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November 1, 2014IM -
At any given week each year, there are an average of 150 full-time AFM musicians touring throughout the US and Canada, in 20-plus musicals and three circuses. In addition to these traveling artists, touring shows provide part-time employment to hundreds of local musicians. Most productions travel with only a small core group of musicians, and they fill out the rest of the score with a “new” orchestra of local homegrown talent in each venue. Along with peer unions Actors’ Equity and The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the AFM has theatrical touring agreements that address short-engagement tours, which play primarily in smaller markets, as well as big budget blockbusters booked in major cities for weeks on end. Main employers—members of The Broadway League and Disney Theatricals—are signed to the AFM’s Pamphlet B Agreement, which also incorporates the Short Engagement Tour (SET) Agreement. Smaller nonsignatory producers sign single-project touring agreements, which largely mirror the AFM’s SET terms. Touring under the Pamphlet B agreement, Disney’s The Lion King is reigning king of the road musical jungle, having traveled continuously since 2002 and given more than 5,000 performances. For the most part, the 13 musicians traveling with The Lion King consider themselves fortunate to have full-time, well-paid, secure jobs in music that allow them to see the country. However, the life of a traveling musician is also wrought with unique challenges. In this article you will meet seven AFM musicians who travel with The Lion King, and learn about their lives on the road. Unlike their counterparts on the orchestral podium, conductors are covered employees in the unionized workplaces of musical theatre and circus productions. They often rise to the post through their work as pit keyboard players—and some are required to play and conduct at the same time. Their role of preparing the music for the show takes on increased importance considering the need to rehearse a different set of musicians to play complicated scores, in a limited time, every time the show changes venue. The Lion King score calls for six local musicians, in addition to the 13 who travel with the show.
The Lion King lead conductor is Rick Snyder of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL). Snyder has toured off and on since the early ’90s. His first show was Phantom of the Opera. He joined The Lion King in 2003 as associate conductor and keyboard player, and he’s played the current show roughly 3,000 times, since 2009. Snyder considers himself fortunate to be playing the show full-time. “First and foremost it’s a good, steady job. I’m very lucky to be working as a professional musician on a job that, for me, is always totally engaging—and getting paid pretty well too,” he says. Then adds, “I get to visit many interesting cities and meet interesting people. For me, it makes me happy that I can do this job and provide for my family.”
Doug Reed of Local 285-403 (New London, CT) plays keyboard for seven shows per week and conducts one. He’s previously toured the US with Jesus Christ Superstar, Dreamgirls, Oklahoma, and Man of La Mancha. Reed says he maintains his enthusiasm for the show by taking note of the audience. “I sometimes go out and watch the audience members coming into the theater all excited,” he says. “I find conducting the show exciting—huge excited audience; great orchestra; big, beautiful show.” “As a conductor, one can infuse energy with phrasing and tempo and feel,” he explains. “As a keyboard player, I like to do things perfectly, and musically. That requires attention!” Reed enjoys traveling around the country. He feels fortunate to work with so many great musicians around the country and for such an artistically unique and long-running show.
Jamie Schmidt of Local 802 (New York City) has conducted The Lion King about 500 times and played all three of the show’s keyboard chairs. He has also worked as associate conductor for Ragtime at The Kennedy Center and Broadway, conductor for Liza Minnelli’s symphonic tour, and has been music director and conductor for several Kennedy Center gala concerts. “The opening number is still a thrilling experience for the audience of all ages; turning around from the podium to see grown men crying still brings tears to my eyes. Having a 20-month-old child has certainly made me a more vulnerable, sensitive human being as well, and I often see the show through his eyes,” says Schmidt. “It is magical.” Schmidt says that it’s not difficult to keep the show “fresh” when it is performed in a different city and theater nearly every month. “Change keeps coming, and this keeps us ever on our toes,” he says. He travels with his wife and son, so they face a special challenge when it comes to finding safe housing for an ever-curious toddler. “We consider our lifestyle ‘urban camping,’” he adds.
Reuven Weizburg, a member of Local 802, has been playing with The Lion King tour for almost seven years. His musical path was not typical—he never went to a conservatory or music school, instead he apprenticed to noted West African and Latin drumming artists. He’s previously played with African music and dance ensembles and pop bands around New York City. He was a sub for The Lion King on Broadway for two years (2006-2008) before joining his first tour. “It’s exciting and inspiring to play to sold out crowds of 2,500 to 3,000 people, eight times a week. Being in the house, and not in the pit, makes the show exciting every day. I get to be a part of the show, watch the show, and watch the audience reaction to the show, all at the same time. It’s a unique perspective,” he says, adding, “I am lucky enough to work on a show that connects with audiences of all walks of life. People are moved by the story and the incredible South African music.” Weizburg says the job is challenging because every house they play has different acoustics, plus the sound engineer has to mix the two “house percussionists” with the rest of the orchestra. “A big part of the job of the house percussionists is to mark the dancers, and sometimes the puppets and shadow puppets,” he explains. Weizburg travels with his family: a wife and two daughters, aged two and six. “We are together all the time, and get to see so many amazing parts of the US and Canada,” he states, adding that finding housing is always a challenge, as is medical care for the children. “We literally pack our entire lives into a minivan and head for the next city. My downtime is spent with my family, homeschooling my oldest daughter, and exploring the cities we play.”
Michael Faue is a member of Local 70-558 (Omaha, NE) and graduate of California State University Northridge. As a Los Angeles freelance percussionist, Faue performed, recorded, and/or toured with the likes of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) members Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, and Al Jarreau, and has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Boston Pops. He first played for Lion King as a sub in 2002, was hired full-time in 2003, and has now played more than 4,500 shows. “I think there is an art to playing the same music over and over,” says Faue. “Whether you play a piece of music once or 5,000 times, take pride in performing. I feel the audience came to see a performance and deserve my best, all the time.” For any percussionist this is a great gig,” he says. “Three percussionists and a drummer is kind of an unheard of for a Broadway show. The mallet book has it all—you get great phrases but you also have some groove parts making you part of the rhythm section. I also get a little solo time in ‘Hakuna Matata,’ and the bows. My book also has quite a lot of hand percussion.” “Some of the best shows have been when Lion King pairs up with Autism Speaks and the entire audience is made up of individuals and families impacted by autism. To create an autism-friendly performance, the music is quieter, there are no loud sound effects or strobe lights, and house lights are at half. All of these changes create a judgement-free environment for thousands of people who may never have gone to any live event. Shows like these make you really understand how a single performance can change someone’s life.” Faue enjoys the travel aspect. “You see some amazing sights, hear some great music, and play with the best musicians in each city,” he says. One of the most difficult aspects is that, in an emergency, there are often no subs, says Faue, recalling how he had to play a show after slicing and chipping the bone on one of his fingers.
Woonkuo Soon of 427-721 (Tampa Bay, FL) first began subbing for the show in 2003 and joined it full-time in 2004. Before going on tour he was a freelance, orchestra, and chamber violinist, and he is also principal second violin for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. He has played more than 3,500 shows for Lion King. He enjoys working with local string musicians and exploring bike trails, museums, and nature parks in each city they visit. Soon finds it challenging to “always have to think of efficiency and economy of space in terms of what we can carry with us, how much we can fit in our cars (for those that drive).” “Having a Fed Ex account helps,” he adds. “It is surprisingly affordable to ship large packages across the country with an account. The savings can be substantial.”
Long before Chris Neville of Locals 9-535 (Boston, MA) and 198-457 (Providence, RI) joined The Lion King, he played with jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, recording eight CDs. Carter was so impressed with Neville’s playing that he helped Neville produce four CDs of his own. Neville has also played with Dizzy Gillespie, Phil Woods, Aretha Franklin, and Donnie Osmond, and toured with several Broadway shows before The Lion King. The Lion King has been his longest tour. He was hired as a local when the show was in Boston, and then committed to a six-month tour. Ten years later, he is still with the show and on his 86th stop (including some repeated cities).
Neville plays the keyboard 1 part, which is a core rhythm section book that he says allows him a little improvisation. “Like any show, they’re not exactly the same every performance. You have to be alert for the unexpected!” he adds. He says that his main touring challenges are finding housing and getting safely to the next city. He recalls some crazy drives he’s done: Seattle to East Lansing in 2.5 days and Denver to Baltimore in 1.5 days (with a blizzard somewhere in the middle). “I’ve always enjoyed traveling; I like exploring new places,” he says. “In general, we move every four weeks. The last week in the old city, the travel between cities, and the first week in the new city are complete chaos, but then you have three weeks of being settled. I have friends all over the country; it’s always a treat to pick up where you left off.”
Local 802 member Stefan Monssen has played with The Lion King since 2002, on more than 5,000 shows. He studied Haitian and Cuban drumming under master drummer John Amira. He traveled to the Gambia, West Africa, where he lived for two years with traditional Kutiro drummers, and also visited Guinea to study djembe. He’s played and studied with various African drum schools and masters upon returning. He was previously a sub on Broadway for two years. “I never could have imagined that following my passion and living in Africa would bring me to play for a Broadway show and tour,” says Monssen. “If I had to pick one show that I would never get tired of playing it would be The Lion King. So, needless to say, I feel incredibly fortunate to have followed the path of music to where it’s led me and continues to lead me.” Monssen finds challenges as well as opportunities to remaining a life-long learner on the road. “I’ve started learning drum kit, and brought a V-Drum set that I travel with,” he says, adding that he also packs his SUV with bata drums, a set of Kutiro drums, an extra djembe, and his dog, as he moves city to city. “I always try to see what teachers or performers might be in the city we are presently in and either see them perform or try to take a class.” “It’s amazing, after all these years, that my passion and love for music has only grown and I’m actually making a very decent living from it,” he concludes. “I am truly very grateful. Shows like The Lion King might come once in a lifetime, if you are lucky.”