In a Broadway season filled with star turns and individual standouts, maybe the biggest breakout performance came from … ensemble casts.
From the queens of “Six” to the Thoughts of “A Strange Loop,” and from the community of “For Colored Girls …” to the triad of “The Lehman Trilogy” to the town council of “The Minutes,” Broadway rebounded from its long shutdown with a slate of shows that emphasized the collective effort that’s central to any theatrical experience.
This year’s Tony nominations are packed with competing castmates from shows that highlighted the skill, the labor and the pleasures inherent in a group of talented performers simultaneously shining as individual artists and working together as a seamless whole.
“Honestly, it’s why I do theater,” says Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the “Modern Family” alum now up for a Tony for his work among the cast of “Take Me Out.”
His previous Broadway stint was in the one-man show “Fully Committed,” and he didn’t love going solo. “I was like, ‘This is no fun!’” he says. “The beauty of the theater rehearsal process is getting to find your character through other people and letting them affect the way you do your part.”
Uzo Aduba reaches for a sports analogy: “I ran track for a long time, and in my mind, being in an ensemble is kind of like when I would run the 4 x 100 relay,” she says.
The “In Treatment” and “Orange Is the New Black” star is Tony-nominated for her performance in the Lynn Nottage comedy “Clyde’s,” but even her title role shared the stage equally with all her fellow castmates. “It takes every single member. It’s not what serves you, but what serves the team and the story.”
Rachel Dratch, nominated for her work in the raucous comedy “POTUS” and who was previously on “Saturday Night Live,” says, “I came from improv, and ensemble is the heart of improv. You have to rely on your partners. I love that team mentality.”
According to many of this season’s nominees, the most vibrant ensembles are the ones that allow each performer to bring their own distinct personality to the overall whole.
Michael R. Jackson, the writer-composer-lyricist of “A Strange Loop,” says his long relationship with his cast of actors — some of whom have been with the show for more than a decade — was a crucial element of the musical’s success.
“Over the years, it became their story as well,” Jackson says. “I had time to understand their minds, their bodies, their hearts and their spirits and write toward their strengths, and to find their characters in all of their virtuosity and specificity and nuance. It really let me build the piece around them and mold it to them.”
“Six” creators Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow have also nurtured their ensemble by zeroing in on each artist’s unique personality, even as they’ve worked with numerous actors in multiple casts across several productions.
“We focus on the individual performers bringing their real selves to the role,” Moss says. “We really see each part as half the written role and half the performer’s persona, and what in their character resonates for them as people.”
Adds Marlow, “It’s always really cool to see, because Catherine of Aragon in one production will be completely different from another.”
Mutual trust is key to ensemble work, but that doesn’t happen overnight.
“A good ensemble takes some time and it takes some care,” says John-Andrew Morrison, the Tony nominated cast member of “A Strange Loop,” who has been involved in the project since 2008. “It doesn’t come without occasional conflict, right? Because everybody has a different way of working and processing. But ensemble is family. You’re not always buddy-buddy, but there is a shared vulnerability, and we all have each other’s backs.”
Adam Godley, one of the nominated actors for “The Lehman Trilogy, adds, “The fundamental thing to make all this work is that all of the actors really put ego and pride to one side for the greater good.”
His co-star, Simon Russell Beale, chimes in, “It’s not a process of losing one’s ego, I don’t think, but I suppose it’s a confidence in your own persona. The main thing is to trust that you’re all there to tell the story together.”
Camille A. Brown, the director-choreographer of “For Colored Girls …,” notes that the need to handle an ensemble with care was especially great coming out of the pandemic.
“We all went through some kind of trauma just being isolated for so long, and now suddenly you’re putting people together in a space and telling them, ‘Let out your heart! Be vulnerable!’” she says. “It was really important for us to create a safe space.”
In a good ensemble, it can be hard to tell where one performance ends and another begins. That seems to have been the case for “The Lehman Trilogy,” for which all three of its actors — Beale, Godley and Adrian Lester— are competing against each other in the leading actor category.
“We’ve come along as a singular entity,” Lester marvels with a laugh. But then, you can see why the Tony nominators had trouble choosing just one performer from so many of the Broadway season’s ensembles.
“As an actor, you are no longer singular. You are plural,” he says.
The Tonys will return to an in-person ceremony airing June 12 on Paramount+ and CBS.
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