We knew it every time we opened our programs to find those little paper slips that told us which understudies got into which roles for which actors who tested positive for the coronavirus. We became acquainted with the uh-oh reflex that those announcements evoked in us — a gut-level assumption turned out to be wrong every time we got lucky in a great understudy. We also became familiar with the relief we felt when we opened our programs to not find replacements.
A cast is a delicate organism, with each actor changing the chemistry of the whole. But what delightful theater a troupe can create when all its parts work in harmony—the troupe drawing on the artistry of each member as needed, including those who fill the couch most nights.
WHEN A SHOW wins best play or musical, or best revival, credit goes to the authors—and perhaps even more so to the producers, who tend to crowd the stage. Those categories aren’t really about the casts. When actors win an award, it’s a star’s turn.
Not every play was made for them, though — “Six,” for example, whose eight Tony nominations, the best musical among them, didn’t include any in the acting categories. The show’s conceit as a singing competition seems to invite the spotlight. But “Six” is also a concert, and it makes sense that it succeeds best when the actors work in concert: that is, together.
The first time I saw it, in London before it hit Broadway, it was only afterwards that I realized that there had been two alternates, one of which was particularly strong. But the entire cast was impressive. It was impossible for me to pick a favorite – because ‘Six’, a classical ensemble piece, really doesn’t want the performers to overshadow each other.
However, I’m not advocating an award limited to ensemble shows, or honoring supporting players only, which is another definition of ensemble. What is needed is an award for the entire cast of a Broadway play or musical.
It’s hardly an unprecedented idea. The Drama Desk Awards recognize an outstanding ensemble: this year’s ‘Six’. As theater Twitter likes to point out, the Screen Actors Guild Awards also have ensemble categories – although they are eligible for inclusion on a contract and billing basis. The Tonys could be more comprehensive than that.