Earlier this month, Lewis Cornay had his final date as SpongeBob SquarePants in the UK Premiere of The SpongeBob Musical, having toured the UK with the show. The musical was choreographed by Fabian Aloise and directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, and Lewis worked alongside a cast including Irfan Damani and Chrissie Bhima, and was a guest performer with The SpongeBob Musical at West End Live and on Blue Peter. Last year, Lewis was in the cast of Whistle Down the Wind at The Watermill Theatre as Amos for his second actor-musician role, and previously played Arpad Laszlo in the Christmas musical She Loves Me at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. For his return to stage after the pandemic closed theatres, Lewis played John in the two-handed musical John and Jen opposite Rachel Tucker as Jen, both in London and in New York. As well as being an actor, Lewis has recently had his own production Daddy Issues premiere in October last year at Seven Dials Playhouse, and he is currently working on two further writing projects. Lewis answers our questions about playing SpongeBob SquarePants on tour in the UK premiere of The SpongeBob Musical, being in the two-handed musical John and Jen with Rachel Tucker and having his show Daddy Issues open at Seven Dials Playhouse last year.
How was it getting into character as SpongeBob SquarePants in the recent UK Tour of The SpongeBob Musical and what was he like to play?
What I absolutely love about SpongeBob is his chronic sense of optimism. Getting to inhabit that mindset on a daily basis was a real joy. On a practical level I had to treat the job a bit like I was an athlete. Physically and vocally it’s incredibly demanding, so I’d try and make sure my life outside the show would help rather than hinder. I drunk about a million litres of water every day and did lots of yoga and stretching!
What was it like being part of the UK premiere production and working with the rest of the cast?
The best thing about being in a UK premiere is that you have the chance to put your own spin on the role. It meant that I could be truly collaborative with the creative team and company when developing the jokes and little nuances of the character. Our choreographer, Fabian Aloise, would be really helpful in working out how the characters would move and interact in this world, which ultimately would then help with acting choices. It was really interesting to work out how to make the gags land with British audiences and I relished the freedom I was given by our director Tara Overfield-Wilkinson to experiment with different ideas. I felt very supported by the rest of the cast, and in rehearsals you could really feel that joy in getting to be your most childlike, silly self. Irfan Damani, who played Patrick Star, and Chrissie Bhima (Sandy Cheeks) were the best team and we had lots of fun.
How was it learning the musical numbers and did you have a favourite song to perform?
The musical numbers are actually more complex than I originally assumed. The harmonies are so intricate and I think it pays off in the show. (Just a) Simple Sponge was probably my favourite to perform because it was the biggest challenge vocally. It felt like a culmination of a lot of skills I’ve been working towards in my voice for a while, so I felt lucky to get to sing it every day. Lucky and terrified.
Was there anything that drew you to the role of SpongeBob and what was it like finding out you’d booked the lead character?
What drew me was the depth. I know that sounds strange when talking about this show, but from the bits I saw from Broadway I loved that they’d taken something that could just be two dimensional (if you’ll pardon the pun) and gave it a proper, dramaturgical edge. Comedy has always been something I’ve loved doing but I’ve never done something so slapstick and so that was a big draw.
It was a reasonably long process to get the role and I actually assumed I hadn’t got it, so I was shocked more than anything when I got the call! Then I was excited. Then I was like ‘Oh no. Oh God no. I have to actually be good at this’.
How did you find the experience performing at West End Live and on Blue Peter?
Magical! To get a Blue Peter badge and see myself on camera was so wild to me and I’m so happy with the work we all did. West End Live was also super cool, one of the scariest things I’ve done but I felt like rockstar!
What do you think you will miss most about playing SpongeBob SquarePants and touring with the production?
I’ll miss the ATTENTION. Joking. Maybe. Who knows when I’ll get to be so stupid on stage again, so I’ll miss that. I’ll also really miss the backstage fun with the company we had throughout the tour. I won’t lie, touring and travelling can be very exhausting but it’s the people that make it all worth it. Oh, and the brilliant audiences, of course!!
Last year, you played Amos in Whistle Down the Wind at The Watermill Theatre, how was this?
Really interesting! The Watermill had been on my list for a while so I was thrilled to get to work there. It was my second actor-musician show but far more intense than the work I’d done before, so I really got to work on my guitar skills. The character was also a complete opposite to me – a womanising, angry teen who rides a motorbike. I always enjoy the challenge of stepping into somebody else’s shoes.
What was it like performing at The Watermill Theatre and being directed by Tom Jackson Greaves?
The Watermill is like a beautiful and chaotic family! Everyone works together and it really is a creative little community. I respect how much they always push themselves to break the mould of what audiences might expect. And the same goes with Tom, he created a production that was completely authentic to him and really expanded the original story.
How was your time playing Arpad Laszlo in the Christmas musical She Loves Me at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield?
One of my favourite jobs ever! Arpad was good training for SpongeBob in many ways – lots of optimism. The cast were absolutely fantastic and I loved my time off stage as much as on. The calibre of actors also made me feel like I really had to up my game!
Rob Hastie is a total visionary and getting to work with him taught me a lot about trusting my instincts as an actor. Actually, I’d like to work at the Crucible every year for the rest of my life please.
Can you tell us about working on John and Jen at Southwark Playhouse in 2021 and how did you prepare for playing John?
It was a bit of a dream come true. I had the chance to play all the ages from six to 18 years old and delve into the tricky parts of growing up. I’d say we have some similarities but there were a lot of differences between me and John and I relished the chance to play that gap. I researched as much as I could about the time period before rehearsals and read the script multiple times just to get a real understanding of the subtext of the scenes. It was also my first job out of COVID so it felt a bit like relearning my process. Up to this point I hadn’t played a role of this magnitude so I wanted to be as prepared as possible!
What was it like starring alongside Rachel Tucker as Jen, and how was it working on a two-handed musical?
She’s a massive diva and made my life hell. KIDDING. Rachel is the most genuine, collaborative actor I’ve ever worked with and I felt such a connection with her from the moment I auditioned. In real life we have that brother/sister relationship and it always felt on stage like we were just playing around. I think the way we approach work is quite similar, in that it’s based on instinct and listening. Getting to take the production to New York a year on, it was so special to get to feel connected on stage again. Also, it’s Rachel Tucker, I will never get bored of hearing that voice.
Your own production Daddy Issues premiered at Seven Dials Playhouse in October 2022 starring Bebe Cave, what was the script like to write and how was it seeing it come together into a full production?
This was very exciting. It has always been a bit of pipe dream to have my work staged in any capacity, so to have it starring Bebe with brilliant direction from Jane Moriarty was beyond anything I could’ve hoped for. I feel like this is becoming a buzz-word for this interview but the process was very COLLABORATIVE. I loved that I could write something and five minutes later Bebe would be doing it in front of me. The immediacy of knowing whether something works or not was thrilling. There’s no better feeling than when you hear the audience relate to something you’ve written. Either through laughter or tears. It feels incredibly personal.
How long were you working on Daddy Issues and can you tell us about the show?
It’s hard to measure how long it took because it started during COVID, when I had a meeting with producer, Liam Gartland, who wanted a dark comedy about suicide prevention. I got some drafts done in a couple of months and then put it to bed. It wasn’t then until a year later we were programmed and I spent the whole summer ferociously writing new drafts of the script. My process is basically writing as much as I possibly can and then cutting away to find the good stuff. The show follows Imi on the evening of Halloween having a breakdown on Instagram Live as she hosts a wake for her recently deceased puppy, Roger. Throughout the piece she starts having conversations with her father who passed away a year ago today from suicide. It’s a show about shame and guilt and the hinterland that those suffering with grief are placed in.
Where does your love of acting and writing come from and how did you get into both?
They’ve always been interlinked for me. It sounds very pretentious but I see myself as a storyteller more than anything. Sometimes that means I’m on stage or camera and other times that means I’m writing the story myself. As an only child, my favourite thing was to write stories and put on shows for my parents. I wish I still had the imagination I had as a child. I sometimes think being a creative is about trying to connect with that inner child and letting it free!
What are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
I sadly haven’t been able to see too much this year because of the tour but now I’m back I have lots booked. I’m really looking forward to seeing The Little Big Things. I find it SO inspiring and refreshing to see a new British musical staged on such a big level. I actually think we’re in an exciting time for new British musical theatre. For example, Operation Mincemeat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 42 Balloons and many more shows have really been inspiring to see as a writer. Standing at the Sky’s Edge hit me hard, probably one of my favourites of all time. Still can’t stop thinking about it. Also Bloody Elle at Soho Theatre was so gloriously raw and authentic – catch it in the West End at the end of this month!
How do you like to spend your free time?
Living in existential dread about the meaning of it all and where I’m going to end up next???
Do you have any acting or writing projects coming up that you can share and what are you hoping the rest of the year brings you?
I’m working on two writing projects, neither are commissions and just work that I believe in – but both very early stages. One of the pieces was actually selected as a finalist for the wonderful initiative – BEAM this year, but I couldn’t make it due to Sponge commitments! I’m enjoying a nice little break from acting at the moment but I have a feeling the next job will be very different from SpongeBob and that excites me.
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