Tuesday, February 23, 2016

In the Pit of a Touring Broadway Show

    Occasionally the musicians in the pit of the Detroit Opera House are called upon to play for touring companies of Broadway shows and, less frequently, one of the woodwind books includes strictly flute doubles, meaning that whoever plays that book only has to play flute, piccolo, sometimes alto flute and, at times, recorder.  Usually the woodwind books include instruments that most legit flute players don’t play, like saxophone and clarinet. I have fond memories of playing shows such as Man of La Mancha, Carousel, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Music Man and Phantom of the Opera, to name a few.
    In the days before electronic keyboards there used to be full orchestras in the pit but now the shows usually travel with a conductor, two keyboard players who round out the orchestra with sampled sounds of strings, harp, oboe, bassoon and whatever else they need, one doubling as assistant conductor (so the conductor can have one show off out of 8 shows per week), and, depending on the show, possibly a trumpet player, guitarist or percussionist. In Lion King, for example (my favorite show) the flutist travels with the show, carrying along numerous members of the flute family, including all sizes of ethnic flutes to make the show sound more authentically African. The audition process for this show is grueling – the flutist practically has to be a professional pan pipe player as well as other end-blown and transverse bamboo flutes– and a very few have devoted their professional careers to travelling with the various touring productions of Lion King.
    I have enjoyed meeting the travelling musicians in these shows and I admire their patience in teaching us the books they know so well, every week or two a new batch of musicians in a new town. Again, Lion King stands out for the generosity and humanity of the flutist who has been to Detroit at least twice. Kay Ragsdale not only plays and takes care of the many flutes she plays in the show (I think it’s 15!), she also has her own personal collection of ethnic flutes which she keeps in a large trunk that travels with the show’s equipment. She offered to give a demonstration to any interested flutists and students while the show was in town so I put together an assembly of locals and she literally gave us a tour of the flute ‘world’ with demonstrations, stories and myths accompanying all the various flutes in her collection. It was fascinating! If you want to know more, just google Kay Ragsdale, Lion King flutes.
    Not only did Kay take much of her free time to give us the demonstration but she offered to let one student at a time sit in the pit with her during a show and watch over her shoulder as she played. Two of my students took advantage of her generous offer and so did I! This behind-the-scenes peek into the life of a pit musician was inspiring for them. She also gave each of them a gift – a hollow clay bird that you play like a whistle and, when you put a little water in its belly, it chirps and warbles like a real bird.
    Kindness and generosity abound in these touring companies. When Mary Poppins was in town, Nicolas Dromard, the actor who played Bert the chimney sweep (who, by the way, walks upside down across the proscenium during the big “Step in Time” dance number), came into the pit before one of the shows and introduced himself to me. As it happens, he played the flute and liked to meet the flute players in all the towns where they played with hopes that they might want to play duets sometime.  That opportunity came and we got together a few times to play duets and talk flutes. He had a lovely flute and we had fun playing duets. I brought a few of the books in my collection of flute duets from Mozart operas and mentioned in passing that I had lost my favorite one, duets from the Magic Flute. To my surprise, not long after that I received a new copy of the Magic Flute duets with a sweet note from him. Not only kind and generous, but thoughtful too.

    As I write this, I am in the middle of playing two weeks with the National Tour of “Cinderella”. We have one day off, then eight more magical shows. I’ll write about that in my next post.


  1. Here is a link to an interview with Kay Ragsdale, flutist with The Lion King, in which she demonstrates the 15 flutes she plays in the show.