by Mo Brady
"What's the best way for a musical to use their ensemble? It turns out there’s no clear, consistent answer. Two new Broadway musicals this season, Come From Away and Miss Saigon, are using their ensembles in very different ways, but each with remarkable success."
"Come From Away takes the current catch phrase “ensemble of principals” and turns it on its head. While the show features a 12-person ensemble cast, every actor is response for moving the action of the story forward. In the show’s minimalist staging, the dozen actors each take on multiple characters that audiences can follow through the events of the story."
"But while all twelve actors are heavily featured, there is rarely a moment when an actor isn’t relying on the others. The full company stays onstage during the entire 100 minute show, moving to chairs on the sides or back of the stage in moments when they aren’t included in the action. Even in the show's most memorable solo Beverley (played by Jenn Colella) is flanked physically and vocally by the rest of the female cast."
"On the complete other end of the ensemble-use spectrum is Miss Saigon. At its core, the show is essentially a five-hander - most of the action taking place between Kim, Chris, John, Ellen and the Engineer. With one of the largest ensembles currently on Broadway (29 onstage) in one of the Great White Way’s largest theatres (The Broadway Theatre), one could imagine that supporting cast of Miss Saigon would get swallowed up by the immensity of the production. But instead of relying on them as storytellers, the show successfully uses the ensemble to create the world around the lead characters."
"In the 'Dreamland' sequence, you could watch any number of the women in the bar and see a distinct point of view. When the entire male ensemble stands onstage for the Act II opener 'Bui Doi,' each face looks engaged and focused on the story. 'Kim’s Nightmare' ends with the Vietnamese ensemble facing directly downstage, each actor showing a very different, very personal way of processing grief. Even when they are not featured with lines or solos, the ensemble’s specificity is integral to the clarity of the storytelling."
"In The Ensemblist’s second season, 'The History of the Ensemblist,' we looked at how the nine Pulitzer prize-winning musicals have used their casts to tell the plot of each show. What we found was each of these nine shows has their own way to use the ensemble, whether it be a six member cast in Next to Normal or a united voice of opinions in Of Thee I Sing. Not every Pulitzer winning musical uses its ensemble equally, but they all rely on that ensemble to tell their stories. And that, we would argue, that is what makes a truly great musical."
"Both Come From Away and Miss Saigon found wildly different, but equally effective, ways to use their ensembles this season. Each actor on stage had a reason for being there beyond stage pictures or vocal harmonies - they were all vital in telling the story."
Mo Brady is co-creator and host of The Ensemblist podcast.