With the Tony nominations on everyone’s mind, there are renewed calls among theater professionals to add a “Best Ensemble” award to those handed out honoring Broadway’s best and brightest. It can be easy to underestimate an ensemble from a distance, but anyone who’s spent any time on stage will tell you that ensembles are the spines of the shows they inhabit. Without them, the show collapses on the floor.
We’ve certainly all been there and almost everyone who has spent some time on stage has lived through the adolescent disappointment and angst that comes from being cast in the ensemble or chorus in their high school show. Frequently misunderstood as supernumerary, the ensemble is essential for storytelling in the theater. They are often required to slip in and out of scenes and take on a variety of roles to support the action and make the production achieve the highest levels of success possible.
Traditional shows feature this main cast model in which a few characters and their associated plots are borne on the backs of myriad singers, dancers, and actors. More and more shows are moving towards a truly ensemble feel in which no single character stands out as lead. Looking at shows like 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or Come From Away, it’s difficult to say whose story it is. Conversely, with a more traditional book musical like Hello Dolly! it’s abundantly clear. Ensembles extend beyond musical theater, of course, and in plays the definition of lead, supporting, and ensemble can be even more difficult to draw. Who is the lead in Twelve Angry Men?
It is terribly heartbreaking to see ensemble work regularly diminished or belittled in the popular understanding of theater. The stereotypical stage parent complaining about his or her child’s role as “just a chorus member” is a popular trope across the country. When you meet these hardworking professionals, you realize just how far off from reality that image is. These men and women are some of the most talented, versatile, hardworking and longest-lived actors in the world. True, you might not know their names as readily, might not see them on the marquee above the title, but honestly many of them prefer it that way. This is acting without the celebrity. Ensemble work is finely honed craft.
There is precedent for this award. SAG/AFTRA honors the ensembles of nominated film and television productions, which is probably incredibly meaningful as it is voted upon by fellow actors. It would be interesting for the Tony Awards to employ a similar method by inviting all actors currently in Broadway shows to vote for the best ensemble or for Actors’ Equity to do so amongst its membership.
When you see your next show, I suggest you employ a little trick I use. Pick a few moments during the show and watch the ensemble work. Instead of watching the main character speak, watch the people around them react. Instead of watching the front of the dance, look off to the side. The greater level of consistency and support, the more astonishing the work, the greater the ensemble. I bet you won’t find a weak link in any ensemble on Broadway or BroadwayHD. All the more reason their work should be honored.