Ensemble performers play an integral role in bringing the world of musicals and operas to life. They perform intricate dance parts, add harmonized vocal parts to full-company musical numbers, and act out background parts that flesh out the main story.
Ensemble performers have been central to theatre as an art form since its inception. However, their role has changed throughout the centuries. In Ancient Greece, the ensemble formed the Greek chorus, while early Broadway saw ensemble performers become the professional dancers of vaudeville-style shows. Today, musical theatre ensemble members are the so-called “triple-threat”, known for their excellent acting, singing, and dancing abilities. In contemporary shows, specialist tricks and skills are also sometimes incorporated into ensemble performances, such as playing musical instruments (e.g. Once), acrobatics (e.g. _Pippin), and even sword-swallowing (e.g. Moulin Rouge!).
There are several important elements to consider when approaching ensemble performance, with the most important being coordination, communication, and the role of the individual.
Prior to an ensemble rehearsal, the performer should have learned their own individual part so that they are fully prepared and confident to rehearse in a group setting. Make sure that you are completely confident of your harmony lines so that you will not be thrown when everyone comes together to sing. It is important that each individual has a high level of technical ability and is fully versed in common music terminology. This will speed up the rehearsal process when learning and rehearsing a piece of music as a group.
Unlike principal performers, ensemble members often play different roles in every scene, switching between costumes and identities in the blink of an eye. The succession of roles played by an ensemble member is called a “track” and each ensemble performer must be absolutely confident in memorizing and executing their own track. Their track includes their lines, blocking, choreography, prop needs, and backstage movement. This forms the linear movement between your own ensemble characters and how you will make each individual character distinct. Although the ensemble must perform as a unit, the individual characterizations upon the stage are what makes the performance vibrant and engaging to watch. A useful reference point here is the ensemble in Les Miserables. During the barricade, factory, and street scenes, each individual upon the stage has a distinct appearance, character, and mood within the scene.
To think about how you can incorporate character into your own performance, watch this clip of “One Day More” (Les Miserables). Pick out an ensemble performer and track them around the stage. How do they move? How does their facial expression match the sentiment of the words they are singing? Look at how they communicate and synchronize with the rest of the ensemble performers.
The performers in ensembles have many responsibilities. The first step is to ensure regular and prompt attendance at every rehearsal and performance possible, as a successful ensemble performance relies upon the group as a whole. Warm up together as an ensemble group so you become deeply familiar with each other’s space, movement, and personality. An ensemble that respects each other, communicates well, and has a natural sense of placement is more likely to deliver a polished performance.
The most fundamental requirement of an ensemble performance is that the individual parts fit together. Each performer must be able to keep in time with the rest of the group as the coordination of an ensemble is all about timing. The basic ability to count is vital in order to keep time; to realise which beat is being performed and when to enter or exit. Once learned, detailed choreography must be rehearsed over and over again to ensure that each performer is in perfect synchronicity with the group. Think about the opening to West Side Story. The Prologue is richly detailed in ensemble characterization and choreography, which must be slick and perfectly coordinated to ensure there are no collisions or hesitations that could throw the whole number. Another good example is the ever present ensemble in Hamilton. Their syncopated unison choreography in “My Shot” perfectly matches the rhythmical lyrics and music to create a tight, visually exciting performance.
Characterization not only refers to physical movement and appearance, but is also vital within ensemble numbers. Remember that you are not only singing the songs and delivering perfect harmonies, you are also acting through song. As an ensemble performer you must help to tell the story through the delivery of a musical number. A great contemporary example of this is the enemble scenes in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
Although your own characterization is important, remember that the scene is not about you and your ensemble character. It must be about the group as a whole. So, as you rehearse the scene, consider how your character can still be present, but do so without causing a distraction from what’s happening in the overall scene. Above all, listen to the scene. Remember the fundamental principle: acting is all about reacting. Listening and reacting to the scene is essential to giving an authentic and believable performance.
The ensemble are responsible for bringing the artistic vision of the choreographer and/or artistic director to life. They should remain loyal to the overall appearance of the show and perform every movement, vocal, and characterization to the best of their ability. The best ensemble performers truly live for the stage; they enjoy portraying a variety of characters, telling their stories, and creating authentic and believable worlds. A successful performance is often praised for its ‘tight’ ensemble work, encompassing choreography, vocal sound, and authentic characterization, whereas an inferior one might have a ‘sloppy’ ensemble.