Reality Check: Former CMU student hits right notes on 'The Voice'


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Here is how James Wolpert tells it:

"My grandfather, he was a jack of all trades -- an inventor, an artist, musician, performer. He was incredibly good at damn near everything. This one time he was auditioning in New York for a record company, and it was a competition, kind of like 'The Voice.'

"Singers come together, they eliminate one, and you keep going until there is just my grandfather and this other guy.

Former CMU student still in good 'Voice'

Former CMU art student James Wolpert and Will Champlin battle it out with Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" on NBC's "The Voice." Mr. Wolpert won this Battle Round. (Video courtesy of NBC; 10/26/2013)

"After deliberating back and forth between the two, the label went with the other guy. It wasn't until later we found out the 'other guy' was Frank Sinatra."

Mr. Wolpert, 22, paused a beat. "I don't know how much of this story is true."

Half a lifetime later, Ol' Blue Eyes would nonetheless be stunned to know just how many people watch NBC's singing reality hit, "The Voice." Not only is it still a ratings bonanza -- although viewership has dipped this season it's still pulling in more than 13 million a show -- but also it's performing well in the younger, coveted Nielsen demos.

For those unfamiliar with "The Voice," Mr. Wolpert, who grew up in Strasburg, Lancaster County, and studied art at Carnegie Mellon University, is a member of Adam Levine's team. Three other celebrity mentors/judges choose singers through blind auditions. The next round pits singers from the same team against each other in "battle rounds," which were televised over the past two weeks.

"It was a nerve-racking performance," said Mr. Wolpert, who sang Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" with teammate Will Champlin on last Monday's show. It wasn't a song well-suited to his vocal talents (he's more obsessed with the complexity of Queen), but he advanced to the next round. It was hardly a slam dunk.

"If I'm being completely honest, I felt he won," Mr. Wolpert said, adding, "but I'm insanely self-critical."

Mr. Champlin was quickly picked up by another team, which means they could meet again. On Monday, Mr. Wolpert has the tough task of performing a song of his choosing against teammate Juhi Pathak.

"We are very close friends, and it [stinks] that we've been paired together," he said.

After cultivating a button-down image, Mr. Wolpert decided to ditch his hipster glasses for this round: "I didn't want to pigeonhole myself as the super-nerdy geek, but also, that's a big audience out there and I didn't want to see them."

"The Voice" isn't Mr. Wolpert's first go-round in reality TV. In 2008, he placed fifth on the little-watched ABC show "High School Musical: Get in the Picture."

Growing up in a household with classic rock in the background -- "My dad, he's a really good singer, but nobody knows it but me. And my sister can sing, but nobody knows that, either" -- gave Mr. Wolpert an appreciation for popular music.

Discovering musical theater in high school was an even bigger influence. His two favorites are "Les Miserables" and "Spring Awakening," but he was probably biased toward the latter. Its original star and Tony Award nominee, Jonathan Groff, is Mr. Wolpert's cousin.

In fact, late last year Mr. Groff and then-boyfriend, Pittsburgh native Zachary Quinto, stopped by the Apple Store on Walnut Street, where Mr. Wolpert worked.

"They actually pushed me over the edge [to audition]," he said.

Leaving Pittsburgh for North Hollywood wasn't easy: "I fell in love with the city." Although the shows airing for the next few weeks were taped months ago, live shows begin after the winnowing process within each team ends.

Should he make it that far, he has issued a standing invitation to his former employer.

"I'm sure I'll get flak for this, but when I was working at Apple, there was an employee email directory. We could email anyone in Apple, including [CEO] Tim Cook. Before I left, I fired off an email, inviting him to one of my live performances, should I make it."

Pittsburgh 'Undercover Boss'

CBS's "Undercover Boss" on Nov. 1 will feature the follies of CEO Paul Quentel trying to make like Randy in "Say Yes to the Dress" at a wedding show. Mr. Quentel is the head of Pittsburgh's Alfred Angelo Bridal.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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