by Maddy Mason
My theatrical career began in the ensemble. I played the pivotal role of Bystander #1 in Les Miserables, screaming “Look out!” as I ran down the dark aisles of the 24th Street Theater. Without this crucial line said by Bystander #1, we would not have the emotional stakes of the Runaway Cart scene established. I was a young, naive ten-year-old actor with only school credits to my name. Yet, the director entrusted me with this important role. He knew I could lead the bystanders through the intense, pivotal scene of the show.
Even though my small part felt like nothing, I was carrying the legacy of the ensemblist. An ensemblist, defined by Mo Brady and Nikka Graff Lanzarone of The Ensemblist podcast,, “is a chorus member. They may die on a barricade, tap dance on a giant dime, or soar over the audience dressed as a flying monkey, but each individual is a talented performer with a wealth of experiences to share.” This term may seem new, but ensembles have been around since the heyday of Greek theatre. We could even refer to them as the oldest profession.
In Greek theatre, the chorus was the staple of the show. They served as an outside voice to the situation at hand, background information for the environment, and commentary on the characters. Without them, the audience was lost and had no sense of the show. They all acted as a homogeneous clump, serving as the single demographic that the scene called for. Sure, they weren’t tapping or belting, but they were the OG chorus line. Without them, we would not have “One” or “King of New York.”
After Greek and Roman theatre, the ensemblist didn’t re-emerge until the opera and ballet reached the public eye. Here, we saw the ensemble use singing and dance to contribute to the story of a show. Outside of the principal singers and dancers, the chorus or corps de ballet, the members of a ballet company who dance in a group, performed the role that the Greek chorus played. They commented on the characters, provided exposition, but did this through song and dance.
Then a show called The Black Crook made its way onstage, and we saw the ensemblist performing in the first book musical. In this show, the chorus was split into two, singing chorus and dancing in that corps de ballet. A good example of what this might have looked like is in the Phantom of the Opera. In the beginning, we watch an opera rehearsal and see the two different choruses perform, a dance and a song. Singers were not expected to dance and vice versa. It would be a long time until we saw the ensemblist grow into the triple-threat we know today.
In 1957, Jerome Robbins brought West Side Story to Broadway. This show was very different from what audiences were used to seeing. Robbins was both the director and choreographer, and he made sure every member of the 41 person cast needed to sing, act, and dance. The ensemble was no longer a homogenous clump, each of them had a name and an important story to tell. The ensemble became more important to the musical than it ever had before, and soon Broadway would see ensemble-driven musicals, such as Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
In these kinds of shows, the ensemble became leading players along with the main character. While they acted as a de facto chorus, they had visible wants and needs addressed by the script. The ensemble broke away from the background and gained a sense of individualism.
The success of the ensemble musical led to blockbusters such as A Chorus Line, where there was no lead character to root for. Sure, some may say Cassie is the main character, but her story doesn’t trivialize the other ones presented onstage. We want all of the auditionees to make the cut and are devastated when some of them don’t.
In the 1980s, during the British Invasion, ensemblists were having a heyday because so many of those shows relied on a strong, large ensemble. Between 42nd Street, Big River, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon, the ensemblist found a strong balance between the background and the limelight. One moment, they’re in the background of “At the End of the Day,” the next they’re Grantaire on the barricades. The number of bodies these shows needed helped many ensemblists get work and showcase their multitude of skills. It set forth what the twenty-first-century ensemblist would be.
Today, many of them still bounce from chorus to chorus, but many of theatre’s greatest names started out in ensembles. Tony Award winner, Alice Ripley, started in the ensemble of The Who’s Tommy. In 2009, she won Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for her work in Next to Normal, an ensemble show about mental illness. Most recently, she starred in the ensemble of American Psycho, playing three different roles. This is what the modern-day ensemblist is, working in a variety of shows, going from leading lady to supporting role. They’re jacks of all trades and are KILLING it in whatever they do. Their dedication to their craft is so admirable, they receive such little recognition for the work they do.
Little Maddy had no idea how amazing being an ensemblist is.