Making It Happen: Four Questions with Sunset Boulevard Musical Director & Conductor Kristen Blodgette
April 20th, 2017
by Kristen Blodgette
Kristen Blodgette received her big break on Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony-winning musical Cats. Since then, she has served as Associate Musical Supervisor, Musical Director, Musical Supervisor, and conductor on ALW's Broadway and touring productions of The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Woman in White—she's also worked on Broadway in a Sondheim musical, a Kurt Weill show, a Disney hit, and Riverdance. This season, Kristen served as Musical Director and Musical Supervisor for the revivals of Cats and Sunset Boulevard. If you've seen Sunset, you've watched as she fiercely conducts a 40-piece orchestra (Broadway's largest) center stage at the Palace Theatre.
BroadwayBox spoke with Kristen for our new interview series with New York theatre's creators and designers. Read on as she discusses her long working relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the many rewarding moments of her job, and what aspiring B'way conductors should know.
1. So much of your Broadway resume is Andrew Lloyd Webber. How did you get your big break with ALW and Really Useful Group?
It is a really a two part answer. My big break was when I was hired to play the first keyboard book in the National tour of Cats in 1984. Soon after, I took over as the Conductor/Music Director and was with the tour until it closed. During that time, I met David Caddick as he was Andrew's Musical Supervisor. David then asked me to be the first keyboard book and rehearsal pianist for a new show coming in to Broadway—The Phantom of the Opera. It was through David that I then was hired to be his associate and then as associate supervisor for the North American tours. David also paved the way for me to conduct Phantom—and I conducted for the first time when I was nine months pregnant, almost 28 years ago! After that, I continued as David’s colleague in the capacity of Associate Musical Supervisor for Broadway and North American companies. I was also supervising various international companies of Phantom, Cats, Love Never Dies, Jesus Christ Superstar and other of Andrew's shows. I believe I have put together 31 of Andrew’s major replica productions, so far!
How do you foster a business relationship that lasts 30+ years?
One has to stand steady. Be consistent. Be honest. Have an inner compass of certainty. It can be a highly challenging relationship as Andrew is incredibly passionate about his work and he is involved in every single note and every detail or change. I try to bring his music to light and to life in the best way possible. The relationship can be challenging, in trying to be certain my day to day efforts and decisions match Andrew's passion and long term vision of how his music is performed and heard. However, we both know that we want the same thing: we want the best musical theatre experience possible…so it works out.
2. How does the job of a musical supervisor or director change from a beloved revival to a new musical? How does it affect your process?
I have been doing predominantly revivals for quite some time. My job with a revival is to make it as good as it can be. Look at it with fresh eyes while still respecting what was and what works. It is difficult for me to reinvent things which I guarded and cherished for so many years (Cats for example). But…we MUST to a degree. We MUST look with new vision. We can't just pull it out of the closet and toss it out there and say, “here it is again”. We have to re-craft, re-evaluate and make it even better than it was. I believe that we have done that with Sunset as well as with Cats. Lonny (Price) had lovely new vision with this production, with an increased presence for the music, as nearly a character on stage. The marriage of what was and what can be—well—it is exciting. I know it's unusual and wonderful that I've been around to work on the original productions of shows such as Sunset and Cats and then again on beautiful reinterpretations in these current revivals.
3. What are three pieces of advice you’d give to someone who dreams of conducting a Broadway show?
A. I would say have a keen sense of your own skills, gifts, and talents. I used to agonize because I couldn’t play jazz. Well, I can’t. So I wouldn’t take a show with a predominantly jazz oriented score. Or…I would pay someone to help me on it! But it wouldn’t be my first choice. Know what you do.
B. I can't over emphasize the neccessity of keeping calm and looking at every project or even every task with a wide angle lens. Think first-speak second; a cliche for sure but an apt one in what I do. Ready, Fire, Aim is a bad idea in any circumstance, particularly musical theatre. I think it is always better to be less reactionary. There are plenty of reactive people who are artistic. Be what there is less of rather than what there is plenty of. Let your thoughts form and settle before you make judgements or take a leap.
C. If you are just starting or coming straight out of school—contact the keyboard players in the various pits. Sit in. Even if you can’t play in one….ask if you can sit in. Talk to these people, get to know who they are, what they do and how they do it. Find out their path. Listen and watch closely.
4. What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your job?
There are so many rewarding aspects I would not even know where to begin. I love every single facet of what I do. On Sunset, I am fortunate to conduct this gorgeous orchestra seven shows a week. It thrills me. That’s pretty high up on the rewarding spectrum! Then, the players start subbing out and the subs start coming in. That can be a challenge. They won’t know or follow me like the regular players do at first and depending on how many subs I have, I have to redouble my efforts to be certain the show is always at the highest levels. But….whether they are regular players or substitutes, they ARE pros, and they are prepared and they work incredibly hard to be on top of the material. So…the challenge is also mine, to be clear and to bring it all together and then in the final hour—they play brilliantly and it is lovely.
It is always a challenge to negotiate with the creative team about casting. I have certain voices that I “need"; voices which fulfill requirements as almost supplementary "musical instruments" necessary to perform Andrew’s score as he intends it to be heard. The choreographer needs things, the director needs things. But…with Andrew…I always feel my needs must come first because the music comes first, because it is MUSICAL theatre—it is Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and that is his expectation and I believe, the audience's expectation too. My job is to make the music come alive and in doing so I am serving the composer and the foundation of the entire show. I am grateful for the brilliant, generous, collaborative spirit of "creatives" I've worked with over the years. It can be a challenging negotiation at times but in the end, we get there!
Rewarding is conducting Glenn Close as she sings “As If We Never Said Goodbye”. I “feel” her as she sings; I try to fill up with the color of her emotional state at every given moment so that I can feel where she will go, what she will need. She gives SO MUCH.
Rewarding is taking a young dancer aside who feels that they can’t sing and as a result they “hang back” because they feel badly about their singing. I like to help find a “key”, a “map” or an "instruction book" for them, so they feel secure and confident with their own voice.
Rewarding is a very well sung "Masquerade" in Phantom or a beautifully designed, constructed, and nuanced "Jellicle Ball" where it grows and builds until it crests— but in doing so, allows the dancers to feel the tempos supporting them and transporting them in performance of their part in this beautiful art form.
Rewarding is walking out the stage door to the George M. Cohan statue...and softly singing “Give My Regards to Broadway” and then starting the walk home.
Watch as Kristen Blodgette passionately conducts Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony-winning Sunset Boulevard score at Broadway's Palace Theatre.