getting to do a number for Lady Antebellum, I really want to make this special for them.’ There was always another level to it because it was such an honor to work with so many artists in one show.”

Gattelli already had a soft spot for “SpongeBob” because he used to watch it with his sister Kristen’s sons. Of course, never while bonding with his nephews over a quick-witted Nickelodeon cartoon did he imagine he was looking at a future Broadway musical.

“When we got the call, it was like, ‘SpongeBob?’ I’m not really sure how this is going to work,” Gattelli said. “And then when I went in to meet with Tina and she showed me her designs and her vision and her ideas for it, and all the different artists, it was a no-brainer. I was hooked, no pun intended, like four seconds in.”

“SpongeBob” opened in December at the Palace Theatre, followed by “My Fair Lady,” which also allowed Gattelli to work in a variety of styles, at the Lincoln Center Theater in April.

“The whole year felt like my mind was constantly shifting gears at all times,” he said. “It felt like a really exciting ride on both shows.”

His creative whirlwind has continued with “The Cher Show,” which includes about 40 songs and uses three different actresses and a variety-show format to tell the story of her life.

On Sunday night, though, the proud Bristol native will take a break from that work to look back on a year that most choreographers can only dream about.

“I keep hearing different things from different people. People leave ‘My Fair Lady’ and say that’s the one, or ‘SpongeBob’ and say that’s the one,” Gattelli said. “I have no idea how it plays out.

“But win or lose or whatever, it’s genuinely going to be pretty thrilling to hear my name called two times in a row. It’s a moment I already know I’ll never forget.”


From Backstage:

1 Thing ‘SpongeBob’ Book Writer Kyle Jarrow Needs From Actors Originating His Roles

The “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical is heading into Tonys night this Sunday with 12 nominations, tying with “Mean Girls” as the most–nominated outing this season. And among those nominees—which include a nod for best new musical, best actor in a musical, best score, and more—is first-time nominee Kyle Jarrow, who’s squaring off with Tina Fey and others for the Best Book of a Musical trophy. We spoke with Jarrow in the lead-up to Sunday to learn more about his writing process, how he came to join forces with Nickelodeon and director Tina Landau in the first place, and what he wants from the actors he taps to bring his words to life onstage.

How did you first get involved with this production?

I think it was about six years ago now. Nickelodeon was wanting to figure out a way to bring SpongeBob to the stage. At that point, they were just exploring it; they weren't even sure that they were going to do it. And they were looking for a writer to figure that out with. The woman who was executive producer for Nickelodeon, Susan Vargo, was familiar with my work and reached out to my agent. When I first heard from them, I thought to myself, "Man, I love SpongeBob." I’m a big fan. There’s a totally awesome version of this show, and there’s also a totally crappy version of this show. I was just praying that they wanted to do the cool version. And when I went in for the meeting, it was Susan and Tina Landau, the director who had been hired before that, and just hearing them talk about what they wanted to do—particularly that they wanted to capture the spirit of indie theater, and they wanted to do something outside the box—it was just immediately clear that they wanted to do the cool version, and I was like, “Sign me up.”

Now that we’re well into its run and you have 12 Tony nominations behind this thing, what has been the greatest joy of actually seeing it brought to life?

I would say that the greatest joy is seeing this amazing company of actors perform. It is just an incredible ensemble of people of such diverse talents. There’s everything from tap dancing to hip-hop dancing to Ethan [Slater], who plays SpongeBob, has to climb an 18-foot ladder wall upside down. Just to see the joy and talent and energy that that company brings to the show every night, and just how infectious that is, it’s just really amazing and I feel so privileged that we were able to find such an amazing group of actors to just set the tone for what the show can be. It’s odd—you write something, and then you’re putting it into the hands of the actors and saying, “Hey, make this cool!” And it’s just so awesome when those actors take it and elevate the material and just make it rock. That’s what this company has really done.

What was the actual process with you, with Tina, with the team at Nickelodeon—what’s the creative process for a show like this look like from the book writer’s perspective?

Basically what we did was I pitched a bunch of stories and we ultimately all chose one together, which is the one that you see onstage now. Basically, it’s the end of the world and they either need to decide whether to abandon Bikini Bottom or save it. I was really looking for a storyline that had the kind of stakes that could sustain a full evening of theater, but also had the opportunity to do some crazy, surreal, funny stuff. So that was definitely the craziest idea I pitched, and I was sort of surprised that it was the one that everybody liked. And then after that, yeah, I sort of worked out an outline, got notes from Tina and from folks at Nickelodeon, and then once we were locked and loaded on that, we started going to the various songwriters. It’s a little bit of a different process because the songs are all by different pop artists, and so at that point, what we did was we would say to them, “OK, Panic at the Disco, here’s the moment in the show that we would love for you to write a song for. Here’s the outline that gives you a pretty detailed sense of who’s singing it, what’s happening in the course of the song, how it fits into the broader story.” And then while we did that, I then started writing the script. And then it just became this process where songs would come in, I would then realize the book’s gotta rewrite a little bit to make this song integrate, or we gave notes back to the songwriter. It was very collaborative, which I think it needs to be with something like this. It’s just such a big operation, especially with so many different songwriters, that really open collaboration is kind of the only way you can end up with something that actually works.

There was also the added thing where you’re dealing with a character who’s really got, like, 20 years of TV episodes behind him in a world that’s really beloved, so there was that added layer that I think for all of us, we wanted to make sure that we were both creating something that felt like it was a theatrical experience that was really unique and felt different from all the episodes of the TV show and the movies, but also that felt like it respected the things that the fans are going to want. So that was an added challenge, and that’s another reason why checking in with each other was really helpful. It just kept us honest.

Looking to the history of SpongeBob, were there any episodes in particular that inspired you?

I watched hundreds of episodes—maybe not every single one, but almost. Two that really inspired me—one of them, I know, is a big inspiration for Tina, as well—is “Idiot Box,” which I think is from Season 3. And it’s this episode where SpongeBob and Patrick order a big-screen TV, but when they get it, they throw the TV away, and they just want to play with the box. And it’s really an episode about how all you really need is imagination, and you can sort of turn any found object into something amazing. And to me, that really unlocks sort of the aesthetic approach, and I know for Tina, too, which is that we were going to do something kind of low-fi, where the set and costumes were really created from various found objects and where the theatrical magic wasn’t going to be super high-tech bells and whistles, but stuff that felt really organic. And another episode that I found really inspiring was this episode called “Squirrel Jokes.” That’s an episode, I think it’s in Season 2, where SpongeBob is trying to be comedian and it’s not going that well, and he tells a joke about Sandy the squirrel, and everybody goes nuts. So he starts telling more jokes about her. It’s ultimately about how it’s hurtful to make somebody feel like an “other” or an outsider. And that, to me, made me realize that you can actually take this world—this super fun, colorful, imaginative world of Bikini Bottom—and you can actually do some things in it that can feel like actually about something. You can deal with some tougher stuff in a fun way. So in our show, it was very inspiring to me, particularly to look at the character of Sandy, who’s the only character who’s a land mammal, right? She has to wear a bubble over her head to breathe underwater. It just felt like it made a lot of sense to look at her; she’s an outsider there. And when people get scared, they definitely tend to scapegoat outsiders. That’s unfortunately a very current issue, certainly in our country. [I realized] we can speak to that in a way that doesn’t seem like we’re hammering it, and it also feels like it’s true to this world. That was really inspiring to me.

I’m especially interested in your process when it comes to working with these actors. What the dialogue like between you as as the book writer and the actor who’s interpreting for the stage?

There’s a decent amount of back-and-forth particularly, I think, because it’s a comedy. Jokes a lot of times work because of the person who’s delivering them, right? So there were definitely cases throughout the process where an actor would come up to me—I can think of a couple of specific examples with Gavin [Lee]. Ethan, too. Actually, really almost everybody, where an actor would come up to me and be like, “Hey, I totally get where you’re going with this joke. If I did this, I think it might be funnier.” And I’d be like, “Great, try it!” Finding how to sort of make the comedy really work and how to make it really work for that particular actor was a big part of the collaboration. One thing I will say: I personally like in the rehearsal room to just watch and take it in and let the director steer the ship, particularly on a big show like this where there’s just so many moving parts. And then for it’s those conversations on break or after rehearsal or whatever where I’d be sort of processing what I just saw in rehearsal and an actor would be processing what they just did, and we’d talk about it. But I would say particularly for comedy, there’s just so many great ideas in this show that are the result of the collaboration between the line, the actor, and the direction. And those three things are just really equal pillars, I think, in making comedy work.

So generally speaking, you like an actor who brings their own ideas into the room.

Definitely. Well, what I think is helpful to me is if you stick to the script in the rehearsal and then you have a dialogue about it after. This is just personal taste, but on a big musical like this, if you’re kinda trying to change lines on their feet, that can be a little unwieldy just because there’s so much happening. But yeah, it’s awesome when actors bring [their own ideas]. That’s what it means to originate a role.


From Boston University:

SpongeBob SquarePants Earns CFA Alum Tony Award Nod

Walter Trarbach (CFA’02) nominated for best sound design of a musical

When the Broadway community gathers at Radio City Music Hall in New York Sunday night to confer this year’s Tony Awards—the American theater’s highest accolade—they will welcome back two categories that were abruptly eliminated five years ago: best sound design of a musical and best sound design of a play. And for one BU alum, the timing couldn’t be better.

Walter Trarbach (CFA’02), a veteran theatrical sound designer, along with his colleague, Mike Dobson, has received his first Tony nomination for his work on one of this season’s biggest hits, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Based on the popular, long-running Nickelodeon cartoon show, the $20 million musical earned 12 Tony nominations.

Five years ago, the Tony Awards administration committee eliminated the sound design categories, without citing a reason. The decision caused an uproar in the theater community, but also led to a groundswell of support for the complicated, nuanced work that sound designers bring to the stage.

“A lot of people believed it was the wrong choice, but it took some time to work through the process of restoring the award,” says Trarbach, who has worked on such shows as the 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar; 2013’s 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal’s one-man show; and 2015’s Doctor Zhivago.

Being nominated has been both gratifying and overwhelming, the designer says. “A lot of my friends and colleagues have reached out to me with congratulations.”

Sound designers are responsible for virtually everything heard in a theatrical production. Their work involves creating sound effects and sonic atmospheres that aid in the dramatic presentation of the performance, and the audience’s emotional connection with it. They advise on how to best hear the performers and orchestra, including acoustic adjustments to the theater and set, or the configuration of radio and/or float mics for the performers.

Asked to describe his style, Trarbach says simply, “If I can’t hear something, I make it louder. If I think it’s too loud, I turn it down.”

Plays and musicals “are two different worlds,” he says. While vocal enforcement is sometimes needed in plays, the emphasis is usually on sound effects, ambience, or scene transition music. “When working on a musical, the primary focus is on making sure the audience can hear and enjoy the music and dialogue,” Trarbach explains. “Generally, speaking, there are fewer sound effects in a musical.”

Trarbach began working in theater as a junior high school student in Appleton, Wis. His older sister was working at the venerable Attic Theatre, and it looked like fun. He worked backstage, helping with lighting and stage management, and was soon hooked.

When he arrived at the College of Fine Arts’ School of Theatre, Trarbach chose to study sound design, not lighting. “I didn’t know much about it, but I had an appreciation for music and technology,” he says. “The best part of my time at BU was everything I learned from my classmates. I was very fortunate to be there with a great group of people. I still keep in touch with a lot of them, and we often work together professionally.”

After graduating, he moved to New York, supporting himself mostly by doing carpentry for shows. Joel Brandwine, a CFA assistant professor in the School of Theatre, introduced him to a lot of production managers at Off-Broadway theaters, and Trarbach began landing jobs as an associate sound designer. He moved on to La Jolla Playhouse in California, and while there, met sound designer Steve Kennedy who invited him to work as his associate on 700 Sundays when it moved to Broadway.

“I said yes to as many jobs as I could, and tried not to mess them up,” he says.

Trarbach has been working on SpongeBob for six years. He was approached by Susan Vargo, the musical’s producer and the head of live entertainment for Nickelodeon. They’d met when he was a student at BU. He hadn’t seen a single episode of the TV show, and when they started work-shopping the musical, there wasn’t even a script to work with. Over the next several years, more workshops took place, and he and Foley designer Mike Dobson continued to try out new sounds with the actors. “We got to grow the sound design of the show right along with its overall development,” Trarbach says, adding that that’s rare for a Broadway musical. “This allowed us to integrate sound design into every facet of the production.”

Every show, he says, has its own set of demands. “Sometimes the scenery will be in the way of ideal speaker positions or the costume design of a musical will include hats over an actor’s microphone, rendering it ineffective.”

The biggest challenge on SpongeBob was the sheer scale of the project, he says. In addition to designing the sound for a huge Broadway musical, Trarbach had to create hundreds of sound effects, including a rumbling volcano, a cowbell that goes off each time a character hits their head during the show, and replicating the little squeak that SpongeBob makes each time he walks, made famous by the Nickelodeon cartoon. The show’s tap dancing numbers and the fact that all of the actors play instruments onstage posed additional complications. “In terms of the amount of sound in a show, SpongeBob will likely prove to be the biggest of my career,” he says.

Trarbach plans to have an acceptance speech on hand Sunday night “just in case.” And if early predictions are any indication, he’s going to need it. Both TimeOut New York and OnStage Blog are predicting a win for him and Dobson in the best sound design of a musical category.

Other nominations involving BU alums this year are: for best revival of a musical, producers Brian Cromwell Smith (Questrom’96) for Once on This Island and Sue Wagner (CFA’97) for Carousel; for best revival of a play, Diana DiMenna (COM’85) for Three Tall Women and Wagner for Three Tall Women and The Iceman Cometh; and for best musical, Frederick Zollo (CAS’75) for The Band’s Visit.

The 72nd annual Tony Awards will be broadcast Sunday, June 10, on CBS at 8 pm. [...]

The company of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus


From the Sioux City Journal:

Ethan Slater soaks up plenty as Broadway's 'SpongeBob'

Ethan Slater is on the SpongeBob fitness plan.

More than two hours, eight times a week, he’s hanging off ladders, tumbling on stage and executing kicks better than the Karate Kid.

“It’s a CrossFit work out on stage in front of 1,500 people,” Slater says. “I should have listened better to those in rehearsal who said, ‘Are you sure you want to add that into the show?’”

The show is “SpongeBob SquarePants: the Musical,” an inventive stage adaptation of the popular animated series. Because it’s produced by the folks from Nickelodeon, there was a fear it might just be another arena show. Director Tina Landau, however, “said she wasn’t going to do this unless it brought something new to SpongeBob,” Slater says. Six years ago, she convinced Slater to join the process and, hopefully, produce a musical worthy of Broadway attention.

“I thought it was going to be an amazing experience just to get to work with Tina and a room filled with clowns, dancers and actors – artists I could learn from,” the Vassar College graduate says. “I had no idea it was going to keep going. I didn’t quite expect it to become what it did.”

Nominated for 12 Tony Awards – tied with “Mean Girls” for the most this season – “SpongeBob” has been hailed for its creativity (pool noodles and other found objects help create the underwater world) and for Slater’s performance. Suggesting the square sponge with simple movement, a spot-on vocal quality and a quirky costume, Slater is able to get buy-in from the first song. That he bounces around the set like he, too, is animated is no small feat.

“Instead of going to the gym,” the 25-year-old says, “I go to the physical therapist.”

When Landau and company were workshopping the musical, Slater unleashed a host of tricks – many learned from years as a competitive wrestler. “Are you sure you want to do splits and a backflip?” collaborators would ask. “It’s one thing to do it in a rehearsal but eight times a week?”

“So far, so good,” Slater reports. “I probably should have listened to them a little better, but it’s been fun and exciting thus far.”

To make sure he’s up for the challenge, Slater watches what he eats (“no bread or dairy or nightshades or tomatoes. But I eat a lot of protein and I have a minimum four meals a day”), avoids extra-curricular fun and, yes, the gym.

“On my day off, I’m mostly sitting on my couch or cooking food for the rest of my week,” he says. “Yesterday, I sat outside doing nothing. It was lovely.”

A New York native, Slater watched “SpongeBob SquarePants” at his grandmother’s house, since his family didn’t have cable, “so it has that added association for me.”

A veteran of summer theater camps, he became intrigued with the business when he saw “Damn Yankees” in Washington, D.C., his home. “It combined my two greatest passions – baseball and theater. It had a huge impact on my life.”

While he nudged baseball for wrestling (“it took over as my No. 1 sport”), he couldn’t quite shake the theater. “I was close to doing wrestling in college but I decided to do theater because it was like this massive team. Everyone was really supportive of each other and it was very physical. Theater and sports are more similar than you think.”

At Vassar, Slater auditioned for a show that just happened to have the same casting director as something ominously called, “The Untitled Tina Landau Project.” He was asked to audition and, well, the die was cast.

Now, a Tony nominee (and star of a Broadway show), Slater says this has been the “most wonderful and bizarre year of my life.”

He has heard those who pooh-pooh the idea of SpongeBob on Broadway and knows “it’s something you can imagine going really wrong. But I trusted Tina – she’s a total genius – and I think those people realize once they see the show, it’s not what they thought.”

Life on Broadway? It’s pretty monk-like. “I sleep as much as possible. I don’t really don’t go out unless it’s for the show. And my social life is on hold, but it’s totally worth it,” Slater says.

To make sure there’s life after “SpongeBob,” the friendly actor has been writing and thinking of other projects. “It’s hard as an actor not to think, ‘What’s next?’”

The ride – no matter how physical – is great because audiences are so thrilled when they see the show. “You’re sharing joy and you’re working with artists at the top of their game. I learn something every day. This ride is so crazy and eventful, I’m just trying to live in the moment and enjoy every minute of it.”


From Washington's Top News:

Tony Awards: 2 most nominated shows feature ties to DC

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 [here]:


From the Los Angeles Times:

Can Ethan Slater squeeze out a Tony Award from the 'SpongeBob' musical?

In his Broadway debut, Ethan Slater earned a Tony nomination for playing SpongeBob SquarePants.

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.

Ethan Slater photographed in 2016, during early rehearsals for the "SpongeBob" musical. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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.

‘SpongeBob SquarePants’

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)


From Forbes:

Squeak, Boink, Crash: Bringing The Sounds Of SpongeBob SquarePants To Broadway

There’s a lot going on in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Jetpacks, lasers, an erupting volcano, Hawaiian shirts as far as the eye can see, and some truly wonderful cartoonish performances.

And while the tiki bar/cruise ship aesthetic, boasting more colors than Joseph’s Technicolor apparel, is eye-catching, one of the most interesting essential elements of the show is its ear-catching use of sound effects.

During the show, stationed in a sort of SpongeBob shrine and surrounded by percussion instruments, found objects, repurposed garbage, toys, and computer pads, live foley artist Mike Dobson provides the show its squeaks, bangs, boings, dings, booms, bonks, honks, wizzes and crashes, and cues the volcanic rumbles that shake the theater.

Ahead of this Sunday’s Tony Awards, I asked Dobson a few questions about bringing some very silly noises on Broadway.

Mike, how does live foley contribute to SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical?

Our show, like the cartoon, uses lots of sound effects throughout. The detail and sheer quantity of sounds, I think, requires that it be done as foley to work in a live setting. As an example, I make a squish sound for every step that SpongeBob—played by the amazing Ethan Slater!—takes. We don’t talk about how many steps he will take, or exactly what path he will do. He just crosses the stage and it’s a little different every night. I am accompanying and following him. So, rather than forcing him to be rigid, doing it as foley allows it to happen freely, while also making the connection between his foot and the sound very specifically timed for each step.

When did you first encounter foley art as a concept? What interested you about it?

It first started for me in college when I took a summer job playing drums for a circus. In traditional circus, the drummer is expected to provide sound effects for the action on stage, while also playing drums in the band. Before recorded sound, it was normal for the drummer to do the sound effects for all kinds of shows. It’s now a mostly forgotten technique, but once I started learning about it, I became somewhat obsessed.

At first, the draw was the challenge of playing a song with the band, while also hitting all the sound effects for the onstage action. It can get very virtuosically challenging. Over the years, as I learned more and incorporated more and more ideas from film foley and theatrical sound design, I became much more interested in how it could support the storytelling and provide new ways to use sound live. Not just cartoony sounds, but any situation where you want sound to feel connected to a movement, as though the actor or performer actually created the sound you heard. Those possibilities are what excites me most now.

In a past interview you mentioned the use of foley in vaudeville and circus, but did you have any particular love of the sound effects and “Mickey-mousing” music of cartoons?

Yes, absolutely! It’s interesting because it all comes from the same place. The first silent films and cartoons were accompanied by the same band and drummer that played the live show. The sound palette that the drummers used—cow bells, drums, slide whistle, gongs—these quickly became the standard in early cartoons and we still hear these sounds in cartoons to this day.

The Mickey-mousing, where the music is super tightly connected to the action, like foley, is very interesting in the early cartoons. No one was able to do that before because everything was played live, and they weren’t playing that specifically to the picture. Then, suddenly, all of these cartoon people had the ability place every note of the music at exactly the right place and treat the music as it’s own type of foley. A lot of great and strange ideas came from the early experimental days of sound in film.

Any specific thoughts on the sound design in the SpongeBob animated series?

I’ve been a super fan of SpongeBob since it first aired. Even before I was working on this show, I would have named it as a major influence. Most uses of foley in film are going for a very realistic sound for everything. It’s supposed to sound like the world we live in and know. Cartoons have always had permission to have the sound be whatever they want. My theory is that the early percussion sounds of cartoons trained audiences to accept strange non-literal sounds for their cartoon sound effects, and then anything was possible.

For me, SpongeBob makes the best use of this permission. They go all over the map with the range of different and weird sound choices. But, it all works and feels effortless, even though they use lots and lots of sound effects.

They create so much identity of the characters too. SpongeBob himself is accompanied by a whole range of squeaks that work with his every emotion, not just his footsteps. And, of course, there is a lot to learn about sound in comedy from a bit like “the guy with glass bones and paper skin.”

Can you give us a potted history of your career up until 2012?

Right after that first circus tour ended, I moved to New York and started a classical percussion Master’s degree at Mannes College of Music. I was just beginning to explore the “drummer as sound effects guy: idea and found my way into the circus scene here. I was still very into classical and contemporary classical music, and doing a lot of bouncing around from concert halls to tiny circus shows in Brooklyn. Then I got involved with a physical theater company here in New York called Parallel Exit. It was a great fit and I’ve done many shows with them over the last 10 years. It was one of those shows that Tina saw and clocked the idea of using me for foley.

Then, throughout the process of SpongeBob’s long gestation, I was very lucky to work with Tina on a lot other projects. The show we did called Old Hats, with Bill Irwin and David Shiner, was a huge step forward for me figuring this out.

Do you have any favorite sounds in the show—either purely aesthetically or the act of performing it?

I have a new favorite moment every night. The actors make me laugh constantly with their choices. We are doing comedy, so I have particular fondness for any of the sounds that get a big laugh. The most fun is the feeling when everyone—actors, musicians, stage management, tech operators, and myself—are all feeling the same rhythm of the show, and are all telekinetically in sync. The show moves really fast, so one little hiccup in the timing from anyone is felt by everyone performing, even though the audience wouldn’t notice. It is amazing luck that we have a cast and crew that a) is incredibly dedicated, and b) is capable of pulling off this nearly impossible level of connection with each other every night.



Tony Awards: "SpongeBob" and "The Band's Visit" have Cleveland roots

NEW YORK - The 72nd Annual Tony Awards, broadcast tonight on CBS, are the NBA Finals of theater. And Cleveland, we're in it to win it.

The top prize of the evening is Best Musical and this season, two of four shows vying for the title are produced by native sons.

Making things more interesting? The productions couldn't be more different. If "The Band's Visit" is like a poem, as Best Actress nominee Katrina Lenk has described the production in which she stars, "SpongeBob" is the biggest pop-up book you've ever seen.

"The Band's Visit" is the exquisitely crafted tale of an Egyptian police band that gets lost in the Israeli desert on the way to a gig. Its members spend a hypnotic, memorable night in a tiny, sleepy town connecting - or, heartbreakingly, failing to connect - with its colorful residents.

The work, based on the most successful Israeli film of all time, exists entirely because of the passion of Orin Wolf, who pursued the project for a decade and learned to love the theater as a student at University School.

Nominated for 11 Tonys, "The Band's Visit," deservedly a critical darling, sounds like none of the others in the field. Based on the screenplay by filmmaker Eran Kolirin, it features a cast of musicians playing instruments onstage we're not used to hearing - the stringed oud and the percussive darbouka - and moves at gentle, unhurried pace, so unlike its cartoon contender, "SpongeBob SquarePants."

The Nickelodeon series about a yellow sponge living in a pineapple under the sea is brought to startling, Day-Glo neo life in the musical that has captured 12 Tony nominations. ("Mean Girls," up for Best Musical, also garnered 12 noms. Rounding out the Best Musical heat is Disney's "Frozen," with a total of three nominations.)

Joining Nickelodeon in giving SpongeBob (the impossibly bendable, Gumby-limbed Ethan Slater, up for a Tony) his Broadway debut is the Araca Group, a production company founded by three childhood friends from Cleveland - Hank Unger and brothers Matthew and Michael Rego.

(The siblings spent Wednesday night shouting for the Cavs along with other New Yorkers in bars in and around Broadway, only to have their hearts pulverized in a Game 3 that ended with a score of Warriors 110, the wine and gold 102. "We're terribly depressed right now and I hope you are too," they report.)

"Cleveland has long been considered a premiere tour stop and a source of on-stage talent," says Playhouse Square's executive producer Gina Vernaci.

"However, this season our great city is represented for the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical by our native sons . . . In my memory it is a first to have two of the Best Musical nominees produced by Clevelanders. And they all grew up coming to Playhouse Square to see Broadway shows."

And, to Vernaci's earlier point, Cleveland is helping to shape the best of Broadway under the lights as well as behind the scenes.

In "Mean Girls," Baldwin Wallace musical theater graduate Kate Rockwell brings a pitch-perfect, tour de force vapidity as Karen, one of the Plastics, the trio of popular teens at the top of the food chain at North Shore High.

"SpongeBob" boasts the breakout performance of 18-year-old BW powerhouse Jai'Len Josey, who stopped the show the first time she opened her mouth at a performance the Thursday before the Tonys.

(The ceremony, hosted by Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban is at 8 p.m. today, broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS.)

But in terms of hardware, it's all about the producers this year.

Sharing the Best Musical nomination with Wolf who grew up in Cleveland Heights, is Cleveland native John Hart.

The men got to know each other as producers of the 2012 Best Musical "Once," a title, like "The Band's Visit" that brings a quieter, more emotional vocabulary to a Broadway musical.

The efficient, 90-minute story follows the precise, proud band leader Tewfiq (Best Actor nominee Tony Shalhoub) and his unexpected encounter with Dina (the mesmerizing, feline Lenk) a brash lonely cafe owner who offers to put him, and his 7-man ensemble, up for the night. Other love stories unfold around them.

Wolf knew the simple, beautiful yarn was meant for the stage after seeing the movie at a film festival in 2007.

He had to do some heavy lifting to convince the film's director. Kolirin's experience with musicals was limited, says Wolf, and the auteur couldn't imagine such a translation would ever work.

"I think the only show he'd ever seen was 'Cats,' " Wolf says. "He literally said to me at one point, 'I don't want you to put these band members in cat uniforms.' "

Of course, Wolf had a finer, more nuanced idea in mind.

"I had such a specific tone that I wanted," says Wolf. "I wasn't even sure if I was going to make it a play with music or musical - I never really cared."

What he knew was that "The Band's Visit" should break the rules of traditional musical theater and pushed back against the impulse to make it louder, faster, brighter.

"I worked for long stretches, months, with certain writers that I then just walked away from because as soon as the show started to take on a tone that I felt wasn't true to how I wanted it, I never batted an eye at walking away.

"I would have happily not produced it. I never felt like I had to produce it for the wrong reasons. I only was interested in doing it if it was being done properly."

That uncompromising vision captured the attention of Hart during a workshop for potential partners and investors.

"A lot of people in the room liked it and were like enthusiastic about it," says Wolf, "but John came up to me and said, 'Whatever piece of this show you're willing to give me I'll take.' "

"It was so clear," says Hart. "In the context of our times, where we were going politically was so dark and the show had so much hope in it.

". . . I look at Tewfiq and Dina . . .She's sleeping with a married guy and he has not reconstructed his life after his wife's death," Hart continues. "But their meeting gives them both the suggestion, the possibility that it might be worth another shot. That you're better with somebody than alone. All the rest of the characters are younger, from different generations. They're just in the beginning of falling in love.

"I think I connected with everybody's searching for the same thing and awkwardly succeeding or failing. But you have to keep hoping that that possibility exists, because if it doesn't, what's the point?"

"He's a poet," says Wolf.

"Well, I went to Hawken," responds Hart.

It's the week of the Tonys and the men are in the Broadway offices of Polk & Co., a boutique, theatrical public relations agency run by Lyndhurst native Matt Polk.

(Along with 11 nominations for "The Band's Visit," Polk & Co shows have brought the firm a total of 16 Tony nods, including a Special Tony Award for John Leguizamo for his solo run in "Latin History for Morons.")

An 18-minute walk away are the offices of the Araca Group, named after the Rego's Sicilian grandfather who made his home in Cleveland in the early 1900's. The company burst onto the scene with the hit original musical "Urinetown" in 2001.

Unlike their porous hero, the brothers, who hail from Rocky River, weren't naive to the attraction of the "SpongeBob" brand. They signed on to produce the pop culture juggernaut for the obvious reasons - they're commercial Broadway producers in the business of creating enduring, profitable entertainment and "SpongeBob" is powerful global product.

But they also shared a passion for the material.

They got involved some three years ago, intrigued by the creative team -experimental director Tina Landau of Steppenwolf Theatre fame, scenic and costume designer David Zinn ("Fun Home" and "The Humans") and a score with original tunes by "every cool band or musical artist that we were huge fans of," says Michael. (That's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper and They Might Be Giants to name a few.)

And then there was the reaction of their kids. The young fathers recall how their children responded to the relentlessly clever stimulus that is "SpongeBob."

"The kids totally get both the visual excitement of the piece - they love the spectacle, they love the entertainment - but they do get the message of it," explains Matthew. "My now 7-year-old was 6 when I introduced her to it."

"Why do you like SpongeBob?" he asked.

"Well," his daughter responded. "SpongeBob likes everybody for who they are."

Matthew shot a video of the critique. "I brought it to Tina and she said OK, that's going to be our commercial - we're gonna put that on the air. I said the royalties are high for my daughter - so I don't think you can afford her."

As for the show's reception by grownups?

"Not to be too spinachy about it," says Michael, "because that's not our show, [but] it is a joyful experience that leaves you with this incredible sense of optimism for life."

Another clue to adult enjoyment is the answer to the frequently asked question - "Can I drink in the theater?" - on Google: "Yes, SpongeBob and booze. It's a great combo."

No matter what production takes home Best Musical, given the 23 nominations shared by "SpongeBob" and "The Band's Visit," Cleveland already has a winning team on Broadway


The Tony-award nominated SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical is now playing at the Palace Theatre (1564 Broadway at West 47th Street). For full information, reviews and tickets, visit

SpongeBob SquarePants - The New Musical Original Cast Recording is available to purchase today at

Follow SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical on social media:
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More Nick: 'SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical' Nominated For 12 Awards In The 72nd Annual Tony Awards!

Originally published: Wednesday, June 06, 2018.

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