There was a time (10 years ago? 20? 30?) when the proliferation of small-cast shows caused a small-scale hue and cry amongst theater devotees. Those who loved and pined for the shows with big ensembles – particularly musicals – saw the shrinkage of the typical cast to a couple or a handful of actors as another sign of the demise of ‘real’ theater and a concession to the crushing weight of economics over art. (This quote from the Wikipedia entry on musical theater: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Xanadu and …works like Avenue Q represent a trend towards presenting smaller-scale, small cast musicals that are able to show a good profit in a smaller house.”)
Others (perhaps more petulant observers) saw it as a dwindling of talent in the playwriting pool. Shakespeare wrote for casts of a dozen or two – were modern writers just not up to snuff? (Check out this interesting piece from the Guardian a couple of years ago that discusses production size.)
The big casts in some of the shows I’ve seen lately (Guys and Dolls, Side Show) and the fact that Richmond Shakespeare’s Hamlet this fall will be their biggest indoor cast yet has me thinking about this issue recently. But my thoughts generally have had more to do with balance. It seems to me that it can be hard in a town the size of Richmond to always find a cast where the talent is balanced. I remember a few productions this past season where the work of the leads or even of the majority of the company was excellent but where there were two or three actors in the ensemble – or sometimes just one – who clearly weren’t at the level of the rest of the cast. I came out of those productions wondering if I wouldn’t have liked it better if everyone in the cast was similarly skilled – even if that meant the leads would have been a bit less awesome (Note: while I wondered this, I didn't ultimately come to a conclusion. Would I really want less awesomeness on stage? Not really.)
I’m fairly certain every director simply wants the best actor for each role and so probably doesn’t (and functionally, can’t) go into a show wondering if they will need to make a choice about talent versus balance. But I expect they do have to make allowances for the differences in talent and experience and sometimes have to settle for the warm body they have versus the experienced thespian they’d prefer.
(P.S.: I write this with complete self-awareness that the only time I’ve ever appeared on stage was in a production of “Once Upon a Mattress” where I was one of those warm bodies trying really hard not to embarrass myself...and not succeeding.)
Where am I going with this? To circle back around to what I started with, I guess I’m saying that while I have always loved a stage full of people (favorite musicals: Godspell, Les Mis), I’ve come to appreciate the value of the smaller cast show. I think about attending a show like Firehouse’s “Eurydice” where everyone in the cast has the chops to be just incredible and feel more confident that I’m not going to be thrown out of my suspension of disbelief because of someone’s clumsy line readings.
I’d express a similar confidence about the production of “Four Queens in Hawaiian Shirts” that RTP is opening at Toad’s Place tomorrow night but I don’t know who is in the cast. I probably should and maybe I saw it listed somewhere, but now I forget. Can someone enlighten me? Please?