When Paul Hansen goes to work, the tools of his trade typically include timpani, xylophone, bass drum, tubular bells, washboard, thunder sheet, glockenspiel and tambourine.
On occasion, such as performing in the orchestra pit at the 5th Avenue Theatre’s current production of “Pirates of Penzance,” Hansen — one of the top percussionists in Seattle’s music and theater worlds for more than three decades — will add such sonic accents as duck calls, slide whistle and the clang of anvils. For the upcoming film-turned-stage show “Secondhand Lions,” he’ll incorporate Hindu ankle bells and Moroccan qraqeb.
If something makes a noise, Hansen wants to know about it.
“Hand me a bucket of pingpong balls, and I’ll play it,” he says.
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“I’ve got aluminum Bundt pans and brass artillery shells I use as bells. I used to go to Boeing Surplus and just hit things.”
Hansen has performed in more than 90 musicals in Seattle, most of them at the 5th, but also at the Paramount (“Wicked”). He’s also an extra hand for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (last season’s “Turangalîla” and “The Firebird”), and Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra (“Tide Harmonic”).
“At the 5th, I’m my own section leader,” he says. “I’m wholly responsible for how instruments work dramatically. With a symphony, it’s much more collaborative with other percussionists.”
Hansen says flexibility is key to being an occasional player with Seattle Symphony. He recalls filling in for an ailing percussionist and discovering at intermission he’d be playing the sensuous snare drum line in “Bolero.”
“I’d never played ‘Bolero.’ I’m sure that was a new time signature I invented.”
A native Seattleite, Hansen, 52, is the son of the late Edward A. Hansen, a renowned organist and beloved music professor at the University of Puget Sound. Edward was also the off-screen Mr. Music Man for KING 5’s “Wunda Wunda” children’s television show from 1963-71.
“I’d be sitting next to him during the live broadcast,” Hansen says. “At home there would be Beethoven and Brahms, but on the set he’d be accompanying stories and puppet shows with whistles and duck calls.
“I’d watch him and think, wow, that’s a really neat job.”
Hansen turned professional while a University of Washington freshman.
“I had just turned 18 and was doing some of the smaller shows in town. All of a sudden I’m on a Liberace tour bus with guys who had worked with Count Basie and Benny Goodman.”
Hansen played with such talents as Johnny Mathis, Mitzi Gaynor, Burt Bacharach and even Mr. Rogers. He went on the road with the Ice Capades two weeks after marrying his sometimes-collaborator, the filmmaker and theater director Janice Findley.
Hansen records soundtracks for films and video games (“Halo”) and is a co-founder of the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, which performed several thrilling concerts of John Cage music last year. But it is his longtime association with the 5th Avenue Theatre of which he seems particularly proud. He cites a 1995 production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” starring Maxine Andrews, and the 2002 world premiere of “Hairspray” among favorite memories.
Another 2002 show, “Hair,” was also special.
“The cast and band bonded so closely,” Hansen says. “The musicians were all in costume and becoming characters ourselves, and between the lighting and smoke and haze, it was like a bit of time travel.”
Tom Keogh: email@example.com