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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Making Music Fit for a Lion King

The orchestra and the Broadway spectacle

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For a lion, Simba sure can carry a tune. But not even this precocious feline, star of the hit musical The Lion King, could play 15 different types of flute. That’s where Darlene Drew comes in, as part of the pit orchestra for The Lion King. In fact, Drew will not only demonstrate her prowess on 15 different flutes, she’ll do it for each and every performance.

The highly anticipated Broadway version of Disney’s animated film comes to the Milwaukee Theatre next week for a month’s stay, and Drew will be working her musical magic for young and old alike.

Drew, born in Detroit, now makes her home in Antioch, Ill.—or as she likes to put it, “When I back out of my driveway, I’m in Wisconsin.” During the show’s Milwaukee run, she plans on commuting home to her husband, two dogs and two horses. The idea of staying close to home while on the road is nothing new to Drew. When The Lion King’s touring Cheetah Company played in Appleton last summer, Drew boarded one of the horses up there so that she could ride every day.

Life as a traveling musician isn’t always easy, but it provides an opportunity to share knowledge and skills with audiences nationwide. And as you might expect of a musician featured on the December 2007 cover of Flute Talkmagazine, Drew knows all about the cultural importance of the flute.

“You can pretty much find flute-playing and drumming in just about every culture around the world,” Drew says. Although most of Drew’s flutes are made in the United States, her instruments include Irish, Chinese and Indian bamboo flutes, among others. There are also a number of pan flutes, which are essentially bamboo tubes that are all strung together.

“You have one flute per note,” she says of the pan flutes. “I think you can make pan flutes out of anything. “I’ve even seen them made of beer bottles,” she adds with a laugh. Fifteen flutes may seem excessive, but Drew says that the sound is sufficiently different with each flute. “It depends on how they’re pitched,” she notes. “You can either do it by the length of the tube—my bass ones are very long and they can only be so wide or you’re not going to get a noise out of them. Basically, length and width” are the determinants.

Drew’s knowledge of the flute is clear. And, like the best teachers, she’s open to sharing her experience. “If anyone wants to come down to the front of the [orchestra] pit to say ‘Hi,’ yell my name and I’ll show you a couple of flutes,” she says.

Electronic Age
When orchestra conductor Valerie Gebert first saw the New York production of The Lion King seven years ago, she thought, “This is so special! Would I be super-happy if I worked the show— such a challenge!” After more than five years of working on the show, Gebert now knows all the ins and outs of that challenge. “It is my job to help everybody keep on an even keel and make the show as best as can be every night,” Gebert says.

Part of The Lion King’s success stems from hi-tech production values that provide the glitz and glamour audiences have come to expect. Since the late- ’90s, most musicals have gone electronic; The Lion King is no exception. “That means I’m on a camera and every one of my musicians has a little TV monitor,” Gebert says. “In some cases they can’t see me [by turning] their necks—otherwise they’d be in traction. So we have a television camera and monitors on each [music] stand.”

In some cases, the technology has proven invaluable, even when it creates some unique challenges. “In Hawaii, our pit wasn’t big enough for my 17 musicians,” Gebert says. “I had to put some in what we call ‘satellites’—a room somewhere in the theater: a closet; a hallway; a kitchen. Because they can see me via my camera, they play the show with headsets and they’re nowhere near anyone else.

“It’s difficult,” she adds. Keeping a sense of humor seems essential for the role of conductor, and Gebert laughs easily. Good thing—on another occasion, the camera that showed Gebert stopped working. “We had no visuals,” she says. “What do you do about the cast that’s out in the lobby, waiting to make their entrance through the audience, and looking at a monitor they can’t see me on? So we’re all on automatic pilot and begin the show on a wing and a prayer.”

Regardless of the technological enhancements, it’s the care and vision of artists like Drew and Gebert that make theater a true success. And that dedication will clearly be on display—even if the video monitor goes blank. Disney’s The Lion King runs Feb. 3-March 2 at the Milwaukee Theatre.