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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

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Blog

My Backstage Life: On Set and Offstage

Mo Brady

by Timothy Hughes

Timothy Hughes in "The Greatest Showman"

Timothy Hughes in "The Greatest Showman"

Near the end of 2017, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime when the contract was finally signed for me to play the Strong Man in a new musical movie called “The Greatest Showman”.  On the outside, I knew I was a Broadway Ensemblist with a skill set that would lend itself well to a new musical movie, but inside I was hesitant that my experience working in theater hadn’t fully prepared me for “life on set”.  Both instincts were right.

I approached the project with a tremendous level of excitement and determination to absorb as much of this other industry as possible. From my experiences alone, here are some of the lessons I learned. 

1. “Backstage” life is hard to find on set.

There is no meet and greet day on the set of a movie. People start and end their contracts on different days and I ended up shooting scenes with people who I’d never been properly introduced to. Don’t get me wrong, none of these are judgements, just differences, especially when I’ve grown accustomed to passing a large majority of a cast while climbing the stairs to my dressing room and hearing all about their lives and families. I didn’t realize how much personal information we gather during those long tech rehearsals at the theater! A movie trailer can be much more isolating than a theater dressing room. 

Also, on this set, there were no unfinished sides to set pieces. I was able to fully enter the world of “The Greatest Showman” and not have to fill in missing pieces with my imagination. I tried to never take for granted how thrilling that was for me. 

2. There will always be food on a movie set. 

It doesn’t have to be a birthday or a holiday, there will always be food. For those of you who have not had the privilege of experiencing this, there is literally always a spread of food waiting someplace and changing depending on the time of day.  They downplay their power by humbly calling themselves “craft services”, but i like to think of it as a magical buffet that never goes away. It’s as if Schmackary’s is delivered like 4 times a day to the theater and the last cookie is never being taken by that little girl in your cast. So, pace yourself. 

Timothy Hughes

Timothy Hughes

3. Filming a movie musical is a sprint.

It’s more like a marathon of short sprints. We may only have filmed two minutes of a musical number at a time, but we would do it for hours and sometimes days on end. And it is not up to you which take makes the movie, so you have to give full out, opening night intensity and perfection every time. There’s no Wednesday matinee performance to warm you up for the night. It’s a healthy reminder for me to try and perform every theater performance like Lincoln Center is taping it... because as they said on set, film is forever, but I like to hope that the memory of a great night at the theater can be too. 

4. There’s a delayed response in making a movie.

This is not to say that audience applause is essential to what we do as actors, but in theater I am accustomed to hearing an immediate response to what I do on stage. I know immediately if I land a joke or not. I meet people at the stage door right after a performance who offer (hopefully positive) feedback. With a movie, the wave of a response comes months, sometimes years later.  There is no stage door. Even during filming, if something is funny, the laughter is held in for the sake of the shot.  One of the weirdest experiences for me as a theater actor was watching my performance in the film months later. I’m not sure how to accurately describe the combination of excitement, anxiety, and lack of control that I felt when I first watched myself, but it certainly provided a very “new” experience. Also, I was experiencing this as an audience member with my family and friends.  I guess it was kind of like riding a roller coaster that was mostly a thrill and really exciting, but I may have gotten nauseous because of it. I can’t say I fully enjoyed it the first time, but I’ve gotten used to it and definitely enjoy it more now. 

5. Despite the differences, the work is the same.

It was empowering for me to realize that the work I do to approach a character, a script, and a scene was the same in film and theater. Again, that may seem obvious but I realized that the execution is what can be different, but the roots are the same.  I remember doing a scene with an actress who I wouldn’t consider a “theater actress” and I couldn’t hear a word she was saying during filming. I kept hearing my inner Mama Rose say “sing out Louise”. But her soft spoken delivery worked beautifully when I saw the movie and the back row of the movie theater could still hear her.  Lesson learned! 


This is just a small peak into what I took away from my experience filming “The Greatest Showman”. I am grateful for these lessons, the life long friends I made, and for the opportunity to bring a small piece of what we do in the Broadway community to this film and to the world! I hope you all get an opportunity to see it. 

Six BroadwayCon 2018 Panels You Can't Miss

Mo Brady

by Mo Brady

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan

Fan Tan Fantastic: Asian American Representation

Friday, 10am

"We'll be taking a look at the strides and setbacks of being Asian and On Broadway from the Asians OF Broadway - Ali Ewoldt, Raymond J. Lee, Shoba Narayan, and Telly Leung have all agreed to some and spill the Jasmine Tea and we cannot wait. Hosted by Erin Quill, author of the "Fairy Princess Diaries." Let's get loud!"

Sergio Trujillo

Sergio Trujillo

Dancing Through Life: The Transition from Dancer to Choreographer

Friday, 11am

 

Many dancers eventually make the transition into choreography. What steps do they have to take to get from the chorus line to the choreographer's studio. Panel guests include Sergio Trujillo, JoAnn M. Hunter and Lorin Latarro.

 

Benjamin Cook

Benjamin Cook

The Broadway Ensembles Panel

Friday, 12pm

What is it like to work on Broadway? Ensemble members from Hamilton, Hello, Dolly!, Mean Girls, Once On This Island, Spongebob Squarepants and more share a candid conversation about how they made it to Broadway, the unique challenges of ensemble work and why they love being ensemblists. Moderated by Mo Brady and Nikka Graff Lanzarone of The Ensemblist podcast. Panels include Benjamin Cook, Jenifer Foote, Thayne Jasperson, Grasan Kingsberry and Vasthy Mompoint.

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From Onstage to Online: Broadway Web Series Roundtable

Friday, 3pm

The creators of three popular Broadway-themed web series discuss the behind-the-scenes of creating their own work in the digital age. From mother of all theatre web series, Submissions Only, to rising sensation Turning the Tables, to the newcomers of Rachel Unraveled, audiences will have the chance to hear stories from the shooting process, a guide for how a web series gets produced, and teases for whats next from the creators. Where do you find like-minded collaborators in the Broadway community? How do you craft a unique artistic voice? Whats it like balancing a shooting schedule with performing eight shows a week? Chronicling their shows origins all the way to its reach, each set of creators will let each other in on why they got into the web series game - and where they plan to go. Guests include Rachel Ravel, Kate Weatherhead, Austin Spero, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Andrew Chappelle, Andrew Briedis, Ellyn Marie Marsh and Julia Mattison.

Bill Berloni

Bill Berloni

From Annie to Because of Winn Dixie, A Training Demonstration of Broadway’s Most Famous Canine Actors with Bill Berloni

Saturday, 3pm

Tony Honored Animal Trainer Bill Berloni will introduce some of Broadway's biggest canine stars. You will hear the story of their rescue, their training and their success. The demonstration will be followed by a Q&A. You will be able to meet some of the dogs and talk to Bill at his book signing immediately after the panel.

Come From Away

Come From Away

Movement Directors: Non-Traditional Choreography for Non-Dancers

Sunday, 2pm

You can't always tell where a scene ends and choreography begins. How do movement directors and choreographers create natural-looking movements that serve the action and emotion onstage while keeping an audience engaged throughout an entire number? Panelists include Kelly Devine, Sam Pinkleton, Noah Racey and Ann Yee.

 

 

 

 

 

"What Next? Combat The Lie."

Mo Brady

Aaron J. Albano (Cats) shares his view on the age-old question of actors after closing their show: "What next?"

Aaron Albano

Aaron Albano

In my career, I have closed five shows on Broadway (and one off-Broadway) and I can confidently say that while each show had its own unique energy and feeling to it, closing those shows had a similar, surreal feeling to them, and that feeling is never easy. Sure, as actors, our job coming to an end is a common thing, much more common than the 9-to-5er Muggle types, and therefore we should be “used to it.” But, at least in my experience, every job I’ve had required an investment of time, energy, passion, focus, etc. that consumed a large portion of my state of being; when that comes to an end, it can be very jarring and sometimes overwhelming. Whether you have six months notice or six days, the sentiment is the same: this show, which has been a huge part of your life, is coming to an end. 

Luckily at Cats, we were of the former; we were fortunate enough to find out our closing date in June of 2017, a little over six months prior. It allowed us to slowly process the idea that our show was coming to an end, and by the time we reached our final bow (or in our case, final oven exit) any bitterness or fear or general negativity had fallen away and replaced with joy and celebration. The company felt happy and at peace with the close, and while we’ll miss the closeness and camaraderie every night, we were proud of ourselves and each other for a job well done.

And then the age-old question...WHAT NEXT? 

Some have jobs to walk right into. Some start pounding that pavement right away to hopefully snag that next show. Some take a long-deserved vacation to their hometown or elsewhere (I went on a Disney cruise), to rest and rejuvenate before they inevitably have to pound said pavement when they get back to New York.

Probably the hardest part of “What next” is the self-doubt that starts to creep in in its various forms: Was that it? Am I done? Will I work again? I’ve seen it in all of us; from the young to the not-so-young, from the Broadway Debut to the Gypsy Robe Winner, from the bright-eyed Ensemblist to the jaded Tony-award-winning Principal, I’ve seen insecurity rule us all. We fall into the trap of “We are only as good as our next job” and if we don’t have one, then what are we? Do we even deserve to call ourselves actors? We realize that we had begun to define ourselves by our work, and we catch ourselves suddenly and subsequently defining ourselves by our LACK of work. And as time moves on, and the auditions keep coming, and the unemployment dries up, that devastating lie we’ve come to believe becomes paralyzing.

Aaron Albano backstage at Cats. With a real cat.

Aaron Albano backstage at Cats. With a real cat.

Now, of course I’m not there yet (hell, Cats closed five minutes ago), but I wish I could say I had the tried-and-true grand formula that protects me against this state of mind. I don’t. And I wish I could say that after all the work I’ve done I’ve grown immune to that lie. I can’t. And I can’t even echo what friends tell me, that I’ll of course work again because that’s always how it’s been (always accompanied by a smirk and an eye roll), because there is always a very real possibility that I may not work again.

 (Bleak, right?)

Here is what I can do: keep going. Combat the lie, because that is just what it is, a LIE. I am an artist, an actor, a performer, and that is truth. I know this because it is who I was designed to be. And I am still those things whether I nail or fail an audition. The fact that I create, I dance, I express, I love cannot and should not be taken away, because those are what define who I am. Our actions, not someone else’s opinion, define who we are. If/when I can achieve that, then I trust. I have faith that God/the universe/a higher power will move me in the direction I am meant to be in. I try to stay open to the path laid in front of me, and face it head-on (full-out, no marking). Hopefully it’s to a joyful, fulfilling opportunity in this business, where I can dive in and invest myself like I always have. But if it’s not, and it branches off to an unknown path away from this business that I’ve known and loved, then I will deal with that as it comes, knowing that I’ll approach it with a wholly healthy and secure heart. 

That’s what I’ll try to do anyway. Ask me again in six months.

5 Debut Questions - A Bronx Tale's Joseph Sammour

Mo Brady

Today on our blog, we welcome A Bronx Tale's newest ensemblist, Joseph Sammour, to Broadway and learn about his journey to the Great White Way:

Joseph Sammour in A Bronx Tale

Joseph Sammour in A Bronx Tale

1. What's your name and hometown?

Joseph Sammour/Ypsilanti, Michigan.

2. What is your role/track in your Broadway debut?

Crazy Mario, Doowop, and Ensemble in A Bronx Tale.

3. How did you find out you had booked the part?

My agent called me on Monday, December 11th at 10:10 AM. I was in my PJs. It was a good morning.

4. What's been the most surprising thing about preparing to perform the show?

How fast the process was. I had six days of rehearsal, and on the seventh day the stage manager called me in the morning and said "you're going on tonight, how soon can you get to the theater for a costume fitting?" I was surprised at how prepared I felt. While I was nervous, and the entire first act was a blur, I didn't make a complete fool out of myself. 

5. What are you looking forward to most about your experience on Broadway?

What I'm looking forward to most is having fun on stage with an incredible group of people. This cast is wonderful, and they've all been so supportive. Being in a show is fun. I like fun. I'm looking forward to having more of it.   

Joseph Sammour

Joseph Sammour

More of a Fiyero, Less of a Morrible

Mo Brady

by Jeremy Geller

Jeremy Geller

Jeremy Geller

Why would I sooner get cast as Morrible than Fiyero? We all know I would look
amazing in those pants. Why is the fat guy always the punch line, yet lacks the motor
skills to get the girl? What will it take for The Phantom to be 250 lbs? I’m talking to you,
Sir Andrew. Welcome to my life as a character actor. Welcome to the thoughts running
through my head.

It’s July 30, I’m sitting in my car, staring at my phone. Reading an email telling
me I’ve just lost the first Musical Theater gig I’ve had in 6 months due to budget. Well,
f*#%. Wait. 6 Months?! That’s a long time in between gigs. Nope. That’s pretty typical
for a 26-year-old character actor who can’t tap or bring his knees to his earlobes. My
belly simply wont allow it. Here comes the fork in the road. Do I wait another 6 months
for a gig? Sure. I could do that. Or I can take the advice of my friend/mentor/sensei,
Steve Rosen. “To get work. Create it.” But what?

This brings us to one of my insomnia fueled evenings (bleeding into mornings)
YouTube spirals. A video of an Australian production of Little Shop Of Horrors where
the guy cast as Seymour is also the voice of Audrey II. That got me thinking. How can I
do Little Shop as a one-man show? Will I sell a ticket to anyone other than my mother?
No. The answer is no. I can’t be the only one in this situation. A character actor out of
work. So how can I include my equally as talented friends into this show? Well, I won’t
give everything away, but I will tell you the show opens with the three of us as Urchins.
And we may or may not be wearing wigs. (We are) We play every character. And switch
almost every scene! You're gonna have to buy tickets to see the rest.

I often think "why not me?" when I see a casting notice for a “charming leading
man who gets the girl”. There have been shows recently that I’ve thought “Wow! Look
at all those shapes supporting the story!” Baby steps, right? But I have yet to see any
show make it where big people are the story. I hope this concert is a small step in that
direction. Opening peoples eyes to seeing that big people, I promise, can do it all!

Jeremy makes his dreams come true in his Three Man "Little Shop of Horrors" at Feinstein's/54 Below on January 31. Featuring Michael Buchanan (1st National Tour Book of Mormon, Cry-Baby), Jeremy Geller (The Voice of The Pillsbury Doughboy, The Great Blueness), and Max Wilcox (Glee, Gigantic). This time around Howard McGillin is our special guest for one number. Michael Buchanan is also directing the evening. 

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My First Time As A Swing

Mo Brady

by James Spencer Dean

James Spencer Dean and the Westchester Broadway Theatre cast of Annie Get Your Gun

James Spencer Dean and the Westchester Broadway Theatre cast of Annie Get Your Gun

Where does one even begin when trying to explain the life of a swing? Do you say “it’s a constant adventure” or do you admit “I had nightmares four times a week the entire month leading up to my first rehearsal?” Both of those statements would be categorized as TRUE.

In 10 weeks, I performed in roughly 40 of our 70 performances, three of my five tracks, two WILD split tracks, and I even had one mid show swing on. Also - what is a “real” swing experience? I’d love to know. Did I mention we went into tech after six days of rehearsal? How does one learn five tracks, when most of the cast hasn’t mastered their own track?

Before rehearsals started, I met up with a friend to discuss swinging, and she taught me so much. She showed me her charts and cheat sheets for her NINE tracks she covered in West Side Story. She lent me the incredible book, “Be The Best Swing On Broadway.” This book should be an assigned read in every BFA program. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s an easy read, and I learned SO much about both the biz and swinging. I did my best to prepare for the unknown. I made a color coded chart for the guys I was to cover, and I was ready with all the pens and highlighters. I reached out to the SM prior to rehearsals and got a sketch of the stage and made 100 copies so I was ready to CHART.

Even with all of the preparations, on the first day of rehearsal I was scared shitless. We all piled in a van to head out to the theatre. Rehearsal started at 10am with a short meet & greet, and we immediately started learning the score, which we finished in under two hours. Then it was time to dance. Tap shoes on. In Annie Get Your Gun? Why not?! THIS is where I learned my first lesson as a swing. Learn the choreography, and THEN chart. I was trying to do it all at once and I was not succeeding. Even if I was, I was stressed!

Day two was HARD. Too much was being thrown at me and I was on the sidelines by myself. This led to a plethora of issues. Our associate choreographer pulled me aside. She told me to calm down and breathe. I focused as time went on and she blessed me with a set of all of her charts in black and white so I could color code them how I wanted. This saved me. Once the creatives left, our dance captain kept me sane through this process. Working with him was a great joy and gift.

J. Spencer Dean

J. Spencer Dean

Tech for a swing is……fun? It was a great chance to update my charts and notes because the run was constantly being held. The bad part? No notes for me. No “you looked great at this part, Spencer!” You just hang when everyone gets into costumes and mic’s for the first time. You aren’t in the cast photos. You sit at a table in the dark theatre, and in my case, I was alone. It can feel like a thankless job, but in the long run, it’s not. I remember opening weekend, our SM came up to me and said “you’re on, both shows, for M5 next Sunday.” I instantly had something to look forward to! I split my time between watching the show from the house and practicing M5’s track backstage.

Our show was….special because the female swing was an onstage swing, and we did A LOT of set changes. Anytime a girl was out, (and let me tell you: the gravy boats on their feet caused for many an injury) our dance captain would cover that girl’s set changes, and I would cover his track. After nearly 18 swing ons in just M5’s track, I unintentionally dropped the ball on knowing all of my tracks thoroughly. Of course, this is when I get the call. “You’re on for M1.”

Three hours before curtain on a Friday night. I almost threw up! Then I realized it: my charts were at the theatre. My dance captain was an angel, and talked me through the track during our hour commute to the theatre. Thanks to his guidance, I nailed it! This was the moment I started to understand what swinging meant. I understood how to separate everything in my brain.

I learned to love swinging and the opportunity it brought to be aware of EVERYTHING going on in the show. I’ve never known a show inside and out this way. I felt like I could take anything that was being thrown at me, such as a split track where I played almost every male ensemble bit role! Aside from the occasional mid-show note from an actor (yep!) and occasional “which track am I on for?!” moment, I learned so much about being aware of my surroundings and always present onstage.

I’m anxious to swing again and continue learning. This contract introduced me to NYC and helped me transition smoothly when I moved. I’ll carry this experience and all I learned with me for the rest of my career.

The Westchester Broadway Theatre cast of Annie Get Your Gun

The Westchester Broadway Theatre cast of Annie Get Your Gun

 

 

 

Super Swings You Should Know

Mo Brady

In honor of Actors’ Equity Association’s National Swing Day, we give you a look at four incredible Broadway swings you should know:

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Graham Bowen

Not only has Graham Bowen been swinging Broadway’s The Book of Mormon since previews, he also has been upgraded to a title rarely heard of on Broadway: “Resident Dance Captain.” In addition to keeping missionaries’ taps clean and Starbucks cups dancing sharply, he also was a swing on the Bernadette Peters-led revival of Gypsy.

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Stephen Carrasco

This six-time Broadway ensemblist has swung four Broadway musicals, most recently Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was the first replacement in the Broadway company of Kinky Boots, stepping into the cast weeks after opening and eventually performing the show through its Tony-winning season. After eventually swinging with the Broadway company, he went on to dance captain Kinky Boots' original national tour.

 

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Karla Puno Garcia

Karla has been in and out of the cast of Hamilton for over two years, swinging the five female ensemble members in Andy Blankenbuehler’s highly specific choreography. Previously, she swung the ensemble performing Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography in West Side Story. She is also a prolific choreographer in her own right, having staged the Hamilton cast’s award-winning presentation at Gypsy of the Year.

 

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Sharon Moore

Talk about a true Broadway legend! Sharon Moore has been a swing with Chicago since 1997. This tale of merry murderesses is not Sharon’s first foray into this iconic style; she was also an original cast member of Fosse on Broadway.

 

The Broadway Ensembles Panel: Meet Benjamin Cook

Mo Brady

The Ensemblist is proud to be hosting and moderating the Broadway Ensembles panel at BroadwayCon on Friday, January 26 at noon. We've brought together five actors for a candid conversation about how they made it to Broadway, the unique challenges of ensemble work and why they love being ensemblists. Today, we introduce you to panelist Ben Cook.

Benjamin Cook

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Current Broadway Show: Mean Girls

Broadway Debut: Ragtime

Number of Broadway Shows: 4

Number of Original Broadway Companies: 2

Years His Broadway Career Spans: 9

Number of Movie Musicals: 1 (Newsies)

I’m stoked to talk to Ben about his experience transitioning from child actor to adult actor. It’s a transition not many people can navigate successfully, and yet Ben seems to be navigating it with flying colors. At BroadwayCon, I want to ask him about that transition, as well as how performing on Broadway in Tuck Everlasting and Billy Elliot was different performing Newsies on tour.
— Mo Brady

 

 

 

 

The Broadway Ensembles Panel: Meet Jenifer Foote

Mo Brady

The Ensemblist is proud to be hosting and moderating the Broadway Ensembles panel at BroadwayCon on Friday, January 26 at noon. We've brought together five actors for a candid conversation about how they made it to Broadway, the unique challenges of ensemble work and why they love being ensemblists. Today, we introduce you to panelist Jenifer Foote.

Jenifer Foote

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Current Broadway Show: Hello, Dolly!

Broadway Debut: Annie Get Your Gun

Number of Broadway Shows: 11

Number of Original Broadway Companies: 7

Number of Gypsy Robes Won: 2

Years Her Broadway Career Spans: 17

Jen is a true Broadway legend in my book. I mean, she was in the first Broadway show I ever saw! Not only is she one of the most sought-after performers on Broadway, she’s also an expert at swinging. I want to ask her about the difference between swinging and being in the ensemble of a musical, as well as how being on Broadway has changed in her 17 year career!
— Mo Brady

The Broadway Ensembles Panel: Meet Grasan Kingsberry

Mo Brady

The Ensemblist is proud to be hosting and moderating the Broadway Ensembles panel at BroadwayCon on Friday, January 26 at noon. We've brought together five actors for a candid conversation about how they made it to Broadway, the unique challenges of ensemble work and why they love being ensemblists. Today, we introduce you to panelist Grasan Kingsberry.

Grasan Kingsberry

Current Broadway Show: Once On This Island

Broadway Debut: Aida

Number of Broadway Shows: 11

Number of Original Broadway Companies: 9

Number of Gypsy Robes Won: 3

Years His Broadway Career Spans: 15

Grasan is a true professional. I’ve seen him in six Broadway musicals. Each time, I’m impressed with the passion and presence he brings to the stage. At BroadwayCon, I want to ask him how much of himself he has brought to the musicals he has helped create.
— Mo Brady

The Broadway Ensembles Panel: Meet Thayne Jasperson

Mo Brady

The Ensemblist is proud to be hosting and moderating the Broadway Ensembles panel at BroadwayCon on Friday, January 26 at noon. We've brought together five actors for a candid conversation about how they made it to Broadway, the unique challenges of ensemble work and why they love being ensemblists. Today, we introduce you to panelist Thayne Jasperson

Thayne Jasperson

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Current Broadway Show: Hamilton

Broadway Debut: Newsies

Number of Broadway Shows: 3

Number of Original Broadway Companies: 3

Number of Movie Musicals: 2 (High School Musical and High School Musical 2)

Talk about a sweetheart. Thayne’s one of my favorite people to watch on stage. At BroadwayCon, I want to ask him about what it’s like to understudy iconic roles like King George III and how being in a hit like Newsies or Matilda feels different from being in a SUPER hit like Hamilton.
— Mo Brady

 

 

The Broadway Ensembles Panel: Meet Vasthy Mompoint

Mo Brady

The Ensemblist is proud to be hosting and moderating the Broadway Ensembles panel at BroadwayCon on Friday, January 26 at noon. We've brought together five actors for a candid conversation about how they made it to Broadway, the unique challenges of ensemble work and why they love being ensemblists. Today, we introduce you to panelist Vasthy Mompoint.

Vasthy Mompoint

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Current Broadway Show: Spongebob Squarepants

Broadway Debut: Good Vibrations

Number of Broadway Shows: 7

Number of Original Broadway Companies: 7

Number of Gypsy Robes Won: 1

Years Her Broadway Career Spans: 13

Vasthy is a big talent with an even bigger heart. I can’t wait to hear from her about how she manages running her company Broadway Babysitters at the same time as opening a new Broadway musical AND understudying the female lead... and getting married the same year!
— Mo Brady

"Let's Start By Listening."

Mo Brady

In light of recent discussion to change the name of “The Gypsy Robe,” podcast guest Betsy Struxness shares her opinion on the name change. 

Betsy Struxness

Betsy Struxness

My first reaction to hearing the name might change was also negative. Upon reading everything, I’m leaning towards the change. And here’s why.

Ensemble members aren’t truly respected in the Broadway community the way they should be. The ensemble offers a vast array of experience as a unit. The more shows you do, the more experience you gain. With every contract we get more intelligent about the work. I recently ran into a term I fell in love with: doyen.

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The moment I read that definition I was like, THAT’S ME!

That is also the perfect definition for the recipient of the Robe.

Perhaps we can look at this as an opportunity to relieve some folks of unneeded pain in a stressful time where people are needing to be seen, and elevate the status of the ensemble at the same time. Let’s choose a new name that reflects the depth of our knowledge and the fortitude we have to have to succeed in this field.

Betsy Struxness

Betsy Struxness

Let us not staunchly dig in our heels over something painful to others just because it’s tradition to us. The ensemble is more inclusive and caring than that. We can be leaders. We ARE leaders. Let’s give our blessing and usher in a kind and loving embrace of a request from people in pain. We can do that and still be the same magnificent, hard-working, show-jumping, talented forces that accepted the Robe with grace and humility.

I will always be a proud recipient. I don’t need the name to remain the same so long as we change it to something that garners the respect befitting the person who receives it.

I agree that there are larger things to focus on. So let’s start small. Let’s start here by listening, breathing, showing compassion and growing.

This is totally kumbaya/can’t we all just get along/world peace kind of stuff, but like, I know I can’t be the only one who is tired of seeing others get hurt. I just want a far kinder world than what currently exists and we have to start somewhere.

“It Won’t Change Our Pride.”

Mo Brady

In light of recent discussion to change the name of “The Gypsy Robe,” podcast guest Jennifer Cody shares her opinion on the name change. 

Jennifer Cody winning the robe for Shrek

Jennifer Cody winning the robe for Shrek

As a proud Gypsy Robe winner, I fought against changing the name of the robe for a while. Then I read. I understand that it was never the intention of the name and that our word "gypsy" means someone who roams from show to show, etc. But there is a group of people who continue to fight persecution and this term hurts them, the Romani or Roma. 

This is a term that has been used in the theatre community for decades. Some people believe that the term gypsy started off as a derogatory term. That the producers called us that and that is where the name came from. That we were 'named' and not that we came up with it. If the Chorus member who chose the name had chosen a different name but a slur none the less like Fairy or Fag or Midget or Tranny, we would know this was a bothersome term and would probably have changed it earlier. But because we are not surrounded by many "gypsies," we've not really taken into consideration what the term means to them.

Jennifer Cody

Jennifer Cody

People have said that by using the term, we are "lifting it up" and changing its meaning. That is not our call.

We are using an ethnic slur no matter what the original intention. Taking the word “gypsy” out of the Gypsy Robe’s title won’t change what it represents. The new recipients will feel equally joyous and proud. They will just know it by another name.

Trust me. I was on the fighting end and then the more that I read, I decided I was wrong and no matter how proud I am of what it stands for and its intention… I can't even go to a Gypsy Robe ceremony without crying- it means something else to some people. And to them it is hurtful. And to celebrate the term, even though it represents pride in our industry, is celebrating a hateful slur to an entire ethnic group. Changing the name isn't going to change the amount of pride we have to wear this robe and I hope that all those "gypsies" who have won the robe and will be a part of choosing a name that will fill us with the same pride.

Please read the effect of this term on those who have been branded by it. Then make up your mind. It changed mine.

 

"We're All Different - Let's Embrace It!"

Mo Brady

by Alessia Salimbene

Most of the world knows Mean Girls from popular culture, so recreating the iconic movie is quite a feat. But with an inside look from three of the show’s actors, it seems to have been placed in the proper hands.

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When Devon Hadsell was asked about the pressure of bringing Mean Girls to the stage she said, “There’s definitely pressure that comes along with it because we want to honor the style and characters from the movie while also making it our own.” And it’s so easy to see where that pressure can come from! The popularity for the movie only grows every year, the New Yorker calling it a “classic”, with people all over the world wearing pink on Wednesdays. Everyone already has their Burn Books ready. But seeing these actors honoring their craft makes for truthful work the audience will no doubt enjoy.

Stephanie Bissonnette chimed in that “One thing that I think is so special about this show is the fact that every single member of the cast has a name. Each ensemble member has a fully developed character.”

Creating a new musical can be difficult, but this show has both stellar creators to guide them. During their recent out-of-town run in Washington D.C. Hadsell detailed the rehearsal and show process: “We normally had a five-hour rehearsal where we would receive new lines and changes in choreography that we had to apply in the show that same night.”

There’s a few things that Stephanie and Devon love about going out of town.  They both agree that getting to bond with their fellow cast members as well as meeting fans from around the country makes it all work it. As Bissonnette says, “The best part of the out of town run was bonding with the cast! We celebrated so many birthdays! We became such a tight knit family spending our free time together exploring DC.” And Hadsell loving the fans, “The best part about doing out-of-town runs is meeting fans after the show who have traveled from all over to come see the musical before it goes to Broadway!” Thousands have already enjoyed the show and thousands more to come before the show’s opening night this April.

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I also talked to them about modernizing the show in a world full of cyber-bullying and countless Regina Georges. This show has been brought into the future with the Plastics having iPhones, as Bissonnette says, “I think it really showcases how social media has only enhanced the way real ‘Mean Girls’ out there can spread their messages far and wide.”., but the classic meanness never goes away. Cast member Riza Takahashi talked about how one fan opened up to her about her own Regina George, “At the stage door in D.C., one little teenage girl was brave enough tell me about her story of her own ‘Mean Girls’ at her school. I hope this show can inspire not only the young adults but also others who see the show to be more open minded and kind to each other so that the world has less people who are like Regina George.”

Hadsell said that, “modernizing the story has been effective in my opinion because it relates to high schoolers of today’s generations. They’re able to watch the show and think, ‘Yeah, that is EXACTLY how it is at school,’ and be affected by it. I hope that fans walk away with the message that it’s okay not to vibe with someone, but you don’t have to be mean to them for that reason. Respect the fact that they’re different and allow them to live their life just like you want to live yours. That’s thebeauty of this world. We’re all different. Let’s embrace it!”.

Bissonnette says it best, “I think Mean Girls is the perfect musical for everyone out there who has ever felt like an outcast. These characters all have their moments where they are so relatable. I hope that it reignites fans to remember to surround yourself with people who support you. Furthermore I hope that everyone leaves the show and realizes that even if you’re not best friends with someone, you can be kind and coexist with them.”

Riza Takahashi has her own take on how this whirlwind experience has been: “It’s been so surreal to be a part of this whole process. To bring this iconic movie to the stage is such an honor but there’s definitely a pressure every time I step on stage in hopes of being able to give the audience a performance of their expectations and also to leave them with the feeling that only live theater can present.”

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“The Sodium Light That Masquerades as Moon.”

Mo Brady

By Mo Brady

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It happened again. I found a verse of a Broadway musical that I can’t stop thinking about. This stanza of music is the first thing I think in the morning and stays with me through the day. It’s been haunting me in the most delicious way. 

The moment in question is the final verse of The Band’s Visit’s “Answer Me.” Composer David Yazbek has crafted a simple melody with truthful lyrics that pierce the heart with their specificity. The metaphors of “my ears are thirsty” and “the sodium light that masquerades as moon” are simultaneously singular to the circumstances but completely universal. 

In performance, what makes this song so savory is its position in The Band’s Visit. After eighty minutes of simple, humorous and introspective storytelling, “Answer Me” sneaks up on the audience. It’s a lullaby for lovers sung long after midnight and therefore perfectly placed in the libretto. The song builds from virtual silence to a glorious, full-boded choir right before our very eyes (and ears). 

As the Telephone Guy, Adam Kantor begins his vocals with an unbelievable simplicity. Up until this point in the show, his character has barely spoken. However, he has stood onstage for large swaths of the show, starring intensely with slumped shoulders at a public telephone that refuses to ring. And then at the top of “Answer Me” and for the first time in the show, he sings. 

For a full minute, his voice is low and pure as he croons with skilled simplicity. And then he thrills us with his upper register, seamlessly gliding between head and chest voice. His lines are a masterclass in vocal technique. If the song was solely his it would be a gem, sung time and again at cabarets and in auditions for years to come. However, it turns from gem into masterpiece by incorporating the ensemble for the final verse. 

After listening to Kantor’s elegant vocals for three minutes, it’s hard to imagine another voice exists with such clarity. But then, another equally pure voice sneaks in. Jonathan Raviv soars with his solo vocal line “In my dreams my beloved lies beside me.” More actors begin to join him, each lost in their own dreamstate. With a voice as smooth as honey butter, Sharone Sayegh sings “Only you when the sun is gone” as George Abud’s voice floats above her. As the full cast enters the stage to join one by one, each voice feels more glorious than the last. 

With a building crash of cymbals Kantor takes the lead vocals for the song’s final lines, now backed in the harmony by the full cast for two glorious lines. The cast stands transfixed by something high in the sky above the audience’s heads. And the audience stares transfixed in them, basking in the warmth of the music. 

And then, just as quickly as it appeared, the characters disembark the stage. The moment was so fleeting, it feels as though it could have been a mirage. And yet, it’s a moment of storytelling I will not soon forget. 

Playing a Texture in The Band's Visit

Mo Brady

BY MO BRADY

Often when we mention an ensemble, we talk about the energy they bring to a musical. In a traditional Broadway musical, we look to an unnamed ensemble of non-specific personalities to either provide support for the protagonist’s journey or to act as an obstacle for the leading characters. While these kinds of ensembles have a point of view, it is usually a singular purpose shared by the entire supporting cast. 

The Broadway cast of The Band's Visit

The Broadway cast of The Band's Visit

In The Band’s Visit, the acting company works as an ensemble not to provide support or obstacles but to provide context. What is so successful about the ensemble work in The Band’s Visit is not the ways they interact with the lead characters, but the texture they give to the environment. 

One of the incredible ways The Band’s Visit envelops its audience is by featuring its musicianship. While the show is definitely a musical, there are long stretches of time without a traditional theatre song. And yet, the musicians spend time a lot of time on stage, not as actors commenting on the action but as people in the story. The four onstage musicians who play members of the band, Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Harvey Valdez and Garo Yellin, are presences in the events of the show even without speaking lines. And yet, when they perform virtuosic solos on their instruments they feel just as vital to the show as the actors who do have lines. 

Perfectly balancing the metaphorical tightrope between actor and musician is George Abud as Camal. While he is one of the actors credited with a specific character in book scenes, he is also one of the show’s most heavily featured musicians. With haunting eyes and a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips, he seamlessly flows from actor to musician in a way that defies description. Whether he’s playing a violin solo or simply staring into space, It’s a performance that can be best defined as a “presence.”

The Broadway cast of The Band's Visit

The Broadway cast of The Band's Visit

Often when a show employs its performers as a non-traditional ensemble, it uses some sort of framing device to justify it. We saw this concept used beautiful in this season’s Once On This Island, where audiences enter the theatre to find a stage of actors playing Haitians who will eventually tell the story of Ti Moune. But in The Band’s Visit, no such device is needed. Since all of the actors play featured roles, we believe them as real inhabitants of Beit Hatikva no matter the character. 

Moments after Andrew Polk as Avrum brings down the house with his performance of “The Beat of Your Heart,” he transforms into a silent and unassuming cashier. In the same scene, Bill Army and Sharone Sayegh play two judgmental restaurant customers who are completely different from their comedically ostentatious characters of Zelger and Anna. Similar shape shifting occurs from cast members Rachel Prather, Jonathan Raviv and Kristen Sieh in their various roles both large and small. 

This duality is perhaps embodied most beautifully by Adam Kantor as Telephone Guy. For the majority of the show he silently stands onstage, eagerly awaiting the ring of a public telephone. And yet, when he finally gets his moment to emote in the haunting beautiful “Answer Me,” we are already deeply invested in his story. While almost every performer on the show gets a moment to stand downstage center, they also help to create the beautiful texture of The Band’s Visit.

The Broadway cast of The Band's Visit

The Broadway cast of The Band's Visit

What is a Vacation Swing?

Mo Brady

Broadway superstar Michael Fatica (Groundhog Day, Newsies, Matilda, She Loves Me) shares his experience of joining A Bronx Tale as a vacation swing.

Michael Fatica backstage at A Bronx Tale

Michael Fatica backstage at A Bronx Tale

Many of you Ensemblist blog readers are probably privy to what being a Swing in a Broadway Show means. For those who might not, I’m sure you have experienced opening your Playbill before your chosen show starts, only to have a little white piece of paper fall out onto your lap. On this paper, it most likely lists that “the role of Blahblah” or “the roles usually played by Yadayada” will be played by SoAndSo. This is one of the ways a show will let the audience know that an understudy or a swing is in the show in place of the actor or actress who normally plays the role. A swing’s job is to learn all of the ensemble roles in the show, and possibly some principal or supporting characters, and to be ready to perform them at any time. A swing sometimes receives a week’s notice or more, but many times it is no less than a few hours, and even during the show if catastrophe strikes. 

Now, picture this. The holidays are over, your Broadway show is a hit, and half the company is ready to take a week off in order to recharge! Rather than working the show’s swings to the bone and leaving the rest of the company uncovered, a company will often hire a “Vacation Swing." This new cast member will be tasked to first learn the role of whichever cast member is on vacation, and then learn additional roles as well so as to increase the amount of coverage available in the building at all times.  It is a fast and furious job, with this actor many times having to learn the show from the ground up in as little as a few days or a week. 

Michael Fatica in A Bronx Tale as “Slick” with Rory Max Kaplan, who plays “Handsome Nick”

Michael Fatica in A Bronx Tale as “Slick” with Rory Max Kaplan, who plays “Handsome Nick”

I just finished my first two weeks as a new Vacation Swing for A Bronx Tale on Broadway, covering the four enormously talented men called the “Doo Wops." I had a week to learn the show, which included two tracks and one additional vocal track, the full track which I would learn the second week. I’m no stranger to swinging, having swung Newsies on Broadway for 2 1/2 Years, but I will admit that it has been a few years since then and the stress floods back just like it did the first time. The challenge for me in this particular show is the fact that these Doo Wop characters sing the entire time in tight, four-part, exposed harmony. The 4 current cast members are awesome musicians and blend together like a well-oiled machine, and learning these vocal parts well enough to jump in required constant attachment to my Earbuds (sorry to those strangers listening to me hum quietly on the subway!). 

On top of the vocals, you’ve got to learn the movement, blocking, costume quick change spots, where to stand to catch Brittany Conigatti as she JUMPS off of a bar in the dark, and know it well enough to be comfortable enough onstage to actually play a character and be present with your fellow actors. I have to give a HUGE shoutout to the show's incredible(ly patient) Dance Captains, Music Department and Stage Management team, for being over prepared and literally always knowing the answer to any question I had. I did get to go on for the character of Slick for the final four shows of the week, and the Bronx Tale company and crew were champion helpers and nothing but supportive.

The first show in this situation always feels like you just completed the Ice Bucket Challenge: you’re a little numb, regretting a lot of things you just did, but also carry a sense of accomplishment.  Each show gets a little easier, and because it’s all so new, the fun part is discovering new moments with another actor onstage, or feeling like you’ve got a better handle on the style of that swing snap step that you were struggling to make look “cool” the day before.  The Bronx has been a really great neighborhood to be in for the past few weeks. I’ll be back onstage next week and can’t wait!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, back to my ear buds. There are a lot of Oo’s and Aah’s to learn.

 

Michael Fatica in rehearsal for A Bronx Tale with dance captain Brittany Conigatti

Michael Fatica in rehearsal for A Bronx Tale with dance captain Brittany Conigatti

5 Debut Questions - Meet Julia McLellan

Mo Brady

Today on our blog, we welcome Kinky Boots's newest ensemblist, Julia McLellan, to Broadway and learn about her journey to the Great White Way:

Julia McLellan in Kinky Boots

Julia McLellan in Kinky Boots

1. What is your name and hometown?

Julia McLellan. Bass River, Nova Scotia, Canada.

2. What is your role/track in your Broadway debut?

Swing in Kinky Boots

3. How did you find out you had booked the part?

My history with Kinky Boots has been a long one, involving a couple different companies. I was a part of the Toronto production of the show in 2015 and joined the 1st National Tour in 2016. After heading home to Canada for a few months, I got the call that I was joining the Broadway company on Christmas Day. It’s one of those shows that is never boring, always fulfilling and such a blast, so I was over joyed that my time in the Price & Son factory wasn’t over!

4. What's been the most surprising thing about preparing to perform the show?

I think the most surprising thing about preparing to join the Broadway company has been the absolute pleasure of getting to see the show with so many original cast members in it. The show has so much history and it’s been really special to watch it through the eyes and hearts of some of the people who created these roles.

5. What are you looking forward to most about your experience on Broadway?

I’m incredibly excited to be here in New York making my Broadway debut. I think I’m most excited for all the unparalleled resources this city has for our craft. I’m excited to learn from the beautiful artists in my company, as well as taking classes, being a part of rehearsals and immersing myself in the Broadway community.

Julia McLellan

Julia McLellan

"The Show Hit A Very Special Stride."

Mo Brady

Escape to Margaritaville ensemblist Justin Mortelliti updates us on how the show changed during its multiple pre-Broadway tryouts leading up to its New York City debut this winter.

Justin Mortelliti (fourth from left) with the cast of Escape to Margaritaville

Justin Mortelliti (fourth from left) with the cast of Escape to Margaritaville

After the successful run in La Jolla it was announced that our show would have a three city tour before opening on Broadway in 2018. After a month of rehearsals in NYC we kicked off the tour in New Orleans followed by Houston and Chicago. Of course we all expected small changes, fine tuning and re-writes, as we made new discoveries in the show and as it grew to become what it was meant to be.

But what the cast didn’t realize is how the show would grow and change for us personally. On a deeper level. There’s a kind of magic that comes when you have night after night of packed houses filled with thousands of Parrot Heads (the term for the die hard Jimmy Buffett fans). Feeling that energy, absorbing it into your character and letting it feed, energize and evolve your performance into something new, something you hadn’t planned, was the surprise. Everyone, from the ensemble to the principals, felt this change happen along the journey from New Orleans to Chicago. Our characters grew in spirit, becoming even more energized and fully realized. Not to mention the bonding that happens when a cast goes on the road together. It turned that stage into one big playground.

The show felt like it hit a very special stride as we all came to know the world of the ‘Parrot Head’, including all of them into our little island world onstage. It’s a special thing, this show, and the world of Jimmy Buffett. And I think everyone is going to enjoy a little Escape... to Margaritaville.

Justin Mortelliti with the cast of Escape to Margaritaville

Justin Mortelliti with the cast of Escape to Margaritaville