by Mo Brady
There’s a certain willing suspension of disbelief that we as theatre fans love to undergo. We will eagerly believe that we are watching citizens of Oz, Anatevka or Nazi-occupied Berlin - as long as relationships feel real. Theatregoers know when something doesn’t ring true.
Ensembles are a big part of what can make those onstage relationships resonate with audiences. Yes, it is important that Tony and Maria’s love feels earth-shattering, or that Jean Valjean cares for Cosette like she were his own daughter, or that Morales, Cassie and Val really need this job. But without the communities behind these leading characters, those connections wouldn’t feel so essential.
2019 has been a great year for showcasing Broadway ensembles. From the students of James Madison High School in The Prom to the creative team of Juliet’s Nurse in Tootsie, theatre creators are tapping into their ensembles to create meaningful stage pictures and vocalize beautiful music.
But what many of these shows have missed is an attention to making these ensembles as specific as their leading counterparts.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical features one of the most talented ensembles in recent memory. In production number after production number, this cast dazzles and delights audiences. The production knows they are talented - heck, it must be why the show begins with a much-lauded pre-show sequence featuring many of them staring down attendees at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. And yet, when it comes to the plot of Moulin Rouge!, these ensemblists make little impact. We see them standing along the sidelines of rehearsals but nothing is done to make them feel like a diverse group of individuals invested in the club’s success or failure.
Contrast this with the ensemble of SpongeBob SquarePants, where the ensemble felt essential. It’s roster of ensemblists was no more talented or skilled than their counterparts in Moulin Rouge!, but what made SpongeBob feel special is how incredibly specific each denizen of Bikini Bottom was. From Larry the Lobster to Mrs. Puff, each ensemble actor showed an individual reason for joining Plankton’s escape plan (as well as a grieving process when they realized escape from Mount Humongous would not be possible.)
Beyond nostalgic Lakers jerseys and big hair, who can be sure who any of Vivian’s friends are in Pretty Woman The Musical? The physical feats of the King Kong ensemble are remarkable, but do any of them specifically affect Ann Darrow’s decision to journey to Skull Island? And who knows what the talented ensemble of The Cher Show is doing, other than parading Bob Mackie’s truly remarkable costumes?
One of the best uses of an ensemble this year is how Rachel Chavkin staged Orephus’ performance of “Epic III” in Hadestown. By including her five-member ensemble as part of the stage picture, audiences can take in their five different responses to Orephus’ song - and five different reasons why they follow him out of Hadestown. Their responses include no solo lines or featured staging. However, just by giving audiences a chance to watch the community of workers process the circumstances, our relationship to Orephus and Eurydice becomes deeper.
Lord knows that making your ensemble a community does not ensure the artistic or financial success of a musical. If that were the case, we’d still have Groundhog Day at the August Wilson and Newsies at the Nederlander. But whether you’re staging a coronation in Arendelle or a press conference in the Emerald City, a lack of attention to the ensemble can make the circumstances of leading roles feel hollow.
One of the theatre’s great powers is its ability to make the specific feel universal. We are not bar workers in Saigon during the Vietnam War, but seeing Kim against the backdrop of Bangkok makes us understand why she gives her life for Tam. We are not struggling artists on the Lower East Side in the 90s, but Steve singing “Will I?” makes Roger’s search for purpose much more grounded.
Breathing life into a show’s ensemble is not difficult. It doesn’t take any more financial capitalization. It doesn’t involve making more costumes or even giving characters names. All it involves is a little time and willingness to do so.