That old Broadway dictum – Never share a stage with fuchsia sea anemones – is blown to smithereens when Gavin Lee taps his way through “I’m Not A Loser,” the gleeful 11 o’clock number of Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants musical that all but guaranteed Lee his Tony Award nomination this year for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. An homage to Broadway panache, cartoon anarchy and good old four-legged tap dancing, “I’m Not A Loser” is, night after night, capped by the kind of sustained applause that combines Bravo! with What Was That?

And that’s right, four-legged. Lee, in top hat and tails cleverly outfitted by designer David Zinn with an extra pair of legs and in a just-right shade of (perfectly described) celadon, plays Squidward Q. Tentacles, the grouchy but starry-eyed cephalopod forever carping at the underwater denizens of Bikini Bottom.

Lee, a British actor whose Broadway performance as Bert in Mary Poppins was Tony-nominated in 2007, is probably best known to American TV audiences for his recurring role as the deadly Alan Woodford on USA Network’s White Collar.

Here, Lee tells Deadline how an actor goes about playing a squid, tap dances in quadruped fashion and gets a cartoon voice just right by being just a little off.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Deadline: So how did Squidward Q. Tentacles come into your life? And I’m giggling just saying that.

Gavin Lee: Well, he wasn’t in my life before I got the audition. I didn’t really watch SpongeBob. But about three years ago they were doing a six-week workshop, one of many readings and workshops that were done over the previous, say, seven years. BMI was trying to see whether it could make SpongeBob into a musical, and the wonderful director Tina Landau had this vision and had been granted by Nickelodeon to do these workshops and develop it. I binge-watched about eight episodes of SpongeBob, and recorded Rodger Bumpass, who does the Squidward voice on the cartoon, onto my phone, and listened to him a lot and tried to adapt his voice into the scripts I was being sent.

What was great was, as soon as I walked in the room, Tina said, “First of all, I’m not expecting you do a carbon copy of the cartoon, and I don’t want you to be the cartoon. I want these characters to be fully-fleshed human versions of the cartoon.” She said that we’d take the DNA of these cartoon characters and try to flesh them out into our own human versions. As an actor who’s not an impressionist, that made me very relieved. That, and the fact that we weren’t going to be zipped up in big Squidward and SpongeBob costumes.

Deadline: Your number “I’m Not A Loser” [written by indie rockers They Might Be Giants] is one of the high points of the show – the audience just goes nuts.

Lee: The arc of my story that Kyle Jarrow wrote is, you’re just waiting for Squidward, poor old downtrodden Squidward, to get a chance to show off. And three times, in act one and then in act two, he gets shut down. As soon as he sings one note of a song someone comes in and shuts him down. So by the time he finally gets to sing in act two you can tell the audience is just gagging for Squidward to finally express himself. And then of course Chris Gattelli has choreographed such a brilliant number that just couldn’t be more Broadway if you dumped 1,000 sequins on my head. We have a chorus line of bright pink sea anemones. What else could you look for in a Broadway cabaret scene?

I love it when we start the kick line and they bring down my name in lights, Squidward! With an exclamation point. I mean, it’s genius that it drops in as we do a kick line. It’s just so well-choreographed and staged that the audience just goes wild. And I’m the lucky guy who gets to put on those tap shoes. And those extra legs.

Deadline: Was the tap dancing always meant to be part of the show, or was it something tailored around you? 

Lee: Squidward was always going to go into a big old Broadway tap routine. But when we got into rehearsals, obviously Chris Gattelli had no experience of tapping with four tap shoes, as I didn’t. He was very gracious and generous in saying, “Gavin, go off into a rehearsal room with those legs on and work out what the heck you can do with an two extra tap shoes stuck onto the back of your own tap shoes.” I’d tapped for years, and most of the shows I’ve been in I’ve done tapping, but obviously I never had the challenge of trying to make four noises instead of two. So I worked things out in front of the mirror, and then I came back to Chris, and we’d tweak it, look at it, change it. And together we developed the tap solo break in the middle of the number, and it went from there. So it was a collaborative-type thing. Obviously it’s Chris’s genius, the whole number is his genius. He’s been very generous to me, working out what worked best on my legs.

[See a bit of Lee’s four-legged tap dance at about the 0:47 mark here]:

Deadline: And so are we actually hearing four distinct taps?

Lee: Yeah, I’m trying my best to make four noises. And it’s hard, but I learned that to make those back legs work, you just have to be more sloppy with your dance style. Having loose ankles, but also having the tension there to make the noises with the extra [taps]. You want them to kind of bounce onto the floor after you’ve made the [initial] noise, like immediately afterwards. I found that being kind of sloppy with your taps makes all that extra noise.

Deadline: Who’d have thought?

Lee: It’s something completely new to me, and quite fun. I’ve been able to really work it and master making those extra sounds.

Deadline: Let’s talk about the voice. You said you don’t imitate [cartoon voice actor] Rodger Bumpass, but you certainly capture him.

Lee: If you watch the cartoons, SpongeBob, Squidward, Patrick, Mr. Krabs, the voices are all so extreme. It’s a kids’ TV cartoon. And Tina very rightly and quickly said, “An audience will not want to hear that SpongeBob voice or that Squidward voice for two-and-a-half hours.” It would have been grating, and anyway she was trying to make us human.

At points [in the musical] we get quite emotional or serious, and you don’t want to hear that in the nasal Squidward voice. So Tina would say in rehearsals, “Okay, for this line kind of drop out of the Squidward voice. I want to hear you, I want to hear your emotions coming through.” It sounds a bit deep – bottom line, I’m a squid and he’s a sponge, and so you can’t get that deep. But Tina would say, “We do want to go there and find the heart. There needs to be a human element so that the audience can connect to your story line.”

Deadline: I hear bits of Paul Lynde in the voice, I hear bits of Charles Nelson Reilly. There’s a whole sort of history behind that voice.

Lee: That’s exactly right. Rodger, the cartoon voice, has an ability to place the voice somewhere so high up in his nasal passage that it’s almost coming out of his eyes. I was like, Well, I can’t keep that up, and so I kind of brought it down. And you don’t want it to get too camp. Squidward’s not gay, necessarily. I mean, maybe Squidward living in his little house, not having any friends, maybe that is his whole complex. A sexual thing. But again, he’s a squid, and SpongeBob is a sponge. We’re not going there.

But I love that you said Paul Lynde. It’s so easy with that sort of voice and these lines to go into a Paul Lynde-from-Bewitched type thing, just do a dastardly kind of voice, which I love, but then again, I don’t want to just sound like that all the time. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, he’s doing Paul Lynde,” even though Paul Lynde’s voice was just one of the best voices to listen to, just so funny…You can pick out a lot of characters from various TV shows or musicals and say, Yeah, that’s that character, the grumpy neighbor, the sarcastic friend. [Squidward] is definitely that role, which is so much fun to play in such a happy, upbeat, bright, colorful musical. It’s nice to be the one character who comes on and puts a big thumbs-down on everything.

Gavin Lee
Nathan Johnson/TodayTix

Deadline: Which makes it all the more satisfying when he finally gets his big number.

Lee: Exactly. When you finally see me smile. I’m pulling the sides of my mouth down for the whole show, and then when I think my dreams are coming true, and I’m in the spotlight, and I’ve got a chorus line of sea anemones behind me, it’s so nice, tap dancing and smiling with a spotlight on you.

And then of course it’s genius that instantly, when that number ends and the chorus disappears, I’m left back on my own. He’s back to being grumpy old Squidward. After getting, hopefully, fantastic applause at the end of the number, they see that I’m left alone, and if I can hear a sympathetic “ah,” or sympathetic applause, then I know I’ve managed to switch the audience from absolute joy to absolute pity. It was all a dream, and Squidward’s back to square one.

Deadline: Often when a movie or a play works for both children and adults, it’s because there are double meanings, naughty references or political references that kids don’t get but the parents do. That’s not really the case with this production. So why does SpongeBob work?

Lee: On a Wednesday matinee we usually have school kids, but then in the front row I’ll see two 80-year-old women, with their little handbags on their laps, and their Playbills. And you’re like, What made you come to this? And they’re having the time of their lives. We are connecting with 80-year-olds, how fantastic!

And as you say, it’s not that we’re sneakily doing adult humor, like a Simpsons or a Family Guy. It’s just intelligent family humor. From day one Nickelodeon said to Tina and Kyle, “The only thing we don’t want is toilet humor.” In the TV show there’s often like, farting and things like that. But Nickelodeon said ”For this we don’t want to go down that road.”

And they said that by the end of the two-hour show they don’t want anything to have changed [within the SpongeBob universe]. So by the end of our show, the community couldn’t have been devastated by Mount Humongous, and SpongeBob couldn’t have been promoted to Manager [of the Krusty Krab], and Squidward couldn’t have actually become a Broadway star. Whatever happened, by the end of the show it has to be back to normal.

Deadline: So, why does it work?

Lee: I think it’s the cleverness of the script, and the visual cleverness, of having imagination with the props and the sets. To represent boulders tumbling down from the mountain we have these Rube Goldberg machines on the side of the auditorium that basically spit out these, like, soccer balls. At one point Larry the Lobster, he’s supposed to be in the Army or the police, so he’s got a weapon, but the weapon is blatantly a stick with a tiny pink jellyfish on the end of it. And SpongeBob goes, “Is that a jellyfish on a stick?” And Larry says, “Don’t make me zap you, bro.” We don’t need a gun in a SpongeBob musical.