My Favorite Things: The Ensemble

In a recent interview with The Ensemblist podcast, songwriters Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty talked about why they like writing for ensembles and described the dramatic benefits that a solid ensemble can bring to a show. After listening to what these amazing composers had to say on the subject, I was inspired to share some of my own favorite ensemble pieces.

“Belle” (Beauty And The Beast) – Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

One of the ways that an ensemble can enrich a show is by acting as a source of exposition. Before the curtain goes up, the audience is already brimming with questions. Who is this story about? Where do they live, what do they do — and why do we care? Here is where the ensemble can help set the scene. In Beauty and the Beast’s opening number, “Belle,” they do just that, and then some.

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What’s so great about this piece is that it’s not just a song, it’s an entire musical scene. With help from the ensemble of townsfolk, the audience is immediately transported to this little French town. The song not only introduces our heroine, it also takes the opportunity to place her in stark contrast with her would-be leading man Gaston. Everyone loves him, but they aren’t so sure about “that funny girl” Belle. Having the company describe Belle here instead of simply giving her a monologue makes another important distinction: Belle is surrounded by people who don’t understand her. As an audience, we experience what her little town is like, and we realize why she is so desperate for an escape

“In the Heights” (In the Heights) – Lin-Manuel Miranda

Both Miranda and Ahrens talked about how the ensemble is crucial in building the world of a show. One of my favorite things about In the Heights is that it is truly an ensemble piece – every character on stage has a story. In the show’s opening number, the audience is treated to a glimpse into each of these individual narratives as our protagonist Usnavi describes a typical morning in Washington Heights. In one song, the audience is not only introduced to the individual characters themselves, but also to the neighborhood’s dynamics as a whole. It’s the perfect setup for the rest of the show.

[As you listen to this, can we talk about these absolutely gorgeous orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman? I mean, that horn section is FLAWLESS.]

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“A Rumor in St. Petersburg” (Anastasia) – Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

Miranda noted that another way the ensemble can factor into the dramatic flow of a show is to play with tension and relief. “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” written by Ahrens and Flaherty for the 1997 animated film Anastasia, is a great example of how the ensemble can affect the show’s tone. The prologue that happens just before this number is, in a word, heavy. A scary sorcerer guy sells his soul to the devil, the Romanov family is cursed forever, and our young heroine is left an orphan with no memory of who she really is. I can imagine that someone sitting down to watch this movie with their kids might wonder what they got themselves into. It’s that initial misgiving, though, that makes the placement of this song so perfect. The comic relief is palpable as a cast of kooky company members set the stage. This piece does more than just introduce the plot — it reassures the audience that this story is going to be a fun one.

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“Prologue” (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) – Dave Malloy

Even though it’s one of my absolute favorite shows I’ve discovered here at NMT, I’ll admit that it took me a while to get through the entire cast recording of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 — and this song is the reason why. The first number of the show, featuring the whole ensemble, is so fun that I couldn’t stop listening to it. The musical is based on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but the setting established in this piece feels much more contemporary than 19th century Russia. After acknowledging that their story is in fact a “complicated Russian novel” where “everyone’s got nine different names,” the company members introduce themselves in turn. The character descriptions are endearingly anachronistic — Natasha’s godmother is “old-school” and her love interest, Anatole, is “hot” — but the repetition that “Andrey…isn’t here” is just ominous enough to make an audience curious.

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“Don’t Break the Rules” (Catch Me If You Can) – Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Ensemble pieces can do a lot to establish the setting and tone of a story, and with all of those voices to work with, they can be some of the most vocally interesting as well. This last song is an example of one of my own reasons for loving ensemble pieces — what I like to call the “wow” factor. In this piece from Catch Me If You Can, FBI agent Carl Hanratty describes his personal philosophy on life. As incredible as Norbert Leo Butz’s first verse is, there’s no denying that the energy of the song explodes once the company comes in to back him up. The back-and-forth between Hanratty and the ensemble is what makes this piece a showstopper.

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What are your favorite ensemble numbers?

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