Some of Broadway’s biggest stars started in a chorus or ensemble
Chorus and ensemble performance, in Broadway and across the country, is a lifelong career for hundreds of hardworking actors, singers, and dancers in the American theatre. But it’s also the place where many of the most beloved lead performers of the American stage and screen got their start. They all still look back with fondness on their chorus and ensemble experience—and with respect at the hard work that chorus and ensemble performers put in.
Here are a few of them:
Shirley MacLaine has been a household name for decades, with memorable star performances in dozens of films. But she started on Broadway, as an ensemble performer and an understudy in The Pajama Game (pictured above). In fact, it was during a period when Carol Haney, the actress she had been understudying, was out of commission—and MacLaine was performing (and dancing) the role of Gladys Hotchkiss in her stead—that she caught the eye of a Hollywood producer in the audience. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sutton Foster performed in the Broadway companies of Grease and Les Misérables before being hired as an understudy for the 2002 Broadway production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Because the actress originally hired wasn’t able to fulfill her commitment, Foster ended up creating the role on Broadway—for which she won a Tony Award. (Above you see the show’s cast performing in the 2002 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.)
Phylicia Rashad, who performed for years as Claire Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” started her career on Broadway in choruses and ensembles, performing as a Munchkin in the original Broadway chorus of The Wiz and as an ensemble performer in Dreamgirls. More recently, she returned to Broadway to win a Tony as Best Lead Actress for A Raisin in the Sun.
Taye Diggs performed in the ensemble in the 1994 revival of Carousel, where he also served as an understudy. This led directly to his casting as one of the principals in the Broadway production of Rent in 1996, which launched his career as a star of stage, film, and television.