‘Lion King’ flutist uses 15 instruments to create sound of characters

Just before the end of intermission at Proctors, take a look in the pit and you’ll see Kay Ragsdale

Just before the end of intermission at Proctors, take a look in the pit and you’ll see Kay Ragsdale surrounded by the 15 flutes she plays during “The Lion King.” Except for the usual western flute and piccolo, almost all the others are made of bamboo.

“I’m playing on plants,” she said with a laugh last month during a stop in North Carolina. “It’s a toyland and every instrument has a great history behind it.”

For this show, each of her flutes is the voice of a character or part of the plot. There’s the bansuri, an Indian alto flute, for Musafa; a toyo, which is the bass member of a double row of pan pipes from South America and is 5 feet in length, is Scar; and when Simba is only a cub, he is heard as the Irish pan pipes. Chinese pan pipes belong to Nala.

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For Gazette theater writer Bill Buell’s preview of “The Lion King,” click here.

Ragsdale, who has been with the touring production of “The Lion King” for nine years, got a taste for ethnic flutes when she was in music school at Indiana University.

“The history of western flute fascinated me,” she said. “I started to research on my own. I looked at record covers and if I found a flute that matched the picture, I would stumble through learning how to play it.”

In the 1980s, show music composers began using ethnic flutes more. When Ragsdale wasn’t busy freelancing in the Chicago area, she practiced on many of these flutes and became so skilled, especially on the Japanese shakuhachi, that she got the job playing on the Stephen Sondheim show “Pacific Overtures,” which required her to learn various Chinese flutes.

She also had to improvise on them, a skill that enabled her to win the audition for the “Miss Saigon” tour, which she was on for four years. Other tours followed, including “Les Misérables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and a stint on Broadway, also in “Les Mis.” In 2001 she got the offer to do “The Lion King” and she’s been happily part of the 17-piece orchestra ever since, she said.

Ragsdale said she has David Weiss, the flutist who plays the show on Broadway, to thank for choosing the instruments for her part. Some of them were new to her.

“It’s an endlessly fascinating journey of learning,” she said. “And every night, I don’t know how they’ll react to temperature and humidity. You need to use oil indigenous to where the bamboo grew. They’re like having 15 children and hoping they’ll all behave. You’re constantly hovering over them to not have a crisis. You must keep them comfortable.”

Fortunately, Ragsdale has a triple backup system in case one of the flutes cracks.

Categories: Life and Arts

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