Original flutist is pride of 'The Lion King' orchestra

The Lion King’s first national tour was born in Denver 13 years ago and has been playing in theatres all over North America ever since. And Kay Ragsdale is not bragging when she says that from the start, “I have had the best seat in the house.”

She doesn’t have an orchestra seat. She has a seat in the orchestra.

Ragsdale plays not one but 15 flutes in the groundbreaking musical, each producing a signature sound assigned to embody different characters at different stages of their lives.

“For instance, you have one flute just for Rafiki,” said Ragsdale. “Every time Rafiki comes out on stage or influences Simba’s life, you hear that sound – and only that sound – at that time.”

The Lion King is an unprecedented piece of proudly experimental theatre that has blossomed into a $7 billion commercial enterprise by blending South African chants with ballet, performance art, human puppetry, masks, forced perspectives and shadow imagery.

And the multicultural score is just as innovative as its puppetry, Ragsdale said.

“We’re telling a story that takes place in Africa, but like the puppets, you’re not seeing it – or hearing it – in only one way,” Ragsdale said. “We are using puppets from all over the world to tell this story. The music reflects that, too. Not all of the instruments are African, for example. We are telling the story from a global perspective. And that makes the world smaller. That tells the audience we’re all in this together.”

Ragsdale was playing in the orchestra for the Broadway production of Les Misérables when a friend told her she really needed to travel to Minneapolis to check out the new musical Disney was developing there. It was the pre-Broadway tryout of The Lion King, and Ragsdale was told that it had a mind-blowing part for the flutist. Next stop, Minnesota.

“I talked my way into buying a full-priced, obstructed-view-sea, which was a folding chair behind a support post,” she said with a laugh. But before long, she would go from the worst seat in the house … to the best.

“I just thought this was hands-down the best show I had ever witnessed, and the flute part was the best in the world.”

The Lion King, of course, took Broadway by storm. Ragsdale auditioned to play in the orchestra way back in 1998, but she didn’t get the call she was hoping for until 2001. She was offered a chair in the first national touring production of The Lion King opening in Denver in March 2002. To prepare for her assignment, she started attending The Lion King on Broadway once a week – and paying for it.

“In 2001, the show was sold out for years in advance,” Ragsdale said. “But you could get a get standing-room ticket if you got to the box office early enough. So every Sunday morning, I would be first in line to watch the show, and I did that for about 10 weeks.”

She describes the opening of the national tour in Denver as beyond exciting.

“The whole atmosphere backstage was electric,” she said. “I have distinct memories of the South African singers constantly singing, singing, singing. On stage. In the hallways. Everywhere. Everywhere you looked, people were constantly honing their craft.

“Then we had one big rehearsal where the full cast just stood and sang their parts with the full orchestra for the first time. I wish they had recorded that. It was electrifying. If you could have been in that room, it would have brought you to tears. It was that exciting.”

In the weeks leading up to that historic opening night on April 26, 2002, “You could feel it everywhere you went in Denver,” said Ragsdale. By the time the show finally opened, the city was at a fever pitch.

“We had some jackets at the time that only had this little tiny lion’s head insignia, but everyone in the town knew what it was,” Ragsdale said. “It felt like everyone in the city was participating in this event with us. Our opening night was an opening night for the entire city of Denver.”

And the rest, as they say, is … ongoing history.

“I think The Lion King signaled a completely new era of theatre,” Ragsdale said. “I think it broke the mold.”

And to think … many of the hundreds of thousands who have watched the show have no idea that the woman playing flute in the orchestra is actually playing 15 instruments. And she is fine with that.

“I think someone watching will know that something is different on some level, but you don’t have to know any more than that to appreciate it,” she said. Ragsdale loves when people return to the show and later tell her they heard more music than they did before.

“I love it when people say, “That part wasn’t in there before … was it?’ Actually, yes it was there all along. But I think it’s because the show is such a feast for the eyes, and I think all of us perceive things more visually than we do aurally.

“But I think people take home the music. I love it when I see little kids who peer over into the orchestra pit at intermission and they are singing ‘Hakuna Matata.’ They go home and sing the songs and hum the tunes. So I feel the music is going to go home with them.”

Thirteen years later, hundreds of actors, crew and musicians have come, gone and, in some cases, come back to The Lion King national tour. Only Ragsdale and Stefan Monssen remain from the original orchestra that christened the show in Denver. But Ragsdale wouldn’t change her well-traveled Lion King safari for anything.

“There is noplace I would rather be,” she said. “I describe it as having 15 children, and you get to have two or three thousand of your best friends over to the house every night. Yes, you worry about one of your children misbehaving – and of course that’s the one instrument that is good as gold that night. And sure enough, the one you never thought would misbehave is the instrument that does.

“It’s a juggling act every night. You never know what is going to happen. I love the uniqueness of every performance because you simply cannot duplicate it. And I can’t think of any part anywhere that is better than this. So why would I want to leave?”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Simba has three signature sounds from three different flutes. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Kay Ragsdale breaks down the flute parts
In her own words:

  • “Mufasa has a huge flute. It’s called an Indian Bansuri. He has a transverse flute the size of our western alto flute, which means it is very low-sounding.
  • There is another flute just for the ancestors, because Mufasa appears in more than one form in the show. He actually becomes one of the ancestors that he sings about.
  • “Simba has two flutes because you see the character at two stages of his life. As a cub, he has a little tiny pan pipe, and then he has a much larger version when he becomes a teenager. There is another flute for when Simba assumes the kingship at the end.
  • “Nala also has a very tiny little flute when she is a young cub, and her flute comes from China. It’s called a D’tzi. And then she has a much larger one for when she gets older, too.
  • “Scar has probably the most unique instrument in that I don’t think a lot of flute players have ever even seen the instrument. It’s called a toyo. It’s a base pan flute that comes from South America, which means it has two rows of pipes, as opposed to say a single row of pipes that would indicate an instrument that came from Europe. For instance, going back to Simba: He has the in-row pan pipes; one comes from Germany and the other from Romania. But Scar has very large pan pipes that came from Ecuador. It’s 5 feet high, so it’s about the size of a small person. It sounds extremely low. The pipes go from one octave to two octaves below where a flute would normally play. You also interestingly hear it as a bass line in the opening of “The Circle of Life.” A lot of people think, ‘Wow, that is some different kind of bass guitar,’ but it is actually a flute.” 

Disney’s The Lion King

  • Nov 4-29 at the Buell Theatre
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • TTY: 303-893-9582
  • Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
  • Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at DenverCenter.Org.
  • Accessibility performance: 2 p.m. Nov. 28
  • Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – denvercenter.org – is the only authorized online ticket provider for Disney’s ‘The Lion King.’

    Kay Ragsdale did a video interview a few years ago recounting all of the different flutes in ‘The Lion King.’

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