by Mo Brady
Not all ensembles are created equal - and for good reason. Since the ensemble is responsible for creating the world and texture of a production, it means different shows require different aptitudes from their ensemblists. For example, the stately, operatic ensemble of The Phantom of the Opera wouldn’t fit into the contemporary dance world of Wicked. And the homespun, down-to-earth ensemble of Waitress wouldn’t fit the madcap fantasy of Aladdin.
This need for different ensembles is reflected in the actors cast in those shows. Every performer has their own skill set, energy and physical presence. And their energy can change as they mature. The experience that actors gain both onstage and in their personal lives, can bring new levels of truth to their performances.
Look across the Great White Way to see how an older ensemble can strengthen a production. Of the twenty-nine actors on ensemble contracts in Lincoln Center Theatre’s revival My Fair Lady, around half are character ensemblists “of a certain age” that bring stately gravitas to their roles that contrast with the youthful energy of Eliza Doolittle. The age of the actors playing factory workers in Kinky Boots deepens their need for the Price and Son factory to find financial success. Beyond those shows, actors like Anastasia’s Jennifer Smith and Escape to Margaritaville’s Angela Grovey are giving standout performances alongside counterparts half their age.
Of course, not every musical benefits from an ensemble of actors in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Mean Girls would be less successful if the ensemblists were old enough to rent cars. But while the hustle of the Broadway industry is a young man’s game, our business should be doing more to leverage the talents of ensemblists over 35 years old.
The problem is exacerbated when shows cast younger actors regardless of what the script needs to tell the story. In Frozen, Arendelle is a kingdom where the youth of princesses Anna and Elsa needs to stand out. The ensemble step out moments played by Ann Sanders, Jacob Smith and Wendi Bergamini provide a beautiful emotional weight to the show’s proceedings. But as staged, most of the cast of Frozen brings an age and energy that match those of Anna and Elsa instead of give them something to play off of.
Escape to Margaritaville takes place at a resort more likely to be attended by baby boomers than Gen X-ers. Yet the show’s ensemble is comprised mostly of young people unlikely to be found vacationing at Jimmy Buffett's all-inclusive resorts. While this energetic cast knocks choreographer Kelly Devine’s staging out of the park, they aren’t representative of the heart and humor that could be found in Margaritaville.
It should be said that in Frozen, Margaritaville and across Broadway, the skillful actors in all shows possess a wealth of talents. It’s too hard to get to Broadway for this not to be true. But if the shows they are in aren’t able to use those talents successfully, neither the actors nor audiences benefit.