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.”