Broadway pianist and conductor Kristen Blodgette was 7 when her parents took her to see "The Music Man." The girl from Cleveland was, in a word, "transfixed." She immediately knew she would make music and theater her life. But she never could have imagined she'd become the person whom insiders call "Andrew Lloyd Webber's ear."
She travels the globe, tending to the far-flung properties of the British composer whose "Phantom of the Opera" has grossed more than $1 billion on Broadway. His other titles, from "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" to "Sunset Boulevard" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," have also racked up huge numbers. And Blodgette has tended to all of them.
Her handiwork will be heard in Minneapolis when "Love Never Dies," Lloyd Webber's follow-up to "Phantom," opens Tuesday for a weeklong run at the Orpheum Theatre.
Set in Coney Island, it continues the narrative of the Phantom and his muse roughly a decade later. Opera singer Christine Daaé has signed on to sing at the Brooklyn amusement park for a show backed by a mystery man. Could it be the stalker-like Phantom?
The musical opened in London in 2010, and closed after a lot of negative press (a blogger dubbed it "Paint Never Dries"). A reworked version, which opened in Australia in 2011, forms the basis for the production now touring the United States.
Blodgette, 63, squeezed in an interview Tuesday after an orchestra rehearsal for the Broadway production of "Phantom," which she was conducting that night. She had just returned from trips to South Africa and Russia, doing Lloyd Webber works. Next up: She'll head to Tokyo and Copenhagen to check on productions of "Cats."
Q: How does one become Andrew Lloyd Webber's ear?
A: Andrew is very specific about his music. He has very clear ideas of how it should sound and what he envisioned, both in his new pieces as well as in repertoire productions. It's my responsibility to make sure that the many facets — whether orchestrally, the people onstage — are right. Andrew is very hands-on and very exacting. For example, just last year, Andrew came to New York. We rented a big rehearsal space and started at the top of "Phantom" and went through every single aspect of the show. It was Year 29 on Broadway, and he just wanted to take very good care of it.
Q: How long have you known him?
A: I've been working on his shows since 1984, when I was hired to be a pianist for the first national tour of "Cats." Then I became the conductor. Then I was hired to be one of the rehearsal pianists for "Phantom."
Q: Do you have a score sheet of the number of Lloyd Webber shows you've done?
A: Not really. I've done about 17 productions of "Phantom," maybe five "Cats," one "Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar" twice, two "Sunset Boulevards," "Woman in White" on Broadway and "Love Never Dies" twice — once in Hamburg [Germany] and the tour you're seeing in Minneapolis. I've been incredibly fortunate to be able to work on his music, his productions, as long as I have; it doesn't go past me what a blessing this is; I happen to love his music, so it's a good fit.
Q: Let's talk about that music. It's such a range. What distinguishes an Andrew Lloyd Webber composition?
A: His music is so imaginative. And how it combines with storytelling. It's some of the best storytelling supportive music there is for the art form. The hills and valleys of the books for which the shows are built, like "Superstar" and "Evita," are so wonderfully coupled with his scores. And he writes really well for voices, so you hear some extraordinary singing in all of Andrew's shows.
Q: Plus a range of styles.
A: He writes rock, classical — from "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Woman in White" to "Sunset Boulevard," which is incredibly cinematic, to "Phantom" and "Love Never Dies," which is classical but still accessible. And vocally, it's very challenging for singers. If you have an interest in singing, his work is a master class in how to use your voice. Eva in "Evita" belts so high and ... the Phantom in "Love Never Dies" is a baritone who sings to a high A-flat and then to a low A-flat. Andrew stretches the limits of people's range.
Q: Let's talk about the pitfalls, for performers, in his compositions.
A: Stephen Sondheim is difficult, so I don't want to say that Andrew is more special. But Andrew's work can be difficult. He is atonal sometimes with meters that are wacky and rhythmically interesting — 5/8's, 7/8's. He has soaring melodies that are beautiful, like "All I Ask of You" or "Til I Hear You Sing" from "Love Never Dies." I wouldn't label it a pitfall, but a challenge.
Q: Tell me about "Love Never Dies" — how is it similar to "Phantom," and how is it different?
A: It carries some of the same qualities as "Phantom." There's a lushness of the score. But musically and stylistically — I don't want to say it's more disjointed — "Love Never Dies" just has more facets. There are vaudevillian moments, playful moments. I don't think that you have to have seen "Phantom" to love "Love Never Dies." I think that "Phantom" fans will love it, but this story stands alone.
Q: The production hasn't been on Broadway. Is it working its way there?
A: I think the jury's out on that. At the moment, I believe that Andrew and the producers are happy with it touring across America. Andrew will launch more companies of it in different places in the world.
Q: How long will you continue to do this kind of work?
A: Well, I never take it for granted. As long as I understand what it is that Andrew wants and I'm able to make that happen, then I think we're doing OK.