by Mo Brady
It takes a lot of work to be simple in a musical. Between the grandiose production values, loud orchestras and large houses, simplicity can get lost in the shuffle. With so much spectacle around you, actors can feel the need to “play to the back of the house” in every moment.
This challenge is only magnified for actors in ensemble roles. While principal players receive downstage blocking and lighting specials to accentuate their moments of truth, ensemble actors must bring similar reality while upstage. In a blue light. Half way behind a set piece.
Interesting ensemble work happens when background characters are fully-fleshed and realistic. Whether they are ship workers, cartoon sea creatures or high school students, ensembles are charged with grounding the principal characters in their circumstances. But how can those situations feel real if the ensemble isn’t really invested in the stakes of the plot?
Pretty Woman: The Musical’s Jennifer Sanchez has used performative simplicity to bring truth to ensemble roles in seven Broadway shows. From her memorable turn as Rosalia in West Side Story to her recent bow as the Nurse in Sunday in the Park With George, she performs with a laser focus on truth. Plus, she has a way of getting the audience to laugh in any situation.
In Pretty Woman, Sanchez plays multiple ensemble roles from polo match attendees to street workers. With each character, she finds an ease that simultaneously plays to the back of the mezzanine. Alongside Ellyn Marie Marsh as fellow shopkeeper Amanda, her turn as saleswoman Erica is a masterclass at how to let an audience come to you.
There’s a scene in the 1997 film Waiting for Guffman that is iconic for theatre ensemblists. In it, Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara play actors in the musical within a movie “Red, White and Blaine.” When they asked to comment on the action, they say to each other with hushed excitement:
“Peas and carrots. Peas and carrots. Peas and carrots.”
Peas and carrots.
These phrases are well-known among background actors as acceptable onstage conversation. Rather than having realistic, truthful conversations about the circumstances of a scene, directors will encourage the use of these plosive phrases. It’s a tradition that’s often taught in amateur theatre but never curtailed when those actors move onto more professional productions.
Sanchez and others like her bring a centered groundedness to their ensemble work. Rather than giving too much (or too little), they find a performative simplicity that projects from the stage without feeling hammy. It’s a rare talent to walk the tightrope between overacting and disengagement. But when an actor discovers it, their performances are a gift to audiences.