by Michael Bowen & r & She's been at 700 performances of The Lion King and only seen one of them.
"Well, maybe one and a half," says Darlene Drew. That's because she's been down in the orchestra pit, hyperventilating over and through the 16 different flutes she plays over the course of a single performance: modern flute and piccolo, Irish flutes, Chinese flutes, Romanian pan flute, Indian bansuri bamboo flute -- a whole lot of flutes.
Sometimes it helps to have Disney's deep pockets as backups for your wind instrument collection. "I played this South American bass pan flute in the show," Drew explains. "Actually, it's Peruvian. It had two rows of eight pipes, and you'd need powerful tools to change their length, and it got to the point where I was using PVC pipe to make fixes. So I said, 'I don't have time for this -- let me get one made," and Disney said no problem. So I know this importer, who knew a guy in Cyprus -- the only one in the world -- who made one to my specifications, with the five notes I need in the show and in the order that I play them. Well, let me tell you, it plays like a Ferrari -- whereas the one I had before? It was sort of like a not-very-well-kept-up VW bus," she laughs.
A variety of flutes necessitates a variety of techniques. "I do a lot of finger-sliding on the pipes -- all that stuff you're trained not to do," Drew says. "Like don't let the pitch fall off at the ends of phrases -- I do that all the time on the Chinese flutes. With the bigger flutes, more length equals more resonance -- but then I also have a small flute that buzzes, almost like a kazoo. The vibrating membrane there is made of rice paper." It's so delicate that repairs are unavoidable. "The person I learned from," says Drew, "told me that in a pinch, cigarette paper or even Scotch tape work pretty well."
Drew is one of 10 musicians who travel with the show, with another seven hired locally to fill out the orchestra. After 700 performances, naturally, much of the show feels routine for her: "There's a lot of obbligato. But I get in some flute licks. And I do a lot of explosive breathing -- we call it 'chiffing.' You can get a good six-pack from this workout," she says. "I used to be on the floor, sweating," she laughs. "It's fun watching the subs and local players. I tell them, 'It's not about how much air, it's about velocity.' It has to come from the gut."
Drew's got velocity, all right: When she demonstrated the ... I'm not sure which flute, but it was loud.
Surprisingly, The Lion King allows Drew room to improvise. "I have a lot of liberty," she says. "I've never played the show the same way twice."
"Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" -- Simba and Nala's love duet -- "is my moment to shine," says Drew. "All of a sudden, I have to go solo during the aerial ballet. It's not easy to go back and forth, but I have to go from modern flute, where my fingers are close together, followed by a Chinese flute, when I really have to spread 'em. And then," she grins, "when Simba decides to go back [to the Pridelands], it's like a mini-flute concerto in full Jethro Tull mode."
But her menagerie of flutes keeps her humble, Drew says. For one thing, they need to be transported in a marine cooler and kept humidified. "If a dry instrument is played a lot," she says, "it can blow up. That's happened to me. I was in the next room, and the inside had remained moist and expanded more, and it cracked explosively. It literally blew up."
For another thing, the flutes can be unpredictable and difficult to play. "All of them keep me humble. I write the notes on the outside, because I play facing a mirror," Drew explains. "If I get to where I think I don't need to look, I get slapped down. You can over-blow and break the note, or it just won't come out."
If one flute doesn't work, she has 15 backups available.