Where are the Ensembles on Broadway?
The 2019-2020 Broadway season looks to be an exciting one. From plays and musicals to concerts, solo shows and illusions, the 48 shows currently scheduled this season look to provide a diverse array of talent to New York stages.
What it will not be, however, is a great season for Broadway ensembles or ensemble performers.
According to Playbill Vault, the 2019-2020 Broadway season currently employs 99 actors as ensemble, chorus or swings. (26 in Moulin Rouge!, 17 in Jagged Little Pill, 21 in Tina and 35 in West Side Story.) Add only 14 ensemble actors from Mrs. Doubtfire’s pre-Broadway company and Diana’s unannounced ensemble, it looks to be a busy season for Broadway singers and dancers… to be working away from home or filling out unemployment forms.
With the just-announced Sing Street, at least five of the eight musicals left to open this season will not employ an ensemble: Girl From the North Country, Six, Company and Caroline, or Change. While Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and Jagged Little Pill use ensembles to tell their stories, The Lightning Thief did not. The ensembles currently working will be joined eventually by the ensembles of West Side Story (currently in previews), Diana (with an ensemble yet to be announced) and Mrs. Doubtfire (transferring its pre-Broadway company from Seattle to New York).
Unknowns in this discussion are whether Lincoln Center Theater’s Flying Over Sunset will employ ensemble contracts at all, as well as the size of the Diana ensemble. While there is still no show announced for the Marquis Theatre this spring, it is unlikely its possible resident will change the trajectory of this trend.
In the 2018-2019 Broadway season, 185 performers worked on chorus contracts in new musicals. This was in line with the number of ensemble actors in new musicals from previous seasons (183 in 2017-2018). These numbers were verified by Actors’ Equity Association for The Ensemblist’s 2018-2019 ‘State of the Ensemblist Report.’
There’s a financial viability of shows that permeates the theatre industry. As theatre gets more and more expensive to create, producers find artistic and exciting ways to tell stories with fewer players. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: for the last three seasons, the Tony Award winners for Best Musical have not had large ensembles. Dear Evan Hansen and The Band’s Visit each have no chorus contracts at all, and Hadestown was the smallest Broadway ensemble of its season with only nine performers (five onstage ensemblists and four swings).
However, musicals that thrive in the theatre canon are more often ones that include an ensemble. Currently, the seven longest-running shows on Broadway all employ ensembles: The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Hamilton. In a world where audiences enjoy seeing the price of their tickets reflected onstage, ensembles are a way to make a story epic in scope.
In theory, the smaller, chamber musical is a good thing. The definition of what makes a musical (and a successful musical) is something that can always be expanded. But what these trends show are a possible abandonment of ensembles altogether. In an industry where art and commerce must work together for success, the large ensemble musical cannot be abandoned for financial viability.
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Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist