Let me start off by saying I get it. It’s not easy to keep on auditioning and auditioning and still not ending up with the roles you originally had your heart set on. It’s hard to feel like you’re fading into the background while you’re trying to do the thing you love most. Sometimes you just want to have your name at the top of the program or above the title, and who wouldn’t? It’s great to get a lead, to feel like your hard work is paying off with all eyes on you. But I’m here to tell you that it’s OK to wait it out for that big break, or even never get it at all. I’m here to tell you why being in the ensemble rules.
First of all, consider the incredible impact that a solid ensemble number can have on an audience. Sure, there are shows like “tick… tick… BOOM!” or “The Last Five Years” or “[title of show]” that don’t require any ensemble and are absolutely incredible. But consider what it would be like if you went to see “How To Succeed in Business…” and there were, like, three guys onstage for “Brotherhood of Man.” Wouldn’t you be pretty disappointed at the unfortunately small number of dancing men in suits that you had been waiting for the entire show? Or what if you bought tickets to “Rent” and the lights came up for “Seasons of Love” only to reveal a line of four people? Wouldn’t you feel sort of cheated if you went to see “A Chorus Line” and there were only three people holding their headshots over their face? These numbers are iconic, poignant, amazing shows of artistry, and all of them depend on the crucial and expected presence of a strong, unified ensemble. They are arguably the most famous moments in their respective shows, and they simply do not pack the necessary punch without a killer chorus.
Second of all, even the people with the biggest roles in the whole show have to learn how to be a part of an ensemble. It is a valuable skill for any performer to have that does not get forgotten or swept aside when you get your time in the spotlight. Even Burr, Jefferson, and Angelica have to, or rather, get to, come together in unison for “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Melchior and Wendla get to join in the beauty and power of a full cast in “The Song of Purple Summer.” These moments are all amazing parts of playing these roles, and the actors would not be doing their jobs if they didn’t know how to step back and join the cast as one in these showstopping numbers. The gift of being in an ensemble is not disposable or just a stepping stone to getting a lead, it is an essential part of being a performer.
And third of all, and maybe more importantly, beyond everything that the audience sees, being in the ensemble can bring some of the most valuable experiences to learn and create that you will ever have. Not that being a lead can’t lead to incredible growth and invaluable experience, but those who act like the same kind of commitment and passion aren’t coming from the very back row are selling ensemble members across the world short. I wouldn’t trade my inspiring experiences working closely this past year with my high school choreographer on huge group numbers for anything, not even a showstopping solo. I will never let go of the memories of hanging out and rehearsing countless chorus parts with incredible musicians and friends as a pit singer my senior year. I will never, ever regret the hours of hard work the ensembles I have been a part of putting into everything we did, and the way it all paid off in joy and passion and beautiful art when the curtain finally came up. I’m not saying the leads didn’t have just as incredible of a time, but even when I was a small fish in a huge, musical pond, I gained some of the most invaluable experiences and relationships of my entire life, and I grew as an artist along the way.
And the bottom line is, that’s what theater is. Theater is home where you learn, grow, and experience incredible, inspiring feats of creation and passion, and you don’t do it alone. Theater brings people together, from the back row of the ensemble to the spotlight front and center, and it wouldn’t be as beautiful as it is without everyone in between working together to create something magical. Just to be a part of that is irreplaceable, no matter where you stand or what songs you sing. I have been in the ensemble, in the smallest parts and the biggest group numbers, and I have loved it. To all the ensemble members out there, you are heroes- don’t forget it.