The Unsung Stories of Broadway's Long-running Ensemblists

Special Features   The Unsung Stories of Broadway's Long-running Ensemblists
 
A successful career on Broadway isn't necessarily glittered with fame and fortune. In fact, working continuously on the stage is a feat. There are many actors in the choruses of shows — often called the backbone of Broadway — who leave less elaborate lives, show up to work, light up the stage and then wake up to do it all again. These are their stories.

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Mark Lotito in <i>Jersey Boys</i>
Mark Lotito in Jersey Boys Photo by Joan Marcus

It’s the greatest myth of the Great White Way: a nobody steps out from the chorus to become a star. But just beyond the spotlight lies another path to Broadway success. It’s not necessarily glittered with town cars or statuettes, but for the worker bees of Broadway, a long run is both a dream come true and that rarity in the arts: a steady paycheck. So how do these artists balance eight shows a week with the daily grind of coffee, kids and commutes?

Michele McConnell calls getting cast in Phantom of the Opera “winning a golden ticket.” Since 2011, she's gone onstage as Carlotta 1,644 times. Being in a show long-term gives actors the luxury of making plans, or as McConnell puts it, “That steady job helps when you’re applying for a mortgage!” She and her husband own a home in Newark, even though “that might as well be Texas to some Broadway people!” But McConnell enjoys the the 20-minute commute to Penn Station, which she uses to prepare for showtime. “There’s something psychological for me. I go through the tunnel and I get pumped up. Then I leave the tunnel, and I leave it all behind.”

Michele McConnell and Christian Sebek
Michele McConnell and Christian Sebek

Like thousands of other New Yorkers, Mark Lotito — a member of Jersey Boys since its 2005 premiere — takes the subway to work. “My wife and I are both actors. We have two kids, so our lives are pretty full. We seem to be busy all the time.” But like McConnell, Lotito tries to partition his stage work from the rest of his day. “When I’m not at the show, I make sure that I’m mentally engaged somewhere else — especially running around with my kids, coaching youth sports.”

Facing the logistical choreography of parenthood, Lainie Sakakura, a cast member in The King and I, describes herself as the company manager of her own life. “When the show started, my husband was out of town for seven months. So I had a roster of 12 babysitters. Every week I’d shoot out my schedule, and they’d all shoot me back with the slots that they could take.”

Lainie Sakakura
Lainie Sakakura

Once they get to their workplaces, these performers must shake off their ordinary lives and focus. “You really have to slap yourself in the face and say, ‘Come on, you’re here; if you’re going to do it, do it right, or just go,’” explains Lotito. “If you don’t put yourself in the moment, then the monotony can creep in.” His dedication to Jersey Boys has taught him the value of predictability in his craft. “You strive for consistency, but in the striving, it can really surprise you how fresh the ride can be each night.”

For McConnell, the challenge is scheduling a day that peaks at 8 PM. “I’m very conservative about how much energy I’m putting out from about 4:30 on. I am fond of exercise, so I have to be careful about what time of day I do it. Some people love that rush right before the show—that just makes me more tired, frankly!”

But don’t mistake these long hard hours of work for drudgery. The worker bees find satisfaction in exercising their craft. “I’ve been on a theatre schedule for 17 to 18 years steadily, and the longest break I had was due to an injury. I busted my calf muscle onstage," says Lotito. "I realized early on that the chances of fame and celebrity are super-remote. So the goal for me was to work steadily and just see where it takes me. I never would’ve been able to tell you this is where I would end up. But even so, I don’t feel like I’m wrapping it up. I’ve got good years ahead.”

Indeed, the Broadway community recognizes the contribution of these hard workers with the gypsy robe. In each show, according to Actors’ Equity, the robe is awarded to the ensemble member with the most Broadway chorus credits, which marks “his or her dedication, professionalism, and seasoned performing career.”

Sakakura was honored with the robe on King’s opening night, reminding her why she perseveres on Broadway. “When I was young, I used to watch a lot of movie musicals, and I never saw anyone that looked like myself. But when I’d see great ensemble work, I wanted to be one of those dancers," she says. "So I just wanted to be somewhere on that stage doing good work.” It may not match the myth of stardom, but hard work has its own rewards.

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