by Mo Brady
It’s a phrase heard time and again in the theatre industry. Successful ensemble actors say that while they love performing, they want to “get out of the ensemble.”
But what does that phrase mean? What about being in the ensemble is so difficult that so many actors would want to escape it?
Each musical’s ensemble has a different set of responsibilities, from singing lyrical soprano lines in The Phantom of the Opera or lifting chairs across the stage in Hamilton. However, what unites these kinds of roles is their tracks often come with immense physical toll.
Telly Leung, Broadway’s current Aladdin, made his Main Stem debut as an ensemble member in the 2002 production of Flower Drum Song. He went on to play ensemble roles in Pacific Overtures and Rent before taking on the principal role of Angel Schunard full-time. This firsthand experience as both an ensemble member and leading man gives him a unique perspective on the challenges - and rewards - of each kind of work.
“Often times, the ensemble behind the star is doing backflips and triple turns while singing high-Cs,” notes Leung. “Those physically difficult feats every night are extremely stressful.”
Adam Kaplan’s most recent Broadway credit was leading the company of A Bronx Tale. However, just like Leung, Adam Kaplan made his Broadway debut singing and dancing in the ensemble of Newsies: “Everything I did in that show felt strenuous to me,” admits Kaplan.” I’m constantly in awe of dancers and their ability to know what looks good on their own bodies, or how they make something so difficult look effortless.”
All this is not to imply that playing a principal part is a metaphorical walk in the park; leading roles come with their own set of challenges. “There's no dropping focus or any goofing off on stage when there's 1,700 eyes on you as Aladdin,” asserts Leung. “The audience is following your every note and intention. It’s my responsibility to move the audience through the story every night - and that requires a different kind of focus, clarity of intention, and ability to deliver under pressure night after night.”
In addition to their performances in the theatre, principal actors, leads also become ambassadors to the show. There is a certain pressure to know how to handle themselves with press outlets, publicists and interviews. “In many ways, the principals are also ambassadors for the show as a whole: more press responsibilities, often more social media attention, and the responsibility to set the tone and the standard for the production,” reveals Broadway’s current Christine Daae, Ali Ewoldt, who has played both leading and ensemble roles on the Great White Way.
For many ensemble actors, part of their vocational toll come from having not one job, but two. For ensemble actors who cover leading roles, it can feel like they have two jobs simultaneously: their chorus track and their principal role: “There is a ton of work and stress affiliated with understudying,” says Leung. “You have to be constantly ready at a moment's notice. There is also a huge time commitment, as understudies are often called to rehearsals during the week. It's a grueling schedule as an understudy.”
“In Newsies, I went on quite a bit for both Jack and Davey very sporadically,” remembers Kaplan. “As a result, I wasn’t ever really able to settle in and find the rhythm of my show in those roles. There's also the mental game of never knowing when you have to go on, the time constraints of understudy rehearsals, and jumping around from track to track. There were three shows in a row where I did a different track each night.”
However, for many actors the stresses of principal roles outweigh the challenges of ensemble work. Their dreams of acting come not simply from a love of performing, but from a love of telling stories with their voices. And while ensemble actors are unequivocally storytellers, much of the specific characters they play comes from their own imaginations. Principal actors have their characters, intentions and motivations given to them in the show’s script and songs.
Pursuing a career as a performing artist involves taking a leap of faith into a career of uncertainty in hopes of emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Getting out of the ensemble requires taking a second leap towards a riskier, but potentially more fulfilling career.
For some, that decision to only pursue leading roles is a conscious choice. Jay Armstrong Johnson, who currently plays Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera, began his professional career dancing in A Chorus Line, swinging the Broadway revival of Hair and being a standby on Catch Me If You Can. “Afterwards, I made a very conscious decision to no longer audition for ensemble or understudy positions,” he says. “In many cases, the ensemble is doing strenuous work for not as much of a pay off.”
For others, transition from ensemble work to principal roles is a series of many, small decisions. Ali Ewoldt made her Broadway debut as Cosette in the first Broadway revival of Les Miserables. However, when she returned to Broadway a decade later, it was in the ensemble of The King and I at Lincoln Center.
“If you had asked me when I was making my Broadway debut, I may have staunchly told you that I would no longer be taking ensemble roles,” remembers Ewoldt. “But having been in the business for many years, I think there are a lot of factors that play into auditioning for jobs and taking them if we book them.”
One of those decisions is the choice to be pursue work away from Broadway. “I feel like I’ve lost out on work by making decisions to not take ensemble roles,” remembers Johnson. “I took a large step away from Broadway to do more regional and Off-Broadway work as a means to build my resume as a leading player.”
Whether or not you “decide” to stop taking ensemble roles, the transition involves redefining yourself to a community who knows you. Industry perception is something to confront if you are an actor looking to not be seen for ensemble work anymore. If you've done many shows in the ensemble, casting directors will have you at the top of the list for consideration of other ensemble positions.
“It's only natural. Your experience and your reputation precede you, and your qualifications make you a viable candidate,” remarks Leung.
While it’s easy to think of the transition from ensemble to principal roles as black and white, it is important to remember that an actor’s career goals are always shifting. An artist’s career is not a ladder to climb; rather, it is a mountain with multiple trails to pursue.
“Often once you reach a milestone, you look for what’s next,” believes Kaplan. “I never thought I would make my achieve my dream of performing on Broadway so quickly after moving to New York. But after the first time I went on for Jack Kelly in Newsies, I knew I had to chase that feeling.”
“I will never fault nor judge someone for having different goals than me, or if their goals change,” continues Kaplan. “What’s important is that you have them.”
“If I'm being honest, there is always a component of ego involved,” admits Ewoldt. “It is very satisfying to receive praise for the work I am doing and that most often comes when I am playing leading roles. However, having been on both sides, I know how integral the entire company is in successful storytelling. And I have felt incredibly fulfilled knowing that I am contributing to a wonderful show in the ensemble.”
In the end, those that pursue a career in the theatre have a common goal: to tell stories with and for community of others. The modes of how we tell those stories are more complicated than the divide between ensemble and leading parts. Each job is a unique artistic challenge, regardless of the actor’s name is above the title.
“I like the sense of community and family in the theatre,” says Leung. “We all gather under one roof to inspire and spread joy, and that's our common mission for the night. It requires collaboration and teamwork. You're a part of something bigger than you - and that feels good, whether you're in the ensemble or starring in the show. One can't co-exist without the other - and that's what's beautiful about it.”