Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
Well, at least when he's on stage. The young actor took residence in the famed home when he recently landed the energetic lead role in "The SpongeBob Musical."
"I kind of feel like I won the lottery," Pugliese said. The Scranton, PA native had just gotten settled in Schenectady for the first stop on the musical’s tour, which runs from Sunday through Saturday, Sept. 28 at Proctors, when the Gazette caught up with him.
Pugliese got the role just a few months ago, shortly after graduating from the University of the Arts. However, his friends and family have always told him that he was born to play the role.
"One of my good friends at school, when the show first came out, told me that 'There's this dude named Ethan Slater. He's playing SpongeBob right now and as soon as he's done playing Spongebob, you are going to play SpongeBob.' He called it," Pugliese said.
He's certainly put in the character research.
"I loved 'SpongeBob' growing up. "In the morning I would frequently wake up, open the window and yell out 'Good morning world and all who inhabit it,' which is a very iconic line from the show and [it's] SpongeBob's first line in the musical," Pugliese said.
The Nickelodeon cartoon first aired in 1999 and was developed by Stephen Hillenburg (also known for Rocko's Modern Life"). It's equal parts whimsical and sarcastic, with biting humor that was often made more for the adults overhearing the show than the children glued to the screen. The cartoon follows the lives of Bikini Bottom residents SpongeBob SquarePants and his friends, Patrick Star (a lazy starfish), Sandy Cheeks (a scientific squirrel who made a dome-home under the sea), and Squidward Q Tentacles (an artsy squid who takes himself very seriously), among other creatures.
Each episode kicks off with a portrait of Patchy the Pirate singing the theme song ("Whooo lives in a pineapple under the sea?").
The musical debuted on Broadway in 2016 doesn't leave characters behind and it embraces the eclectic mix of songs from the cartoon with an eclectic mix of its own.
Most, if not all, the tunes were written by some of the most prominent songwriters of our time.
"I mean the list goes on and on, David Bowie, Panic! At the Disco, John Legend, Plain White Ts, Cindy Lauper, Steven Tyler and so much more. It's really cool to be able to hear songs that they wrote on the stage using an actor as a vessel . . . It's an interesting experience," Pugliese said.
While it pays homage to some of the cartoon's beloved episodes, the musical is not a regurgitation of them.
"SpongeBob and the rest of the town have to face their impending doom when it is announced that this long slumbering volcano is set to erupt the following evening. [The musical] follows the way that different citizens react and the struggle and the fight to find a way to save the beloved town of Bikini Bottom," Pugliese said.
SpongeBob, always the sort-of-hero, sets out to try to save the town, while Sheldon Plankton (the tiny villain who owns the Chum Bucket) cooks up an evil plan.
"But it's not all heavy. It's a Broadway musical, but it's also a rock concert and a party and a circus, and it's really like no show I've ever seen or been in," Pugliese said.
Preparing for the role was challenging, especially because it was one that was so personally important to Pugliese.
"SpongeBob is super energetic and goofy and optimistic and incredibly iconic. Of course, you have to bring a lot of that to the role because growing up and watching [it] that's part of what you want to see. I think that coming to the show, fans of the TV show will definitely leave feeling very fulfilled," Pugliese said.
When he was first auditioning and going to rehearsals, he tried to imitate the high-pitched and dramatic voice of SpongeBob (voice acted by Thomas James Kenny). However, director Tina Landau quickly put a stop to that.
"Tina doesn't want exact replicas of the character voices; she wants flavors so that they're more identifiable and that you can relate to them. They're a little more human. It's like a mixture of SpongeBob's voice and then my own voice," Pugliese said.
"If you've seen the show, [you'll notice] SpongeBob's voice can just completely change to someone else's voice depending on the song that he's singing."
Thus, Pugliese does the same thing in the musical
"Depending on the song and the style of the song, I can really lean into that style. For instance, ‘(I guess I) miss you’ is a John Legend song, so I can lean into the genre. Same with ‘Simple Sponge,’ that's Brendon Urie so I can really lean into being a rock star," Pugliese said, adding, "SpongeBob in a lot of ways is an actor's dream because he's got so many possibilities."
Joining SpongeBob on stage are Patrick (Beau Bradshaw), Sandy Cheeks (Daria Pilar Redus), Squidward (Christopher Cody Cooley) and others.
They're each brought to life with convincing costumes, especially Squidward's, which has four legs that seem to go in all sorts of unexpected directions.
The set design also helps to transport the audience into the undersea world of Bikini Bottom with a pineapple-patterned backdrop and things like pool noodles and balls that look like they've fallen from above. It was originally designed by David Zinn, who won a Tony for his work.
"To be able to perform on a stage with a set like that is unreal. It's amazing for the audience because it really sets the scene and it's amazing for the actors because it really drops us into the world that we are living in for two and a half hours every day," Pugliese said.
While the musical is just as zany as the show, Pugliese said it will surprise audiences, just as it surprised him when he first saw it on Broadway.
Although the characters are most of the characters are underwater creatures, they're all relatable and the show is grounded in reality, leaning into current events with quips about climate change and bureaucratic jokes.
"It's not just a reenactment of an episode. We're not in cutouts of characters. It's a real show that whether you know SpongeBob or not, the message comes across and you can identify [with it] and learn something," Pugliese said.
Pugliese's favorite episode:
The SpongeBob Musical
WHEN: Sun. - Sat. Sept. 28
MORE INFO: proctors.org