Kristen Blodgette, who spent 35 years as the associate musical supervisor/conductor of the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, is currently the music director and conductor for the current revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Every night, she oversees Sweeney Todd's 26-piece orchestra—you can say she's good with a crowd.
Blodgette, who also supervised 18 productions of Phantom worldwide, was also the musical director for the 2017 revival of Sunset Boulevard, the 2016 revival of Cats, and the 2012 revival of Evita (so you can saw she knows her Lloyd Webber score). Her other Broadway credits include A Little Night Music, Mary Poppins, LoveMusik, The Woman in White, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the original production of Cats, the original production of Sunset Boulevard, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Bad Cinderella. She was also the rehearsal pianist for the original production of Carrie starring Betty Buckley.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Blodgette shares the pressures of being a conductor and looks back at her lengthy associations with Lloyd Webber and Harold Prince.
Where/how did you train to become a music director/conductor?
Kristen Blodgette: I began taking piano lessons when I was four years old. I took piano lessons, violin lessons (violin lessons didn’t last long, as I was terrible), voice lessons, and played French Horn. I ultimately graduated from the Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music with a degree in Piano Performance and attended graduate school at CCM in Opera and Accompanying. I had a graduate assistantship in the opera department and had the wonderful opportunity to work in most of the voice studios and the opera studio.
Was there a teacher or a person who was particularly impactful? What made this person stand out?
The people who were impactful early on. Hmm...where would I begin? So many generous people were influential and helped shape my musical future. It is an understatement to say that educators can have a profound influence on a young person’s life. The music and theatre programs in my high school, orchestra, wind ensemble, marching band, concert band, choir, stage-crafters all influenced me. I was involved in all of it, and it all contributed mightily to my start in doing what I do.
Can you detail the nightly duties of a music director/conductor?
The responsibilities of a musical director/conductor vary depending on the show. I have had the good fortune to be involved in many shows that are vocal centric with large orchestras. I think of the role of conductor as a conduit—the person driving the train with a whole slew of brilliant people on board.
A musical director is responsible for representing and maintaining the composer’s work on a daily basis, as well as collaborating with the director and choreographer to support their vision. The musical director is involved in casting, musical preparation, and maintaining the musical standards of the show.
Are there any particular challenges of being a music director/conductor for Sweeney Todd?
Yes, conducting Sweeney is thrilling…and challenging. I have loved this show since seeing it for the very first time in 1979. Sondheim is a musical theatre god to all of us who love the art form. My involvement in the journey with this production has been particularly pressure full.
Why? I’m not certain. I think it is a mix of Phantom having come to a close at the Majestic, which was a bit traumatic—and then the responsibility I feel to sustain the musical excellence established by the company (led by Josh [Groban] and Annaleigh [Ashford]) and Alex Lacamoire. Our orchestra is beautiful, fluid, generous. It is a musically and dramatically complex and demanding show. I suppose I feel pressure because I have very high expectations of the show and myself, in appropriately representing it and in honoring Sondheim. As Billie Jean King said, “Pressure is privilege.” Pressure is my fuel, and I am privileged now to use it to conduct one of the best shows ever written.
What made you decide to become a music director/conductor? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
My parents took our family to see all the touring shows at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. I saw a national tour of The Music Man as a young child. From the first moments of “Rock Island,” I was hooked. The path was set for me. I had wonderful opportunities in this business when I was starting out. My first job when I moved to New York after college was as the musical director of a revival of Plain and Fancy at Equity Library Theatre.
Shortly after that, I auditioned for Cy Coleman to be one of the pianists for the tour of Barnum, and opportunities unfolded from there. The life-changing career moment for me was when David Caddick, the musical supervisor of The Phantom of the Opera, asked me to be his associate on the Broadway and touring productions of Phantom. From that, I had the privilege of establishing a long association with the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
There have been moments of being discouraged when I questioned my talent, my ability—but that is part of the life journey for many, I think. It’s certainly part of theatre too. I initially applied to Oberlin to study piano. I wasn’t accepted. I applied to the musical theatre department at [University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music] and wasn’t accepted. Those moments shook me, but no, I never thought of giving up. This is what I knew I was meant to do, and I loved it, then and now. I am now in the rewarding position of trying to encourage and mentor young people who want to be musical directors. I enjoy that. Share it. Pass it on. Ironically (and generously), I was honored by CCM for my career on Broadway, despite not having been admitted to their musical theatre department in college. Forge ahead!
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
Hal Prince. I believe Hal was the greatest influence in my theatrical life, in so many people’s lives. I had the incredible opportunity to work closely with him throughout my career. There aren’t words to describe what he meant to me personally and to theatre in general. I believe he was the greatest director of our time…and a special human being, too.
What is my proudest achievement as a musical director/conductor?
Of course, my 35 years with Phantom is unparalleled. But I believe the most satisfying achievement is trying to help actors, singers, dancers, musicians, and instrumentalists find their voice, despite the built-in high anxiety in them doing so. If I helped anyone transcend their terror and get to the joy part…I am endlessly proud of that.