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On the Need for a "Best Ensemble" Tony Award

Singling out one actor from a production is fine, but what happens when more than one deserves the recognition?

All seven men in Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina are important to the production and deserve recognition for their work.
(© Matthew Murphy)

In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Neil Patrick Harris is delivering a star turn of epic proportions. From the moment he walks out onstage, he has the audience in the palm of his hand. You can't take your eyes off of him and his bold, audacious performance, one that deserves all of the awards it's eligible for this season. But what happens when you see a show and you find yourself spellbound by multiple performers? What if there's a show with eight actors who are all collectively excellent? Or 30? Then you have an award-worthy ensemble — but ensembles tend to get the short end of the stick.

It's confounding as to why ensembles so often go unrecognized. Whether it's a group of actors playing multiple roles in a drama, as in the hardworking company of James Lapine's Act One, or a chorus of hoofing gangsters and chorus girls in Susan Stroman's Bullets Over Broadway, ensembles are the unsung heroes of the performing-arts world. The Drama Desk Awards rightly honor deserving ensembles with special non-competitive awards — this year, it's the companies of Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses and The Open House — but when it comes to the Tonys, the phrases "Best Ensemble in a Musical" and "Best Ensemble in a Play" are never uttered.

It's a shame this season, because there are a whole lot of first-rate ensembles that should be acknowledged. Take the nine actors in Harvey Fierstein's fascinating drama Casa Valentina. While Patrick Page, Reed Birney, and Mare Winningham have what amount to the play's "central roles", just as important are the six others who take the stage — John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Larry Pine, and Nick Westrate. To single out any one of them as a "favorite" would be unfair to their collectively intelligent, moving work. Each actor plays a major part within the mechanisms of the play and its world, and all of them deserve the recognition that only one, or maybe two, will likely get.

Each actor in the Shakespeare's Globe revivals of Twelfth Night and Richard III was just as vital as Mark Rylance (right).
(© David Gordon)

A similar fate will likely befall the cast of Twelfth Night and Richard III, the remarkable productions from Shakespeare's Globe in London that had an acclaimed run at the Belasco Theatre this past winter. Mark Rylance will seemingly take the Featured Actor slot for his jaw-dropping performance as Twelfth Night's Olivia, but everyone in that company deserves recognition for not only playing one role, but sometimes two or three. The talented cast, a group that also included recognizable names like Samuel Barnett and Stephen Fry, may have trod the boards for only four months, but collectively they set the standard for the way Shakespeare should be performed.

Credit must also be given to the casts of the current revivals of A Raisin in the Sun and The Cripple of Inishmaan, both of which feature stars who are unafraid to give refreshingly un-star-like performances. Kenny Leon and Michael Grandage could have staged their respective productions around their big-name leads, Denzel Washington and Daniel Radcliffe, but instead they balanced the shows so that star power doesn't get in the way of good storytelling. The same can be said of All the Way, which bills Bryan Cranston in a font almost larger than the title, but also features an ensemble of actors just as vital to the plot. He isn't afraid to cede the spotlight to his 18 costars.

Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil O" Gadson are among the many showstopping performers in After Midnight.
(© Matthew Murphy)

And those are just the plays. Nowadays, musicals require performers to be quadruple threats — not only are they required to sing, dance, and act; some must even play instruments and serve as the orchestra (like in Cabaret). The hardest-working musical ensemble of the season, though, has to be the singing hoofers of After Midnight. Warren Carlyle has provided energetic, varied choreography. It's remarkable how the performers can jump, twist, and even Skrontch without breaking a sweat. Adriane Lenox received shouts of approval following her rendition of "Woman Be Wise," but Jared Grimes' eleven-o'clock performance of "Tap Mathematician/It Don't Mean A Thing" is just as much of a standout. So is everything performed by Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Julius "iGlide" Chisolm, and the extraordinary Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars.

With any luck, "Best Ensemble" is a category that will be added sooner rather than later, if only to honor some of the hardest workers on a Broadway stage.