There’s nothing like incredible sound to truly bring a project to life. In our latest interview, we spoke with Ian Eisendrath, the Grammy-nominated Executive Music Producer of Apple TV’s Come From Away about the process of supervising, producing, and arranging a film of this magnitude.
Ian held various roles on the original Broadway version of Come From Away, which led him to a 2018 Olivier award and a 2017 Grammy nomination. After the show’s successful run on Broadway, Ian then music-supervised the Apple TV film version, which was recorded live on stage in New York City. He served as the Music Supervisor, Executive Music Producer, and Arranger and is currently in contention for the Outstanding Music Supervision category for the Emmy Awards.
Come From Away is the story of a group of 7,000 stranded passengers post-9/11 that find solace in a small town in Newfoundland. With only 12 cast members portraying over 50 characters, Ian’s goal was for the music to work in conjunction with the action of the story, while also supporting shifts in character perspective and location. Ian also arranged, coached and produced each vocal performance, focusing on a character and text-forward approach to ground the characters as the real-life people they represent and support smooth transition between dialogue and song.
PH: Hi Ian! Can you give readers a little insight into your journey as a music producer? How did you get your start in the industry?
Ian Eisendrath: At the age of 10, I was cast as the leading character in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical and was completely entranced by the role of the Music Director and Conductor. I loved how that person was at the center of the intersection between story and music, and from that moment on, I pursued every possible opportunity to play, conduct, arrange, and oversee music-driven projects. During high school, I was given the incredible opportunity to be the resident Music Director at an ambitious, adventurous professional theater company where I logged hundreds of hours of learning on the job (a lot of trial and error).
For further training, I attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I was allowed to create a hybrid degree in music and theater, with a focus on conducting, working with singers, and musical theater performance. After graduation, at the age of 23, I was hired to be the Music Supervisor at the acclaimed 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, where I spent thirteen years developing, producing, and supervising music for new musicals, with several of the projects I worked on transferring from the 5th Avenue Theatre to Broadway. During my time at the 5th, I met Pasek & Paul and was hired to be the Music Supervisor and Music Director for all three of our Broadway debuts in 2011.
PH: What are some of the considerations you have when looking for new projects to work on?
Ian Eisendrath: I look for projects where music is deeply woven into the narrative – I am a story person, I devour stories in all formats, and the power and potential in the combination of music storytelling excites me. I also look for stories and characters with the possibility to inspire and profoundly affect their audience. People often process and internalize film, television, and theatrical content at a deeper level than non-fiction, so I see it as our responsibility to put things into the world that enlighten, inspire, and deeply move our audiences (whether it be to joy or to tears).
PH: That brings me to Come From Away. How did you get involved?
Ian Eisendrath: David Hein and Irene Sankoff (writers), Chris Ashley (director), and our producers were looking for someone to helm the music department for their first big developmental process, which happened to be taking place at the 5th Avenue Theatre (where I was employed), and they invited me to join their team on what would become a cherished eight years of my creative life culminating in this film.
PH: What was your creative vision for this story and what did the pre-production process look like?
Ian Eisendrath: I worked in close collaboration with the directors, songwriters and choreographer to craft a narrative-driven score, made up of story and character-specific songs and motifs, traditional songs from Newfoundland, and a handful of existing songs. Our goal was for the music to move in tandem with the quick pace of the story and action, supporting the constant shifts in location and character perspective. Social music-making is part of the everyday fabric of life in Newfoundland, so we chose to feature an on-camera band of seven musicians playing instruments commonly found in the traditional and contemporary music of Newfoundland, as well as from the cultures of the diverse group of passengers who landed in Gander.
PH: How is score imperative to storytelling? How is it almost a character itself? Can you share some examples from Come From Away?
Ian Eisendrath: With a twelve-person cast portraying over fifty characters and very limited costuming and scenery, we had to create and develop specific themes, motifs, and soundscapes connected to each major character. These themes and musical textures help to identify shifts in location and which character an actor is playing from moment to moment. As the characters interact and evolve over the course of the piece, thematic development and counterpoint also support the evolving story and action.
I arranged, coached, and produced the vocal performances and on-camera work, focusing on a character and text-forward approach to the vocal performances, in order to ground these characters as the real-life people they represent and support smooth transition between dialogue and song.
PH: Can you share some of your favorite sound moments?
Ian Eisendrath: To survive the bitter winters and challenges of living on a remote island, Newfoundlanders regularly gather in their homes and public spaces to connect through playing music, singing, and dancing. One of their musical traditions includes lining up several traditional folk tunes into a long, ever-evolving medley. We decided to end COME FROM AWAY with our band on stage, playing a series of jigs, reels and singles on the themes and motifs from our score. I love how this gives the viewer an opportunity to let off some steam and celebrate the music-making traditions of Newfoundland.
In addition to the original music, which makes up 95% of the score, we incorporated traditional folk songs of Newfoundland (“Heave Away”, public domain jigs, reels, and singles), “My Heart Will Go On” (Horner/Jennings), “Prayer of St. Francis” (Temple) and “Osseh Shalom” (Hirsh).
“My Heart Will Go On” is sung by Dolores, one of many passengers stuck on an airplane for over twenty-eight hours. In the midst of a screening of Titanic, she stands up and drunkenly belts out “My Heart Will Go On”. A couple of days later, as several characters find themselves letting off steam in a local dive bar (which the team and I visited during our time in Gander), we encounter Dolores reprising the same song, karaoke-style.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a national moment of silence in America. In a moving gesture, the Newfoundlanders pause and observe this moment of silence. Following this moment of silence, we see several of our key characters in their own form of prayer, singing hymns and traditional prayer songs from their own unique faith traditions. This coalesces into a beautiful cacophony of Muslim, Hindi, Jewish, Christian, and Catholic songs harmonizing in counterpoint.
PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered?
Ian Eisendrath: There were many sound and music challenges involved in filming and recording a musical featuring a band playing in picture for almost the entire show. We had to work closely with our sound department, actors, and musicians to devise ways to capture clean audio while maintaining the impromptu, spontaneous ensemble vibe of the vocals, dialogue, and instrumentals.
The other major challenge we faced was filming this in the midst of the pandemic before things had started to open up. Every member of the cast and crew entered a bubble for over a month, living in a hotel that the studio had bought out for the shooting. We had to rehearse vocals with masks on, there were strict rules about when and where musicians could play together, and any recording we needed to do happened under strict isolation guidelines that didn’t necessarily lend itself to ensemble music-making.
PH: How have you seen the industry change over the past year?
Ian Eisendrath: The industry has changed in so many ways in such a short period of time. I’m heartened to see more voices represented across theater, film, and TV, on the creative side of the table especially. There are new stories and subject matters coming to the forefront, giving audiences a diversity of offerings that weren’t nearly as true a few years back.
I’m also thrilled to see musical theatre becoming more mainstream. Telling stories through song has always been a tremendous passion of mine, and seeing the wider world embrace narrative-driven music to tell stories has been a wonderful thing to behold. When intellect and emotion come together in a storytelling song, there is nothing greater to stick in the hearts and minds of an audience. This renaissance of music-driven film projects widens the aperture for the kinds of stories folks think musicals can tell, and democratizes who gets to have access to them in a streaming world.
Finally, the way that we work together has shifted significantly since the onset of the pandemic. During lockdown, we learned how much can be done remotely (through Zoom, high fidelity music streaming software, and great organization and coordination. It is now possible (and sadly common) to produce recording sessions remotely and develop entire songs and scenes in Zoom rooms.
PH: Can you talk about any other upcoming projects?
Ian Eisendrath: I am currently Executive Music Producer on three film musicals: Lyle, Lyle Crocodile (Sony) and Spirited (Apple) are currently in post, and I’m currently living in London working on a Disney live-action musical.
I am also developing four new musicals for the stage – a musical adaptation of Laura Esquival’s beautiful Like Water For Chocolate (featuring an incredible, groundbreaking score by grammy-winning Mexican band, La Santa Cecilia), a Sinatra bio-musical, a musical chronicling the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson and a new musical based on Maylis DeKerengal’s beautiful French novel, The Heart.