Just in front of the front row, just below Simba’s dancing paws, exists the musical backbone of “The Lion King” – a 17-member orchestra that provides the soundtrack to each performance but is never seen by the audience.
The orchestra is a collection of drummers, guitarists, keyboardists, and string players – some of whom travel with the show and some of whom are hired in each city that the touring production lands.
Flutist Kay Ragsdale has been with the touring production for its entire 10-year lifespan, and even before she joined, she had a long list of musicals on her resume, from “Les Miserables” to “Miss Saigon.”
It’s the best job a flute player can aspire to, said Ragsdale, who during the show plays 15 different types of flutes, each one chosen to correspond with a specific character or mood. The flutes are both horizontal and vertical and come from all over the world, including India, China and South America.
“Musically, I think this is as fun a part as I’ve done,” Ragsdale said. “I think if I went to back to a show that was just a flute and a piccolo, I would feel lost. This is a reward to me for an entire lifetime of flute-playing.”
Ragsdale started playing the flute “in fifth grand band like everyone else.”
She stuck with the instrument as a career and played in a variety of orchestras. She was once a substitute player on Broadway.
Throughout her career, she studied and mastered the many varieties of flutes that exist around the world, which served her well when auditioning for “The Lion King.”
One morning last month after a show at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre, where the show played just before coming to Wichita, Ragsdale showed off her complicated setup in the pit.
She sits each night behind a music stand, just to the conductor’s left. In front of her is a four-tiered rack of colorful flutes, made from wood, bamboo and metal. Some are smaller than a ruler.
The bigger flutes are carefully arranged around Ragsdale’s chair, some leaning against the wall beside her. Some of those are so tall, she must stand up to play them.
She described how the different flutes and their sounds go along with the different characters.
When young Simba is on stage, Ragsdale plays a small pan pipe, which looks like a row of rods fixed together side by side, each one a different length. The small pan pipe produces high-pitched, playful notes. Audience members can hear it during “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”
When Simba grows into a teenager, Ragsdale moves to a larger, deeper-sounding pan pipe, which is on display during “Endless Night.”
When the hyenas are on stage, Ragsdale plays a bamboo pan pipe from Czechoslovakia, which produces a menacing, spooky noise. Mufasa’s scenes are accompanied by a long bansuri pipe from India, which produces a low, regal sound.
Villain Scar’s entrances are greeted with sounds from a giant, five-foot high pan pipe from Ecuador called a poyo that produces a deep and ominous windy sound.
Ragsdale loves her job and is eager to share her knowledge with audience members. She encourages them to bring their children to the pit during intermission, where she’s happy to show off her instruments and answer questions. (Although it’s a bit of a challenge in Century II’s Concert Hall, where the front row is just a few feet from the pit, which is covered in netting.)
“This is a bonanza,” Ragsdale said. “This is as good as it gets. It’s a dream come true. I can remember when I started out trying to learn these instruments on my own, I never dreamed I’d get to do something like this.”