What is it like to conduct a 40-piece orchestra from the stage of a Broadway theatre? According to Kristen Blodgette, “It’s like I’m standing in the center and all that sound is swirling around me. I just direct and then it feels like it follows the wind.” In addition to conducting, she is also the musical director and musical supervisor at Sunset Boulevard, marking her eighth time working with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Broadway.
Creating the perfect aural experience for Sunset theatregoers isn’t easy, especially given the band’s position onstage. One key is achieving the right balance between acoustic and amplified sound. For that, Blodgette has another longtime Webber collaborator: sound designer Mick Potter. But the greater, less-discussed difficulty with conducting onstage is having her back to the actors. “At times I take the lead and at times I follow and here I'm trying to do it with my eyes closed.” she says. “That's a wonderful challenge.”
Her interest in theatre started after a transformative experience seeing The Music Man as a child. Blodgette says she “came alive” and began taking piano lessons at age four. “I was always doing theatre on the side, summer theatre, dinner theatre, local theatre, whatever I could do.” She began working with Andrew Lloyd Webber as a keyboard player on the first national tour of Cats and hasn’t stopped since. She’s been with him from The Phantom of the Opera to Evita to The Woman in White (“I don’t think that was most people’s favorite, but I loved it!”).
Her favorite thing about Webber’s music is how vocally demanding it can be. “His ability to truly be vocal-centric in his parts is something I enjoy. He really uses the music to tell the story. He’s so consistent in the way he expresses things dramatically through the music. It's not willy-nilly, it's all part of it. And [his shows] are through-composed, so it's two-and-a-half hours of music. I love that!” she says. After 30 years, they’ve developed a strong working relationship, but Webber still keeps her on her toes. “I think that I have a sense of what Andrew will respond to and what he wants to hear,” she says. “However, I never take that for granted. He always surprises me.”
The pit of an orchestra has a reputation for being something of a boys club, and Blodgette knows she was lucky to have such a high-profile advocate. “In my younger days,” she says, “I would be going to certain cities and the orchestras would be male-dominated and I was on the podium. That was a challenging issue. How strong do you be? How much do you have to let go?” Now she says she’s most comfortable being who she is on the podium (“ I'm the boss here. I could probably tell you stories that would make your hair curl...but I won’t”) and she wholeheartedly encourages girls to follow in her footsteps. “Oh my gosh, I say go for it!” she encourages. “I want to talk to all of them. I want to help them!”
Blodgette loves Webber’s music so much that she often finds herself taking her work home with her. “I can’t get it out of my head! I wake up and open my eyes and I’ll be right there, mid-measure.”