by Mo Brady
I've been thinking about the most iconic ensemble roles in Broadway history. Roles that ask the performers who play them to both shine in the spotlight and then seamless step back into an ensemble. One of the most valuable skills a Broadway ensemblist can have is the ability to be equally vital to the storytelling at downstage center as they are upstage left at 20, barely onstage from the wings. While there are certainly many great small roles in the musical theatre canon, most these don't also require actors to be able to play as part of a cohesive ensemble as well.
So I decided to make my own list of “The Seven Most Iconic Ensemble Roles in Broadway History.” Why seven? Because odd numbers are good for listicles. I could have made a list of 17 roles or 71 roles, but I thought the number seven had some punch. I asked some friends for suggestions on Facebook, which inspired some lively discussion (and A LOT of actors nominating roles THEY created... typical.) I distilled down all of those insights to come up with the list below.
A few clarifiers here: 1) Ideally, these roles are less associated with a specific performer than a step out for whoever takes on these roles (i.e. "Turkey Lurkey Time" makes Della Hoya a step out, whether it's Donna McKechnie or Cameron Adams in the part). 2) I’m not necessarily focusing on whether the actor playing the role typically has a principal or chorus contract from Actor’s Equity. I am more interested in the essence of the role in terms of the structure of the show. 3) My list doesn’t include small groups of characters, such as The Dynamites in Hairspray or the women in Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango.” Because really, once you open the box to include groups, where do you stop? 4) These opinions are mine and mine alone: not The Ensemblist.
Alright, let’s begin:
Rosalia (West Side Story)
Ah, West Side. Perhaps the first musical to champion its ensemble by giving each character a name (that’s not quite true, it was South Pacific.) Nevertheless, it was one of the first. Every character gets a name, whether is A-rab or Inca. West Side Story is a show where the ensemble truly shines, no matter which character you look at.
So why Rosalia? Because she duels with Anita in “America”! She’s the setup for the whole song. Anita wouldn’t get to fling that purple dress without the commanding, insistent voice of Rosalia coming back again and again. One of thing that characters, even minor characters, need is to have a distinct point of view. And Rosalia is given just that.
Charles Lee (Hamilton)
I mean, you didn’t think that this list was gonna happen without a Hamilton reference, right? So why Charles Lee and not The Bullet or Samuel Seabury or the french barmaid in the tavern during “My Shot” (I SEE YOU, BETSY STRUXNESS AT THE PUBLIC)? Again, it’s about moving the plot forward. A.Ham’s first duel is with Charles Lee. Their relationship not only sets up the duel, it sets up the audience’s perception of duels for the rest of the show.
I’ve seen three Charles Lees (O.G. Jon Rua, Neil Haskell, and Aaron Gordon in #HamilChi. Each one made the role their own in equally memorable ways. Plus, that “I’m a general. Wheee!” line gets me every time.
Star To Be (Annie)
Let’s be honest, there isn’t a more of a step out role in Broadway history. She literally comes onstage an hour into the show, belts her face off for 60 seconds, and then VANISHES. Who is she? WE DON’T KNOW. Where did she come from? WE DON’T KNOW. But do we remember her at the end of the show when she gets a solo bow? You bet your bottom dollar we do.
Star To Be was a breakout role for Laurie Beechman in the 1977 original Broadway cast of Annie. It was a breakout roles for Sutton Foster in the 1997 Broadway revival. And Ashley Blanchet from the 2012 Broadway revival? She’s now covering the role of Elsa in a little Broadway-bound musical called Frozen. The role lives up to its name: “Star To Be" Makes Stars.
If you wanna get all “contract-y” on me for a second, riddle me this: In the original Broadway production, the actors playing Lewis were on a chorus contract. But in the 2013 Broadway revival, the actors playing Lewis were on principal contracts. If that doesn’t prove how effective and plot-driving ensemble performances can be, I’ll eat my foot.
But for the multitudes of community theatre and high school productions of Pippin being produced at any given point in this great nation of ours, they don’t have “principal contracts” and “chorus contracts.” They have “a bunch of eager, passionate theatre artists.” And if you’re doing Pippin, where do you cast that one guy who can bring the house down with a knowing glance or a slick one-liner? As Lewis, that’s where.
Sarah’s Friend (Ragtime)
Oh don’t mind me, I’m just the actor playing “Sarah’s Friend” in one of the most thrilling vocal scores in Broadway history. I’m gonna start the by rolling a piano onstage and doing sexy dance moves for Coalhouse Walker, Jr., play a cog in Henry Ford’s factory, and then end the act by making you cry as I moan my way through “Til We Reach That Day.” Yes I contain multitudes, and I will sing them for you now.
Fun fact: in the 2009 Broadway revival of Ragtime, Sarah’s Friend was played by none other than Bryonha Marie Parham, who is currently slaying audiences in Prince of Broadway with her rendition of the title song from Cabaret.
Spot Conlon (Newsies)
Newsies is hands-down the best use of an ensemble we’ve seen on Broadway in the last decade. From its ensemble-focused marketing campaigns to its ensemble-focused trading cards, Newsies is a show ABOUT the ensemble. Remember their Tony Awards performance of “Seize the Day” where Kara Lindsay got to perform 1 ½ lines of a number before letting the newsboys twirl for four minutes? THAT.
But in a show ABOUT an ensemble, how do you single out one ensemble performance? Easy. He’s the one with the jokes. Spot Conlon gets to stand center stage in Act II, make the entire house go silent, and then win them over with humor. And you can say “Tommy Bracco this, Tommy Bracco that.” And I’ll reply “Yes, Tommy Bracco was perfect in this role, but I also saw Jeff Heimbrock play it on tour in a completely different but still captivating way. So there.”
PIRAGUA GUY (In The Heights)
Who doesn't love Piragua Guy? This guy strolls onstage with his cart, and a big grin, warbles about his wares for a minute and then promptly exits. He leaves audiences thinking "I don't know who he was, but I like him!" But more than just a crossover, Piragua Guy is the symbol of optimism that Usnavi needs in order to stay in New York City at the end of the show. Piragua Guy literally turns lemons into lemonade. Or Lîmon.
Piragua Guy was so beloved when In The Heights debuted on Broadway that the theatre community created a YouTube spoof series called "Legally Brown: the Search for the Next Piragua Guy" where actors like Norm Lewis, Cheyenne Jackson and Matthew Morrison competed to play the role. If you haven't watched the series recently, do yourself a favor and check it out.