Pontotoc native William Waldrop was sitting on a piano bench at age 3 and playing little songs by the next year.
It didn’t take long for him to start directing his own shows with his sisters and mom as willing accomplices.
“We had a lot of dance costumes, and he found scarves and my old clothes, and he’d have us doing something from a movie he’d just seen,” said his mom, Wanda Waldrop. “He would pull me into it and we’d have a show. It was funny how commanding he was. It was natural. ‘You do this. You do that,’ and we just did it.”
When Waldrop was in middle school, he and his mom saw “Phantom of the Opera” at The Orpheum in Memphis. It was a revelation.
“He said, ‘Mommy, that’s what I want to do,’” Wanda Waldrop recalled. “I thought singing and dancing. He said, ‘No, I want to conduct.’”
Waldrop set an ambitious goal to reach Broadway by age 30.
“I knew I wanted to go to New York. It’s where everything is happening,” he said. “I always wanted to move there, and I needed to get there to work toward my goal.”
He believed there was a path from Pontotoc to Broadway. The way twisted and turned through the University of Mississippi and up to Baltimore, then throughout the U.S. with significant stops in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Eventually, he landed in New York.
“Six months later, I was asked to become a part of ‘Evita,’” he said.
Waldrop is associate conductor and keyboard player for the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical at the Marquis Theatre. The production stars pop singer Ricky Martin as Che, as well as Argentine actress Elena Roger as Eva and Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris as Perón.
“This is the first New York revival of ‘Evita,’ so it’s a big deal for those who know and love it,” Waldrop said.
The show opened on April 5, and Waldrop turned 31 not long after.
“He did it,” Wanda Waldrop said. “He accomplished his goal.”
In addition to piano lessons and directing his sisters in impromptu shows, his early training for Broadway included several years with the Pontotoc High School band.
He went on to Ole Miss to get a bachelor of arts in music, then earned a master’s degree at The Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.
From May to September after graduation, he worked on numerous small productions, then came to the attention of Kristen Blodgette, a musical director who needed a keyboard player for a touring company of “Cats,” another Webber hit.
“I met William in my dressing room,” Blodgette said. “From the moment I met him, I liked him. I think his talent and skills I liked as much as his incredibly gentle spirit. He’s just a really good person, and that somehow came through in the interview. He played, and I thought he played well, and I hired him that day.”
During the U.S. tour, Waldrop moved up to become musical director on “Cats.” Next, he was hired as an assistant conductor for “Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular.”
That led to a high-pressure position as musical director for a national tour of “The Phantom of the Opera.” The tour was scheduled to close in Los Angeles, and there was a good chance Webber would attend.
“William didn’t know until right before the show that he was going to be there,” Wanda Waldrop said. “Andrew Lloyd Webber was three rows back, and William just did what he was supposed to do. Oh, my goodness, the pressure. I couldn’t imagine.”
At each stop, Waldrop earned the trust of his collaborators, and when Blodgette needed an assistant in New York, she knew who to call.
“William’s got a lot of things going,” she said. “He has moved fast for someone with his age and experience. He’s not that experienced and he’s moved fast because he’s good and because of his work ethic and because of his personality. It takes all those things. Usually, you get stopped somewhere on one of them.”
Waldrop plays piano during rehearsals for “Evita,” and helps new cast members learn the music. Though the show is well known, Webber updated this production to include authentic elements from Argentine music.
“(Webber) came in a couple of times to listen and work with us. He is very flexible and has added new orchestrations to make it more authentic,” Waldrop said. “This is a very different production. The original production was abstract. This is about presenting it historically and naturally. All the sets are huge.”
He’s a keyboard player in the 18-person orchestra, and also serves as substitute conductor. Sometimes Blodgette watches him conduct to evaluate his performance. That’s not an insult, but part of necessary quality control for a show with nighttime performances from Monday to Saturday, plus matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.
“We brush up the choreography, brush up the music,” Waldrop said. “It takes a lot to maintain it week in and week out.”
If that sounds like a heavy workload, it’s nothing compared to the weeks leading up to opening day, when he and Blodgette could work from 8 a.m. to midnight.
“In the beginning, when we put the show up, it was very stressful,” he said. “You know you’ve got to keep your health up. It’s easy to get run down.”
Reviews for “Evita” have been mostly positive, and musical theater fans make their pilgrimages to the Marquis Theatre.
“We started selling out. It’s doing very well,” he said. “We have eight shows a week, and it’s still pretty full. It’s exciting to be a part of that.”
Miles to go
He’s hoping for a long run with “Evita,” and also has an eye to the future. He and his writing partner, Bobby Williamson, are working on their own projects, including a musical set in East Texas with a mix of folk, country and Texas swing.
He’s been surrounded by Webber’s work for most of his professional career, and he’s glad for the influence.
“Andrew Lloyd Webber writes great melodies. I live for beautiful melodies,” he said. “A lot of people don’t write for melody any more. There’s a magical sensation with a great melody, that feeling you get when it soars. That’s something I try to include in my music.”
Webber’s been complimentary of the orchestra and the show, and Tim Rice, lyricist for “Evita,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoast” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” has taken an interest in Waldrop’s future.
“I met him,” Wanda Waldrop said. “He encouraged William’s writing and bragged on him. That was amazing.”
That kind of talk could go to a man’s head, but evidence suggests it hasn’t. During one of her visits to New York, Wanda Waldrop was happy to hear people talking about how easy it is to work with her son.
“That’s what I’m proud of,” she said. “He’s nice and not snooty.”
Blodgette considers Waldrop’s temperament to be one of his most valuable assets.
“He remains humble and is still very self-critical, and that is part of what makes him so good,” she said. “He’s always double checking himself. He has great confidence to be a leader, and yet he doesn’t take it for granted.”
Reaching Broadway wasn’t Waldrop’s only goal. He has other plans and dreams, and he may find the way forward filled with more twists and turns. For now, he’s thankful for where the road’s already taken him.
“I consider myself to be so blessed, and I’m lucky to have my Broadway debut be such a great production,” he said. “The people I work with are the best of the best. To be part of all of this is just …”
Words fail sometimes. Luckily, he’s a music man.