As the star of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,” Ethan Slater spent six days a week as a purveyor of indefatigable optimism, landing a Tony nomination and a permanent spot in the hearts of theater fans along the way.
More than two years later, the Maryland-born actor and musician continues to broaden the scope of his talents. His latest project, “Life Is Weird,” is a three-song EP that harks back to his brooding, pre-“SpongeBob” years as an aspiring thespian. For “Under the Cathedral,” one of two original songs, he recalled the early days of his relationship with his wife of two years, Lilly Jay.
“I was thinking about one specific night,” Slater, 28, told HuffPost. “I was 20 years old and unsure about what the next few years would bring. A lot of it had to do with this girl, this person that I really loved, but didn’t know how to express it. And so there was a moment where I was sitting under the spires of the National Cathedral, not far from where I grew up, and the epic nature of what I was looking at led me to the best thing I ever did: I told her how I felt.”
(Listen to “Under the Cathedral” below.)
Released Tuesday, “Life Is Weird” is a worthy followup to “Wanderer,” Slater’s 2019 debut EP. He wrote and recorded the new songs with longtime collaborator Mike Dobson in Brooklyn over the past year, and the pair’s penchant for sweeping, guitar-driven melodies and introspective lyrics is evident on both EPs. But unlike its predecessor, “Life Is Weird” arrives at a time when audiences are grappling with the harsh reality of the the COVID-19 pandemic and a global reckoning with racial injustice.
With that in mind, Slater has chosen to donate proceeds from the sales of “Life Is Weird” to the National Bail Fund Network and Protect Native Elders, the latter of which is a national advocacy group dedicated to getting personal protective equipment (PPE) and other necessities to Native American communities.
“Right now it’s a little bit hard to fathom the idea of putting out art that just says ‘life is weird,’” he said. “We’re in a really tough spot in the world for a number of reasons. Life isn’t just weird right now, it’s also pretty unjust. We’re living in a time of a pandemic, but we’re also reckoning with systemic oppression that has been at the core of this country forever.”
Those humanitarian gestures are in keeping with Slater’s artistic mission on “Life Is Weird,” which is to “make people feel connected in a time of disconnect.”
Music also happens to be one of the few ventures Slater can creatively control while in self-isolation. Before New York’s theaters shut down indefinitely in March, he was in rehearsals to play Lee Harvey Oswald, who was charged with the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” off-Broadway.
Slater believes “Assassins,” like other Broadway and off-Broadway shows, will return for a 2021 opening. In the meantime, he’s relocated from New York to Los Angeles, where he’s spending most of his time focused on writing for the stage and TV. One of his long-gesticulating projects is a new musical called “Edge of the World,” co-written with fellow Broadway performer Nick Blaemire, also a Maryland native.
While he admits “being hopeful right now is a bit difficult,” he believes this unexpected disruption will prompt many in his industry to self-reflect and re-think their approach toward making theater more accessible, as well as increasing diversity both on-stage and behind the scenes.
“I think it’s just going to be this ever-evolving landscape. There’s something cool and a little bit mysterious about that,” he added. “But I’m confident we’ll be making some pretty great art when we’re on the other side.”