Quite often, I hear people say “Yeah I got in, but only in the ensemble” and I wonder why they sound so disappointed. Being an ensemble member can be one of the most important roles in the show, it’s what holds the show together and makes it the spectacle that it is. Imagine shows like Hairspray, Wicked or Les Misérables without an ensemble – they would be nowhere near as energetic or mesmerizing as we now know they are!
The main reason some people say that it’s “only the ensemble,” is because they think that the only reason they got it is that they weren’t good enough for a lead. I have been an ensemble member for many shows and I’ve never once thought that I wasn’t good enough or that I was just another singer or dancer in the crowd; there are a lot of positives to being in an ensemble.
Matt (fourth from right) in Cabaret with BustCo 2010 performing "Money"
If you’re a strong singer, being in the ensemble can be a great thing especially in a big singing show like Rent or Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical director might want a whole bunch of people with big voices so, from the second you walk out of the audition, they could put you straight into the ensemble for that reason – they might want a 'big manly sound’.
Ensemble singing is usually technically challenging and requires quite a range of abilities. Probably the most important characteristic of the good ensemble member is the ability to hold harmonies. A lot of the time the leads only have to harmonize with one or two other people but an ensemble pretty much always has 4 or 5-part harmonies so they need singers with great harmony skills purely for that.
As a performer, one of the things that always gives me chills is when a song is finished and the whole ensemble belts out their parts in perfect harmony. I love the feeling of singing one part and hearing the rest of the group with you. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to musical theatre in the first place was hearing the big ensemble numbers (admittedly, the first big ensemble song I heard was “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” and I always remember how much I loved it hearing the big sound of the whole ensemble!)
I don’t think I’m the first person to say that so many of the well-known musical theatre songs are the big songs that the ensembles sing, e.g. the classics like “One Day More” from LES MISÉRABLES; “One” and “What I Did For Love” from A CHORUS LINE; “Seasons Of Love “, “Another Day”, “Will I” and “La Vie Boheme” from RENT; and “Summer Nights”, “Greased Lightning” and “We Go Together” from GREASE. Other amazing ensemble songs include “Tell Me It’s Not True” from BLOOD BROTHERS and, more recently “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from HAIRSPRAY, “Omigod You Guys” from LEGALLY BLONDE and, of course, the epic “Tomorrow Is A Latter Day” from THE BOOK OF MORMON. I think there’s nothing more fitting to end a show than a big final song sung by the whole company. Even in the big juke box musicals, the ensemble is a crucial part of the outcome of the production.
In ROCK OF AGES for example, a show that is full of 80’s rock songs and power ballads, you couldn’t get songs like “Too Much Time On My Hands”, “Here I Go Again” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” to work without a big ensemble to add to the already big rock sound. Another big ensemble jukebox musical is MAMMA MIA. The whole thing with ABBA songs is those unmistakable harmonies and the only way to get that sound going is with… you guessed it, a big ensemble to produce it and to sing the difficult harmonies!
Often, the ensemble gets to sing the best numbers in the show and they are the songs that the audience love the most because of the power and ‘oomph’ they create, whether it be a comedy or a dramatic moment. Every show I go to watch, one of the major factors I use in my critique of that show is how the ensemble sounds vocally. I strongly feel that if the ensemble aren’t incredible and “on song” then the rest of the show can be let down even if the leads are great. The ensemble are the ones who add that finishing touch to the way the show sounds and ends up.
Matt (on right) and the ensemble performing "Tell Me It's Not True" from Altona City Theatre's 2007 production of Blood Brothers
If you’re a strong dancer, being in the ensemble can be one of the best opportunities you have to show off! Big dance shows like THE WEDDING SINGER, CHICAGO, and GREASE rely heavily on strong ensemble dancing and there’s nothing more exciting to an audience than an ensemble of 20 or 30 dancers all in-sync. All of these shows would not be what they are without big dance numbers. A show like CATS requires a lot of the movement that is slow and graceful and it looks amazing when you see the whole cast moving in that cat-like style. Also with this show, every person has to be bang on their game and know what they’re doing so you would definitely not be "just in the ensemble" for a show like CATS.
Recently, I saw the Australian production of HAIRSPRAY in Melbourne and, in my opinion, the massive ensemble dancing was one of the highlights. Who could forget the male ensemble in MARY POPPINS doing the tapping in "Step In Time?" The sound of 20 people all tapping at the same time is so thrilling to hear and see.
Even in general ‘non-song’ scenes, ensemble members in the background fill in all the missing gaps. Imagine how a nightclub scene would look if there was no-one in it or if there was no-one walking down the street in a city scene?
Next time you get cast in the ensemble, don’t be disappointed or think that you have been overlooked for the 'important' roles, because no matter how big or small the part, every single person earns their spot on that stage!