by Mo Brady
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I was lucky to take in a performance of Musical Theatre West’s current production of Bright Star. While I had seen and enjoyed the show’s original Broadway mounting, I was surprised at how present and necessary the show’s ensemble felt in this production. Particularly in songs such as “Asheville,” they fluidly and effectively worked to tell a moving moment of the story in the way only an ensemble can.
Watching the ensemble work throughout the performance, I was struck by how musicals of the last five years have employed a new kind of ensemble. These shows are traditional in structure and in their dependence on original music to tell a story. However, the roles and responsibilities of their ensemble actors reinvent what ensembles can do.
Classic musicals use the ensemble to “populate the world” of the show. Whether it be the citizens of River City in The Music Man or the farmers and cowmen of Oklahoma!, each ensemble actor represents a distinct person. The audience may not hear about their specific circumstances, but they are each an individual.
A second style of musical ensemble heralds back to the choruses of classical Greek plays. The ensemble would work together, speaking and moving in tandem to communicate a unified point of view. In the choruses of Pippin and Sweeney Todd, the ensemble works in counterpoint to the shows’ antagonists. These choruses were meant to represent a distinct character separate from any leading roles.
What we are seeing now is a third kind of ensemble - one that works to reflect the emotions of leading roles. They work in tandem with featured characters not to challenge the protagonist, but as a part of them. From the ensemble of Hamilton manifesting the ideas of Alexander Hamilton to the ensemble of Waitress embodying the recipes of Jenna, the actors work as one to amplify the leading roles’ circumstances.
Bright Star features an ensemble of eight spirits who following the leading characters through the show’s action. They work not as guides for Alice, Billy and Jimmy, but as a sounding board for them. In songs such as “Bright Star” and “At Long Last,” they work not in the shadows but alongside the leads to give feelings more space and sound.
In all of the shows mentioned, the ensemble also play individual people within the physical world of the plot. Waitress’ ensemble plays patrons of Joe’s Diner, as well as Jenna’s thoughts. Hamilton’s ensemble plays the infantry of the revolutionary army, as well as Alexander’s ideas. Bright Star’s ensemble plays doctors and county clerks in addition to specters. However, in each instance, the most memorable moments of the ensemble’s performance are when they are working in tandem with the leading characters.
The last half-decade is certainly not the first time we’ve seen an ensemble used as spectors. But the ghosts of The Secret Garden and the Weismann girls of Follies each portray an individual.
What’s exciting about this new kind of ensemble is that it proves that the guidelines to create an effective musical are always malleable. Just as composers find new sounds to write and choreographers find new moves to stage, directors and book writers can find new and moving ways to portray groups of actors to propel their story - and the art form of musical theatre - forward.