Choruses and ensembles power the classic American theatre!
Just like you do, we love our great American theatre. Most of the best known and most loved musicals and plays have had lives well beyond Broadway. If you performed in theatre in high school, you were probably in one of these beloved shows—you might even remember some of your lines!
Every great American show has its classic scenes that everyone remembers, and many of these scenes have something in common: they feature the entire company out on stage, creating the background of the world in which the action takes place. Maybe they’re in their beds in an orphanage after lights out, whispering so Mrs. Hannigan doesn’t hear them. Or they’re going about their business in a small town in New Hampshire, or sitting in a hot courtroom while an electric fan slowly turns overhead, or filling the crowd at a picnic or a festival or a clambake.
And very often these full-company scenes involve a big chorus or dance number, where the entire company is acting and singing, smiling and sweating together at the same time.
You couldn’t do scenes like these without everyone on stage. And to prove it, we’ve found some images of classic Broadway moments and tried to show you what they’d be like without their chorus or ensemble. Warning: it’s not pretty.
The role of Dolly Levi (originated above by the great Carol Channing) has been performed on great stages by almost a dozen of the most talented performers of stage and screen, and in regional theatres, community playhouses, and high school auditoriums by the thousands around the world. In every single production you’ll recall some version of the “dancing waiters” scene you see above. The mass of activity and talent makes this scene; without the full company on stage it wouldn’t be the same. Here’s the original photo so you can compare.
Our Town is one of the classic American plays for school and community production because it depicts scenes of everyday life that everyone can relate to, and because its large ensemble cast, many playing multiple roles, creates opportunities for a range of performers. Here’s the cast of Our Town from the 2003 Broadway revival, with Paul Newman in the center. (This production marked Newman’s return to Broadway after 38 years away.) Imagine how much less impactful this show would be like without a full ensemble!
The Music Man
Meredith Willson’s musical won a Tony in 1957, and for good reasons: its combination of folksiness and sharp wit, along with an involved story and rollicking good songwriting. One reason The Music Man is still staged so widely in student and amateur theatre is that, like Our Town, it calls for a large cast, with lots of opportunities for a range of singing, dancing, and speaking performers. On Broadway and in regional theatre productions, that means a large chorus, and everyone in the company is on stage for the songs everyone remembers, like “Wells Fargo Wagon” (go on, sing along, we won’t judge you … we’re doing it now).
These big stage numbers work because everyone’s in view, everyone’s moving, everyone’s singing at once. (Even in the 1969 film version, during this song the camera toured practically the whole town and took in everyone in the cast.) Here’s the original photo… and below is what “Wells Fargo Wagon” would look like without the whole-company feel. Not so spectacular!
West Side Story
And finally: West Side Story. This show is such a tour de force of music and song and dance and activity that it’s hard to imagine it without everyone on stage. We found this archive photo of members of the company rehearsing for the 1957 Broadway production. It’s hard to imagine this show without the energy of the streets that brings it to life, because its vibrancy depends on having a stage full of people, all moving in unison.
Photos on this page: Hello, Dolly!: Archive photo by Joan Marcus via Playbill. Our Town: Joan Marcus/Getty Images. The Music Man: Summit (NJ) High School production, 2009, via YouTube. West Side Story: Archive photo by Martha Swope from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, via Google Arts & Culture. Photos for illustrative purposes only.