An in-depth look at the tracks of ensemble actors in eleven Broadway musicals
by Mo Brady
Ensemble actors are often called the unsung heroes of Broadway. While their leading actor counterparts stand in the spotlight, get larger dressing rooms on lower floors and aren’t called for understudy rehearsals, the men and women of Broadway ensembles often spend more time working in and out of performances to keep their shows sharp and entertaining.
But are some ensembles harder to be in then others? Surely, there’s a difference between performing in a 90-minute musical versus a three-hour musical. Or a difference between an ensemble-led show like Newsies versus a leading role-led show like Gypsy. But in that case, is there even such a thing as Broadway’s busiest ensemble?
That’s what I tried to figure out when I reached out to female ensemble members in eleven Broadway musicals: Aladdin, Chicago, Hamilton, Kinky Boots, The Lion King, Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, School of Rock, SpongeBob SquarePants, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and Waitress. I asked these eleven actors to use the stopwatch on their phones during a performance to track when they were “working” and when they were “on break.”
Here’s the catch: “Working” does not necessarily mean just when these actors were onstage performing. I also asked them to keep track of when they were changing costumes, moving sets or singing offstage. Anytime where they were doing an assigned duty as part of the show’s performance, I asked them to count as “on the clock.”
Starting their stopwatch when the stage manager called places, the actors would press “lap” the first time they had a break long enough to check their phones. Then, they would press “lap” again when they had something to do (such as go onstage, a wig change, etc.). They repeated this process until the performance was over. Afterwards, they each sent screenshots of all the different lengths of the laps. The number of laps varied from seven to 13, depending on the show.
It should be noted that not every ensemble track in any particular show is onstage as long every other. So the information given by any show’s actor doesn’t necessarily reflect the busyness of her counterparts. Also, I would be remiss to note that a show’s female tracks may have much different requirements than a show’s male tracks. And I only received timings from ensemblists in eleven of Broadway's 22 currently-running musicals with ensembles. Like I said: this is not a scientific study, simply a casual (if highly nerdy) inquiry.
Let’s move past the explanations and onto the findings. Who is Broadway’s busiest ensemble?
From the standpoint of who is onstage the most during their show, it's almost a tie between Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants. The actors who timed their performances from each clocked more than 130 minutes of "working" time during their shows. As the running time of SpongeBob is about seven minutes shorter than Mean Girls, this would make the residents of Bikini Bottom Broadway's busiest ensemble - but not by much.
However if you look at the percentage of the show in which they are working (and of course I did), the ladies of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical take the metaphorical cake. In a show that runs for just over 100 minutes, ensemblist Kaleigh Cronin is working for more than 95% of those minutes. There are less than ten minutes of the show during which she isn't dancing onstage, singing offstage, or changing costume. Talk about an ensemble of "Bad Girls."
However, it should be noted that all eleven of the women who submitted timings are working for more than half of their show. None of them are performing show-related duties for less than 84 minutes of each performance (which doesn't include any wig or fight calls prior to their places calls). The average for these women was an incredible 74% of their show's running times during which they were working.
In regards to costume and wig changes, the ladies of Aladdin, Hamilton, Mean Girls, SpongeBob, Summer, The Lion King and Waitress all perform more than ten costume changes during each performance. And while the ensemble women of Hamilton perform in an astonishing 40 musical numbers, the women of Aladdin, Mean Girls, Pretty Woman SpongeBob, Summer, The Lion King and Waitress also perform in more than a dozen songs each show.
If I had to pick one female ensemble to take the crown for Broadway's busiest ensemble, the scales are tipped by the number of set changes they are involved in. While SpongeBob's Lauralyn McClelland reported performing five set changes each show, Mean Girls' Jonalyn Saxer reported twice as many as part of her track.
Now it's time to ask Broadway's male ensemblists to weigh in. Any takers? :)
Many thanks to Lauren Boyd, Kaleigh Cronin, Blair Goldberg, Molly Hager, Lizzie Klemperer, Kimberly Marable, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Lauralyn McClelland, Beth Johnson Nicely, Jonalyn Saxer and Katie Terza for helping me make this happen. You made my nerd brain very happy.