Kristen Blodgette can't wait to get to Savannah to judge the American Traditions Competition.
"I love working with singers," she says. "I do that for a living and I really enjoy encouraging them. I try to let them know what a wonderful business this is and show them how to fulfill their dreams."
Blodgette is a Broadway conductor and music director who has been associated with "The Phantom of the Opera" since its New York opening. She currently serves as the musical supervisor for the Broadway production of "Evita" with Ricky Martin and has worked on numerous Broadway productions.
Blodgette is coming to the ATC at the urging of the competition's artistic consultant, Vale Rideout.
"He's pretty well known in the wonderful field we're in," she says. "I worked with him as a young singer, and he seems to be doing a lot of very good work."
In addition to Blodgette, other judges are actor/composer/lyricist/producer Martin Charnin, singer/actor Rod Gilfry, singer/songwriter J. Fred Knobloch and singer/actor Anthony Laciura.
Encouragement is vital in developing talent, Blodgette says.
"I always feel as though I was very fortunate and blessed as far as the help I received," she says. "I was raised in Cleveland and knew I wanted to be involved in music, that it was the only thing I ever wanted to do.
"I was very involved in classical piano, then musical theater. I attended Broadway tours when they came to Cleveland.
"In college summer theater, I had the opportunity to either be in the show or to musically direct the show," Blodgette says. "I had someone who was guiding me and was extremely helpful to me, and it seems that from point to point, there have been kind and generous people who have helped to move my career forward."
While at the ATC, Blodgette will present a master class for four contestants.
"They each have a repertoire to present," she says. "I usually like to structure master classes as audition situations. When we audition for Phantom or other Broadway shows, it sometimes is a very extensive audition process.
"They will come in as if it was an agent submission call," Blodgette says. "They'll sing one piece in its entirety and we'll move from there."
People don't always see themselves as others do.
"There are times when people don't see themselves accurately and present something that is not their best foot forward," Blodgette says. "I like to look at that from the vantage point of the material and range, even down to how they walk into the room."
When she agreed to be a judge at the ATC, Blodgette didn't really know much about the competition.
"Then when I told some people in the business that I'm doing it, they said, 'I did that or I know that competition,'" she says. "There was more awareness than I realized.
"I was given a promo PR packet and I looked at the participants who had been submitted and saw a lot of them have done a lot of things," Blodgette says. "The competition has very high quality standards.
"I think this is a wonderful opportunity for these people. I hope I can give them something to take away."
Over her career, Blodgette has had some unique experiences.
"I was in Hamburg, Germany, doing auditions for an orchestra for a new company of 'Phantom' when the Berlin Wall came down," she says. "Players from East Berlin came to audition for the Hamburg 'Phantom' orchestra, and that was a pretty profound experience. So many hadn't left East Berlin until the wall came down."
At one point, Blodgette played for Carol Channing and toured the country with her.
"She's a very colorful character," Blodgette says. "And working with Sondheim and Webber has been wonderful."
Blodgette directed one of her fellow ATC judges, Rod Gilfry, in "Annie Get Your Gun."
"Between Vale asking me to participate as a judge in the competition and knowing that Rod Gilfry was a judge, I knew that it would be a very positive experience for the singers, the judges and that we would have a wonderful time," she says. "Rod is amazing, as both a performer and a colleague."
Gilfry is a singer and actor who is best known as an opera singer. He also is an acclaimed recitalist and concert artist, and appears frequently in musical theater classics.
Rideout met Blodgette while working in "Phantom of the Opera" in Germany.
"She is the overall music supervisor of Phantom worldwide," Rideout says. "She is such a multitalented person, a fantastic coach for singers and a very versatile conductor, as well," he says.
"We're very excited to have her to represent musical theater and to give a master class, too. I know she will give singers a lot to improve on."
Rideout had a streak of luck in landing Laciura.
"Out of the blue, I received a friend request from him on Facebook," Rideout says. "I'd been following him on 'Boardwalk Empire,' and my wife and I are huge fans of his acting and singing.
"From that friend request, I took a leap and asked him to be a judge. He's an extremely talented actor, singer and musician and for him to perform in our judges' concert is a coup. I've heard he's one of the most hilarious people, as well."
Laciura plays Eddy Kessler in HBO's Martin Scorsese series "Boardwalk Empire." As a singer at the Metropolitan Opera, he has done 860 performances of 59 roles.
A native of New Orleans, Laciura began singing at age 12. His recordings and video productions have earned him an international reputation, and he is noted as a director, as well.
Charnin is celebrating his 56th year in the entertainment industry, which began in 1957 when he created the role of Big Deal in the original company of "West Side Story," a role he played for exactly 1,000 performances.
Since then, Charnin has been involved in more than 135 theatrical, television, film and nightclub productions as a director, producer, composer or lyricist. While he has won Emmys, Tonys, Grammys and the Peabody Award for broadcasting, he has yet to win an Oscar.
His iconic musical "Annie" opened on Broadway in 1977 and originally ran for 2,377 performances. It has been revived on Broadway three times, and Charnin has directed "Annie" 19 times in various productions around the world.
Charnin has collaborated with Charles Strouse, Vernon Duke, Marvin Hamlisch and twice with Richard Rodgers, and has written for or directed Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Jack Lemmon, Ann-Margaret, Jack Benny, Anne Bancroft, Betty Hutton, Sutton Foster, Catherine Zeta Jones, Bebe Neuwirth, Barbara Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera, Jane Lynch, Tony Bennett, Jason Alexander and Jay-Z, to name a few.
Coming with Charmin will be his wife, Shelly Burch, who opened her one-woman-show at the 54 Below in October.
Knobloch, a native of Jackson, Miss., has been performing since the age of 13 when he and some friends formed a band to play at school sock hops. He left school in 1973 to play music full-time.
After his 1980 hit, "Why Not Me," he moved to Los Angeles, where over the next two years he had two Top Ten country singles with "Killin' Time" and "Memphis." He returned to Nashville in 1983.
With Thom Schuyler and Craig Bickhardt, who formed the group SKB, Knobloch recorded two albums that included the hits "No Easy Horses" and "Baby's Got A New Baby." He has worked with artists such as Faith Hill, George Strait, Delbert McClinton, Etta James, Ray Charles, The Wilkinsons, Lorrie Morgan, John Anderson, Trisha Yearwood, Larry Stewart, Neal McCoy, Confederate Railroad, Sawyer Brown, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Kenny Rogers.
Knobloch has composed for television programs such as "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills 90210" and for films such as "Next of Kin" and "In Country."
"I think the judges' lineup is one of the best ever," Rideout says. "It's one of the most diverse ever.
"We need that for the singers," he says. "They come in with diversity that needs to be mirrored by people who choose the winners."
The contestants are diverse, too.
"We have such a high level of contestants, it's really exciting," Rideout says. "I'm excited for the new venues, as well."
This year's quarterfinals will be at Skidaway Island Methodist Church. The semifinals and final will be at the Savannah Theatre in downtown Savannah.
The true test will be how the audiences react in numbers and excitement over the venue changes.
"The excitement we've received from the donors and also word of mouth we're getting from Skidaway Island is through the roof," Rideout says.
The quarterfinals also will begin earlier than in previous years.
"We received a lot of feedback from people who wished they could attend but couldn't because of distance and the time of day," Rideout says. "We have adjusted the time and place to open that up.
"Some of our board members and members of the community developed a quick relationship with April Prow and the Savannah Theatre," he says. "They are very interested in being involved with the competition in some way.
"They have been so generous and excited about the competition. We are thrilled to have this partnership with another historic venue downtown."
There also are technical aspects that are appealing. "The theater comes with a package of things that we might need or could tap into," Rideout says.
"That more than anything is a real bonus. The size of the theater is a plus, too. It's smaller and we might find more intimacy in the performances there."
The only local contestant this year is Stephen Dobson of Savannah. The other contestants are Caitlin Andrews, Nathan Baer, Elizabeth Baldwin, Natalie Ballenger, Dr. Vanessa Beaumont, Kelsey Betzelberger, Adam Cannedy, Kacey Cardin, Kaitlyn Costello, Dru Daniels, Falon Faigle, Maria Failla, William Ferguson, Branch Fields, Nicole Greenidge, Kathryn Guthrie, Kelly Hoppenjans, Karla Hughes, William Lewis, Wendy Muir, Tami Petty, Sarah Queen, Daniel Shirley, Mikki Sodergren, Brian Vu, Jacob Keith Watson and Jorell Williams.
The singers are competing for the top award, the Courtney Knight Gaines Gold Medal Award, which carries a prize of $12,000; the Patricia and Heyward Gignilliat Silver Medal Award, worth $6,000; the Rob Demere Colonial Group Bronze Medal Award of $3,000; the Johnny Mercer Award of $750 that is presented by the Friends of Johnny Mercer Inc., for the best performance of a Johnny Mercer song; the Ben Tucker Jazz Award of $500, presented for the best performance of a jazz song; and two Triad Supply Service People's Choice Awards of $500 each that are awarded to a promising quarterfinalist and semifinalist who did not advance.
In addition, finalists receive $1,200, semifinalists receive $600 and quarterfinalists receive $300.
In 2006, Rideout won the gold medal, so he knows that every singer differs in the way he or she prepares for the competition.
"It's a skill that's very personal, but I think our singers are perfecting knowing the songs as well as possible," he says. "When they get here, that will let them perform and come out in a very organic way.
"Some are thinking technically, too. As they get to the finals, they might choose to use the trio we offer, with drums and bass in addition to piano.
"They'll need to provide a musical chart for the musicians and come up with charts that are good for their piece," Rideout says. "They're probably thinking logistics and are studying up on Savannah and how to get around. It's really kind of fun."