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BWW Interview: The Ensemblist Podcast Returns for a Second Season

Known as "the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out," The Ensemblist has become the champion of unsung performance heroes and the inner workings of the theatre world alike. Co-created and co-hosted by Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge) and Mo Brady (SMASH, The Addams Family), the podcast has covered everything from the Gypsy Robe ceremony, to the audition process, to what it's like to be a Broadway babysitter during its first three years on the air. Now, following a successful first season covering the "Ensemblist Essentials," this past spring, The Ensemblist is entering into its second season (check out the first episode below!) and I sat down to talk with Nikka and Mo about how the podcast has grown, what it looks like to balance careers in the arts with being podcast masters, which Broadway ensemble they'd like to join, and more-check out the full interview below!


Ashlee Latimer: To start off, for those poor, unfortunate souls who haven't yet heard The Ensemblist, can you give them a quick, Twitter-length synopsis?

Mo Brady: We're in our fourth year of producing the podcast, which has typically come out every week or two weeks. For our first three years, we would do an episode that was centered around a different aspect of being a Broadway ensemblist; being a swing, or the Gypsy Robe, or original cast albums.

Nikka Graff Lanzarone: They were all one-offs.

MB: We would speak to three experts on that topic to get the general overview of how the ensemble deals with original cast albums, or swinging. Starting in 2016, we decided to do something a little different where we do these concise seasons that are around an idea. Then each episode is a topic that relates to the idea. So, in the spring, we did what we called "Ensemblist Essentials," which was a season of 'The things you must know to be an ensemble member in this business.' We did an episode about pre-production, an episode about creating characters, etc. That led up to this season.

NGL: Where we're telling the story of the history of the ensemblist, using the nine musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as fixed points in time We're going from 1931 to 2016 and using these shows to talk about what the typical show was like for an ensemblist at the time; did this show change anything about that job, while it was changing everything about the way theatre was written and produced and made? We're grappling with history and the huge lynchpins that made the ensemblist experience totally different. Did any of those things happen in these shows? If not, then why this show at this time?

AL: So it's kind of like the Jennifer Tepper season?

NGL: We did, in fact, bring Jen Tepper into the studio! We sat her down in front of a microphone for an hour-and-a-half and we were like, "Ready, set: say things."

MB: She was our resident historian that was able to speak to the Broadway and cultural climates of the scene, and the original production of South Pacific. Then our guests for the episodes are all people who have done productions of the nine Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals.

NGL: Many of them more than one, and in different capacities.

MB: So we get to see actors and directors-

NGL: And choreographers. More of a 3D look, rather than a 2D look, at how you make a show.

MB: We interview people like Michael McElroy, who has done both Rent and Next to Normal, so we're not only talking to him about what it means to be in the ensemble of those shows, we're also able to say, "Is there a through line between Rent and Next to Normal?"

NGL: And Michael Berresse, who has directed productions of Next to Normal, and was in A Chorus Line, so we can talk about the different ways that he approaches a show as an actor, and as a director, and how he approaches a show written in a certain time that represents so much to people, or how he approaches a show written in this time that represents a totally different world.

MB: In the past we've tried to take an idea and then see how it's reflected in the Broadway community right now. When we did a show about original cast albums it was about, "Ok, who's doing original cast albums right now, and how can we take this point in history and memorialize it?" The guests for this episode are not all people who are currently on Broadway-in fact, most of them aren't. It was more interesting to us to find people who had done multiple shows and who are really ensemblist heroes. Like JoAnn Hunter, Jeffrey DeMunn, Cleve Asbury-people who have a depth of experience as performers, and also happen to have experience on these same things.

AL: How do you balance being in charge of this big thing that has grown so much over the past several years with both of your careers?

NGL: We remind ourselves that it's a hobby; nobody is setting these deadlines for us, except us. If things come up, we can say, "We're not ready for this, let's move some things around." We don't have a studio, we don't have a radio station, we don't have anybody breathing down our necks to make a budget. We don't have any benchmarks that we have to hit. Our benchmarks are ones that we have set.

MB: It allows us to be reactive, too, both in terms of our lives, and in our careers. [My husband and I] got a baby in January, so we pre-programmed a lot of stuff before then, and then we were basically out of production for three months, because life happened. Nikka's going to be in the Off-Broadway revival of Sweet Charity this fall, and she's going to go into rehearsal at the end of September, while our behind-the-scenes stuff is going to really slow down. We have that gift.

NGL: We also have a team that works really well together, that knows whose turn it is to pick up what someone else can't continue-the five of us work really well together and if someone says, "My plate is too full, I can't handle this," then someone else will always grab onto it. I think that a solid team, solid communication, is the number one thing in life at all times.

AL: And something that jumps out at me is the discipline of getting out of bed and doing all of this stuff when there's no one making you; it sounds a lot to me like making yourself go to that audition in the middle of January.

NGL: Time's going to pass anyway, so it's prioritizing what to do with that.

MB: Choosing topics that actually interest us, outside of the podcast, I think, is also super important. These are things that we actually want to know-or these are things that we actually want other people to know, about our fellow artists. It's not just 'Oh my god, I've got to create this podcast because of this deadline,' it's, 'It's really important to me, as a member of the Broadway community, that other people know about this. That you can do this and that. That you can be an actor and a parent. Mostly, it's about being a fully fleshed-out human being. That's what's important to us.

NGL: The biggest possible thing that we're trying to do is change the conversation about what it means to be a working artist today, and hopefully, as the generation of performers that is training and listening to our show at the same time comes up, and becomes a working generation of performers listening to our show-hopefully that's going to change some of the ways they're looking at the hierarchy of theatre and start to blur those lines a bit more. And as ensemblists start being asked to do more things that require an insane skill set, that inherent value will, I hope, be held up where it deserves to be. It's also about the generation of audience members that are watching shows and listening to us at the same time; hopefully, in time, when they listen to our show and then go see a show, they'll realize even more what it takes to make a show, and they'll know even more about everybody on stage, rather than just people above the title of the show.

AL: I think social media has helped with that.

NGL: Definitely.

MB: I don't think we're ever going to take away from the love of the Corey Cotts, or the Lin-Manuels, or the Jessie Muellers. That's all great, and we're never trying to say that that is wrong, or bad, or not as valid as what we're doing. We're just here to say-for those kids who love watching formations, and singing in vocal parts, and want to know who's understudying who, or whose favorite Newsie is the one that swings fourteen parts: that's okay too.

AL: It's created this balance because now there are new avenues for people to know about them.

NGL: We're just trying to restore equilibrium to the Universe, that's all.

MB: And just to add on to the social media idea, in a couple of ways: I think that actors are so much more accessible than they were. If you came to a show in the 1990s, like we did, you would stagedoor and that would be the chance to connect. Now, you can read their thoughts and you can see what they're doing and what they're eating. What we try to do is step back from that and look at the bigger picture. So, it's not about seeing what Paige Faure had to eat for breakfast, it's hearing what Paige Faure thinks about as an artist and about her career.

AL: You mean you don't want to do an entire episode on Paige Faure's breakfast?

NGL: I mean, she did do a Snapchat takeover for us, so if you were around to see that, you probably could've seen what she ate for breakfast.

MB: The other thing I think is this whole Hamilton idea that we're still trying to figure out. I think we see the cleanest trajectory of the ensemble as 'There was a singing, dancing ensemble, and then there was A Chorus Line,' that 'This was the beginning and this was the end,' but there're forty years after A Chorus Line-

NGL: But it also wouldn't exist without A Chorus Line. It's the biggest hinge, and then everything went after that.

MB: It's totally the biggest hinge, but it hasn't plateaued since then.

NGL: Right.

MB: It is still changing, and one of the biggest snapshots of Hamilton is influence on social media. You know, of those artists, and how they perform, and how they relate to audiences.

NGL: Which I think started with Rent, but those tools just didn't exist in 1996 the way they do now. Listservs existed, but the idea of a 'fandom' didn't exist in the same way until Rent, because the internet was still in its infancy, and so much about that show is ephemeral and about 'right now,' and about the community coming together. We wouldn't have that without A Chorus Line, and so much of Hamilton is from A Chorus Line.

AL: Which shows the way that technology and art have changed together; you know, my grandmother knows about Hamilton, but is not into Broadway enough to know who was in the second replacement cast of Rent.

NGL: Right. And we haven't truly had a zeitgeisty, 'songs on the radio' show, since...I want to say "One Night in Bangkok" was the last musical theatre song that charted. That was so long ago.

MB: It was also from Chess.

NGL: True, but it did chart!

NGL: Now, showtunes might be able to come back into pop music, which is something we haven't seen since the 50s and 60s. Everything is related to everything else because we're in such a niche industry.

MB: And if you're only just now getting into theatre because of Hamilton, there's a reason that you're connecting with Sasha Hutchings, and Ariana DeBose, and Seth Stewart, and Jon Rua the way that you are. That actually goes all the way back to-

NGL: South Pacific.

AL: Right, and with what you were saying about breaking down the hierarchy: It's creating more of a web diagram, as opposed to a top-down-

NGL: Yeah! A web diagram. We're gonna take that from you, thanks Ashlee.

AL: As Tim Federle would say: My lawyers will be contacting yours.

AL: So, as you go into these seasons, can audiences still expect to see the Rehearsal Reports and Unedited offshoots?

NGL: Yes. We still have all of that coming.

MB: And we'll do another fall roundtable at the end of the year where we get to talk about-

NGL: All the things we've seen.

MB: Yeah, that's the plan! We're in the thick of it right now. It's really happening.

AL: The second season starts on September 4th; will it still be weekly?

NGL: Every Sunday, until-

MB: I think until almost the holiday break we'll put out a new episode every week.

AL: Your bumper stickers-or, in the case of Adam Kaplan, personal steamer stickers-are cropping up everywhere on social media; how do regular people get them?

NGL: On redbubble.com! We have a store.

AL: Going forward, what are some bucket list things that you want to check off for The Ensemblist?

MB: I would like to have a stronger presence at the Astaire Awards this year. We've had conversations with them, and I feel like that's the existing ceremony that's most in line with that we do. Also, I think people want to have a conversation about diversity right now, and I want to find new ways to talk about the full ensemblist experience, which includes being a minority, because that's not something you walk away from when you leave a show.

NGL: We can talk about crossover topics.

MB: Crossover topics! That's a good term.

NGL: New series! That's something that would be good to hand the platform to someone and say, 'It's not our place, or our purview, to speak to it,' because we can't speak to it.

MB: We're four gay white men and one straight white woman; we're not the most underrepresented crew.

NGL: Yes, and also: we want to provide ensemblists with the platform to talk about their experience, for whatever they want to talk about. They say for every 200 auditions, you book one project, so if it's talking about that-you know, we tend to paint a rosier picture of Broadway than exists all the time. So, maybe delving into some things that suck, in our trademark, 'It doesn't suck!' way.

MB: Also, I'll toot our own horn and say that when we started the podcast and were looking for guests for an episode, we would look at their credits, we would try to find diversity in guests, and we would look at their social media accounts to see what sort of platform they had. We're now, thankfully, in a place where we have more of a social following than most Broadway ensemble members. So, rather than needing their signal boost, we can be-

NGL: Signal boosters-

MB: For them. Which I think is an exciting goal, really.

NGL: Yeah! We're almost to ten thousand followers.

MB: I like being the spokesperson, but it's not about being the spokesperson. You know, I don't do this because I want more Twitter followers, I do this because I think it's important for the Broadway ensemble members to be heard.

AL: Amazing. Ok. Lightning round questions.

NGL: Mo loves the lightning round.

AL: Favorite theatre podcast that's not your own?

MB: I started listening to Behind the Curtain, and I think they're doing really interesting work.

NGL: I want to say Broadway Stories.

AL: Favorite Broadway tradition?

NGL: Gypsy Robe.

MB: Gypsy Robe, sorry.

AL: Favorite self-care item?

MB: Toothbrush? I drink a lot of coffee, so I really need a toothbrush.

NGL: Anything from the Erin's Faces line of makeup and skin care. She is a genius person and I love her.

AL: Would you rather: Have back-to-back two show days every week, or have to talk to every Elmo in Times Square on your daily walk to work.

MB: Oh my.

MB and NGL: Elmo.

NGL: Depends on the show. It honestly depends on the show.

MB: Is it Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]?

NGL: It honestly depends on my track in the show.

MB: 90 minutes, no intermission.

NGL: Yeah, if it's 90 minutes, no intermission, and I don't have to screlt on stage, or die, or cry a lot, then sure.

AL: Otherwise, Elmo.

NGL: Otherwise, Elmo.

MB: There are only like 10 Elmos. Wait, do you have to do that every day, or just once?

NGL and AL: Every day.

MB: Oh. Then no, yeah, two show days, sorry.

NGL: Still depends on the show for me.

AL: Would you rather: Have Best Book and Score televised every year, or bring back the Sound Design Tony?

MB: Ohhhh-

NGL: Nix all of it for a Best Ensemble award!

MB: What she said, but also: Sound Design. You can be on TV and that's great, but let's give out more awards.

AL: If you could only see the first act of Hamilton, or the second act of Hamilton, which would you choose?

MB: Two. I listen to act one of Hamilton way more than I listen to act two, but I think act two is a really fulfilling hour of theatre.

NGL: I'd like to see the first act of Sunday in the Park with George, and the second act of Hamilton. Every day.

MB: I think I would rather see the second act of Sunday in the Park with George too, though.

NGL: Can we switch back and forth? Just first act something and second act something? Every day? And never see the full show?

AL: Ok, last question: If you could jump into the ensemble of any currently running Broadway production, which would you choose?

MB: You know who looks like they're having fun? The Something Rotten cast. I think that they are having a really good time at the St. James. And they're all doing great work-

NGL: It looks like a nice place to work.

MB: Yeah, it looks like a nice place to work. I'd do Something Rotten.

NGL: That's a really good idea. I'm also staring at the Fiddler marquee and thinking about how I've never done Fiddler, so part of me just wants to say Fiddler because I've never done it.

MB: Say it.

NGL: But I've never done Something Rotten either. I don't know, who wants to give me a job?

AL: Telsey is going to call; I'm going to tell them your answers so that they can.

NGL: Right after January, I'm available. Yeah, I guess Something Rotten, because it does look like a nice place to work. And it's a well-organized bunch of ensemble tracks. I feel like you're never off-stage so long that you get bored, but you're never onstage so much that you can't see straight.

AL: So, if it was Something Rotten, would you rather do two-show days, or Elmo?

MB: I'd still rather do two-show days.

NGL: I don't know.

MB: How long are these conversations with the Elmos? Are they like, 'hey,' or are they five minutes?

NGL: We're really getting into this.

MB: Annnnnnd scene.

NGL: Thanks for listening!

AL: And tune in on Sundays!


For more information about The Ensemblist, visit http://www.theensemblist.com, and check out the first episode of their new season below:


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