Curtis Holbrook and The Palace Theater have a history. They go way back.
“I do have a weird history with the Palace. It’s where I saw my first Broadway show, The Will Rogers Follies. I was nine years old, I sat in the balcony which is the third level of the theater, we sat in the third row and I was the third seat from the aisle. I’m now in my third show in the theater. That’s cool.”
The first show he performed in the storied theater was All Shook Up, followed by the revival of West Side Story. Today, he’s back at The Palace in Spongebob SquarePants, the musical that’s been a massive hit with audiences. “I have to remind myself of how special it is to be in that theater because right now, it just feels like home. It feels like that because the house crew, the ushers, the doormen and our crew members are people I’ve worked with throughout all three of these shows. It’s amazing.”
But long before he was an inhabitant of Bikini Bottom, Holbrook’s Broadway debut was in the musical, Footloose. He may have only been 17-years-old, but he learned two very important principles that he’s carried with him in every show since. (It should be noted that Spongebob is his 11th Broadway show.)
“The main thing I learned when I made my debut was that a stage is a stage,” he said. “Meaning, I thought Broadway was the ultimate thing and yes, a Broadway stage is amazing, but it’s the same experience really for the audience members and the actor no matter what stage you’re on. Tying into that, I learned about the importance of our work ethic. It doesn’t matter if it’s Broadway, a regional theater, or a high school production, that foundational work ethic has to be there. So, I made my Broadway debut but I quickly realized if I wanted to play any roles, I’d have to constantly be working on my craft. That meant voice lessons and acting lessons and doing things that terrify me. I tell the kids I teach now, ‘Whatever scares you, that’s what you have to go after.’”
That’s advice he’s taking to heart every time he gets the phone call that he’s going to be playing the world’s most famous sponge on stage.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” he says of being the understudy for SpongeBob. “I’ve covered in shows and I’ve played my own principle roles, so I’ve had that experience. But I’ve never played a title character that people know and have an idea of who SpongeBob is and what he sounds like. From the moment I get the phone call until the curtain going up, it’s a lot of anxious nerves. Once we get into the show, it’s fine. Once I get to actually be SpongeBob and that audience accepts me as him, it’s fantastic.”
The audience’s acceptance of not only a man playing what has previously been a cartoon character has been key to the show’s success.
“We didn’t know if people would like the show or even come see it,” he said of the beginning of the run. “It’s a bit of a struggle to get people to wrap their brains around what SpongeBob can be. But seeing people buy into it and love it in the way they have, it brought comfort to me. It was like the universe was saying this is supposed to be happening right now.”
So what’s been the biggest takeaway from his experience with SpongeBob?
“First of all, working with Tina Landau has taught me so much. I got a phone call six years ago asking if I wanted to be a part of a SpongeBob SquarePants workshop for a musical and I said, ‘No that sounds like a terrible idea.’ Then my agent said Tina Landau was directing and conceiving the show and I said, ‘I’ll drop anything to work with her.’ I think what I’ve learned mostly is just how important it is to work with an open heart. I think SpongeBob teaches that about life in his perspective and optimism and his point of view. It’s taught me to think about keep pouring out love to people.”
So after 20 years of living in New York and working in the theatre, where does how does Holbrook maintain his perspective on his life, his career, and his passion for creating?
“New York is a tough place to live and you have to make money in order to be here and sometimes, that’s not happening by being on stage. I have found as long as I’m being creative, I feel like I have fulfillment. So, I teach, I’m a photographer, I choreograph, and I direct benefit performances. Diversifying what I do and having those different points of view only makes me a better actor and inspires me further. Also, I think ‘What do I do this in the first place?’ I remember the 17-year-old who moved here and how he felt, what he wanted, and the dream that was in his heart. When it gets tough, I think about that kid. That drives me.”