Remember when a cartoon sponge became both celebrated and vilified as a gay icon?
It probably won’t help squish those old rumors, but SpongeBob and his undersea Bikini Bottom neighbors, including pink starfish Patrick and squirrel friend Sandy, have now surfaced on Broadway. Based on Nickelodeon’s campy animated series and directed by Tina Landau, the SpongeBob SquarePants musical features songs by David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Panic! at the Disco, and other pop acts.
Wesley Taylor plays Sheldon J. Plankton, a scheming restauranteur with one beady eye on global domination. The Smash scene-stealer, who made his Broadway debut in Rock of Ages, explains why it’s good to be bad—and even better to be out.
Are you a fan of the SpongeBob cartoon?
I grew up on Doug, Rugrats, and Hey Arnold! But the older I got, SpongeBob became more popular. I’d catch it sometimes and think it was definitely more clever than the average cartoon, but I didn’t devour it until I got this part.
You play Plankton, who fancies himself an evil genius. Do you enjoy being a villain?
I do. I feel like I was born to play sinister roles. You audition for a lot of fresh-faced innocents in your 20s, but I always had trouble with that, because there’s something about me that reads dark. I have dark features and maybe something behind my eyes that makes people distrust me. So this role definitely falls in line with my trajectory.
Did any other villains, fictional or real, inspire your anthropomorphized character?
I drilled Doug Lawrence’s voice from the cartoon—he’s known as Mr. Lawrence to the ComicCon community—but Tina, our director, wanted more Wesley. She didn’t want us doing impersonations, so I had to make it my own. I pay homage to the cartoon and that voice, but I added some Will Farrell as Ron Burgundy energy. I also made him sexier and more animalistic.
Plankton is a love-to-hate antagonist, as evidenced by the fan art you’ve been posting on Instagram. Were you expecting that kind of response?
No. I’m utterly overwhelmed. I’m getting at least 10 sketches a day. It’s insane. I’ve never been a part of something like this. Fans of this show are a different breed.
Plankton is much tinier than the other characters in Bikini Bottom. How do you bring a microorganism to life on stage?
We use a finger puppet to help the audience adjust their eyes from cartoon Plankton to our human interpretation. Tina’s a creative genius, so she didn’t want to do a theme park musical with mascot costumes. She wanted to create a humanized, universal story.
So does size matter, Wesley?
Well, Plankton would tell you that size does not matter. It’s more about ambition and determination.
Your costume is quite a look.
It’s one of my favorite costumes I’ve ever worn. I have a gorgeous green suit that pays homage to Dr. Evil, plus nasty Steven Seagal samurai braids, an eyepatch, and Nike Airs. I’ve never had more comfortable character shoes.
Does Plankton have a soft side?
Beneath his hard shell, he’s actually quite insecure and sappy. Yes, he has a Napoleon complex. Yes, he wants world and fast food domination. But he really loves his wife, Karen, and that’s where we see his tenderness and heart.
Is there a message in SpongeBob that you hope resonates with audiences?
It’s definitely a show for Trump’s America. The message is lovely—and not even subtle, because Tina wanted it to be very clear. The antagonistic characters, including Plankton, are anti-science and anti-immigration. The show is about inclusivity, and you also see that in its racial diversity and gender-bending.
Some conservative Christian groups have accused SpongeBob and his pals of promoting homosexuality. What’s your take on that controversy?
I love all the interpretations and conspiracy theories. I also appreciate that the big love story in our show is the friendship between SpongeBob and Patrick. Kids need to see more tales that aren’t about a boy and a girl falling in love at the end.
Meanwhile, you’ve been posting Instagram photos with your boyfriend, Isaac Powell, who’s currently starring in Broadway’s Once on This Island.
It’s important to celebrate these things. We’ve only been dating for a few months, so I’m reticent to spill all the beans, but it’s no secret I’m crazy about him. Our theaters are three blocks from each other, so it’s an exciting time.
When did you decide to come out professionally?
During Rock of Ages off-Broadway in 2008, when I realized that people cared about my life. While I was at drama school, that wasn’t something I thought about. All of a sudden I’ve got people at the stage door, asking, “Are you gay or straight?” Just months after graduating, I had to quickly figure out what I wanted to say and stand for.
You’d been out at drama school?
I was openly gay with everyone who knew me, so I decided there was no point hiding who I was in my career. Some agents and older men in the business advised me against sharing anything about my personal life, arguing it would make it harder for audiences to believe the characters I’m playing. I don’t want to be typecast, but my queer voice and presence trumps a safe career where I don’t ruffle any feathers.
You went on to play high-profile gay roles like Michael “Mouse” Tolliver in the Tales of the City musical, and you’ve also created LGBT-focused web series like Indoor Boys and It Could Be Worse.
Yeah, I’d be betraying my art if I weren’t honest with myself and the people I’m sharing it with. I owe it to myself and my audience to be as truthful as possible.
Have you heard from young LGBT fans you’ve inspired?
Oh, sure. I just went down to teach some classes at my alma mater, North Carolina School of the Arts. I think of the younger generation as being so queer and comfortable with themselves, so I was gobsmacked by how many of these young gay actors are still fighting against stigma, thinking about how to market themselves once they graduate, worrying if they’ll be pigeonholed. They were all asking me about whether or not they should be out.
What advice did you give them?
I vehemently encouraged them to be out, of course. A lot of people say they came into this business to be an actor, not a role model, and I get it. But why not be a role model? Why not give kids some representation?
Speaking of advice, Wesley, how much pot should a grown gay man smoke before seeing the SpongeBob musical? Asking for a friend.
[Laughs] Will I get in trouble for this? Okay, I encourage everybody to get inspired in their own way before seeing this musical, because it’s very colorful, creative, and two-and-a-half hours of unadulterated joy. If you’re not a child, tap into your inner child. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. How’s that?
SpongeBob SquarePants is now playing at the Palace Theatre in New York.