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Why ensemble performers are the unsung heroes of Broadway

Nikka Graff Lanzarone in
Nikka Graff Lanzarone in "Chicago" on Broadway.
Jeremy Daniel
Nikka Graff Lanzarone in
Actor, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast of "Hamilton" (including Betsy Struxness, 4th from the left) celebrate on stage the receiving of GRAMMY award after "Hamilton" GRAMMY performance for The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Richard Rodgers Theater on February 15, 2016 in New York City.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

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If you're a fan of theater, there's a good chance you're looking forward to the Tony Awards this Sunday.

The awards program was established by the American Theatre Wing in 1947 to celebrate excellence in Broadway theater.

But go to almost any Broadway musical and more than half of the people you see on stage won’t be eligible for a Tony Award. That’s because they’re not a leading or featured actor — they're a member of the ensemble. And there's currently no Tony Award for Best Ensemble.

Ensemble performers are the ones you'll find in the Playbill with credits like "Birdgirl #1" in "Seussical," "White Teen Double Dutch Girl" in "Memphis," or "Ensemble" in "Hamilton."

There's even a classic Broadway musical all about ensemble performers called "A Chorus Line." And it's not as if Tony categories are immutable— this year the Sound Design categories, which were introduced in 2008 and eliminated in 2014, have been reinstated.

So why isn’t there a Tony Award for Best Ensemble? And what would it mean to ensemble performers if there were such a category?

Those are questions that Mo Brady and Nikka Graff Lanzarone, co-hosts and co-creators of The Ensemblist podcast, have been exploring recently. One performer who gave them her take was Betsy Struxness ("Hamilton," "Memphis"). Struxness wrote that the ensemble "works too hard to go unrewarded, unawarded, or underacknowledged any longer."

Here's what Lanzarone and Struxness had to say on the subject when they spoke with The Frame host John Horn: 

STRUXNESS: I think that the Tonys are the celebration of the art of creating theater. And there are a few [award categories] that are missing. I don't believe there's a wig or hair design category, there's no makeup, and there's no ensemble. And those are sort of the artistic elements that help create a show that are still missing from categories. So I guess I would just say if you're going to celebrate the creation of the art of theater, then those also should be included. Because they're vital, vital parts of creating a piece of art that when we gather for the Tonys, we're all there to celebrate.

LANZARONE: There's a lot of ways to tell a story. And a lot of ways to tell a story onstage. But we still need ensembles. We still need ways to realistically populate whatever place and time our characters are in. And the use of ensemble only adds to the depth and breadth of the possibility that exists within that storytelling. And to acknowledge a group of people who are making all of the other nominees look as good as they do. I think it's sort of a respect thing.

On the hard work that it takes to be an ensemble performer:

STRUXNESS: A hard show looks like "Hamilton." That is hands down the hardest show I have ever done. Sort of every thought of your day circles around the show. What you eat for breakfast, how much sleep you get, when do you decide to go to sleep at night, you know. After the show, do you decide that you're going to eat and do body maintenance or are you going to eat and go to sleep? Are you going to not eat? Like, I began having to make sacrifices like that as I was going forward with the show because I needed so much sleep in order for my body to physically recover. Because sleep is so restorative for dancers and for your voice... You don't get home until about 12:30 at night, maybe 1 o'clock. And that's when you have to decide whether you're going to eat, maintain your body or go to sleep.

On the double-edged sword of being a talented ensemble performer:

LANZARONE: It's what my mother calls the curse of competence. [laughs]

STRUXNESS: Or the curse of being versatile. It's a pigeon-hole that you then have to just put your foot down and potentially not work for years in order to let people know that you're serious about moving forward.

LANZARONE: However, there are people who make their lives and their living doing this work. And they love it more than I've had. I have friends who have gone on to principal roles and gone, "Oh my god, no, I hate this. Never mind, never mind, never mind." I think so much of it is about each individual person's temperament and the kind of work they like to do.

Lanzarone, who was recently in the ensemble for the musical "Sweet Charity," on whether ensemble work is appreciated within the Broadway community:

I think that people within the Broadway community certainly understand because Broadway is such a niche market in itself that we're all kind of this 'Island of Misfit Toys' a little bit. Where it gets a little dicey sometimes is when people throw the word "just" in front of a job description and that's where I start to bristle. It's sort of a lack of true acknowledgment of the depth of work required of every person of that stage, especially the people whose names are not above the title.

To hear John Horn's conversation with Nikka Graff Lanzarone and Betsy Struxness, click the play button at the top of the page.

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