Bringing the Show to Life: Talking with Ian Eisendrath about ‘Come From Away’

I recently had the chance to talk with Ian Eisendrath about his work as music supervisor for Come From Away. Eisendrath worked on both the Broadway show and oversaw the filmed production that is now on AppleTV+. Come From Away, for those not familiar, recounts the real-life story of when hundreds of passengers were stranded in Newfoundland for a period of time in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s a powerful story of people coming together in a time of need and I recommend checking the show out if you get the chance.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

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Just to start with, can you explain what a music supervisor does?

It’s challenging to describe, and everyone will have their own definition. I have found that the role and responsibilities shift from project to project.   I have also spent the last year and a half working as an executive music producer, collaborating with some very talented music supervisors).  At the end of the day, we take responsibility for managing and bringing together all of the musical elements, from development through post. We support, manage, collaborate, and participate in the realization of the filmmaker, songwriter, studio, producer vision for how music exists and functions specifically and overall in the world of the film or show.  

It’s a bit more detailed than just being the composer for something.

Yes, I  often interact with almost every member of the filmmaking team, production team, and cast. I  get in the trenches with the songwriters, supporting development of the musical language, the musical structures, and overall vibe for how the story is being told through music. On the non-creative side, I often manage (and work closely with other members of the music team and studio) to schedule overall workflow for music development, music production, music rehearsal, on-set music recording, and the final stages of music production that take place during post.  Throughout prep – the period of time before rehearsal and principal photography begin – I interact closely with the director, providing support and feedback to ensure that music is headed in a direction that supports their vision. Wrangle and support the extensive noting/approval/revisions processes that take place between songwriters, directors, choreographers, producers, the studio, and members of the music team. I will often = produce or co-produce the demo sessions, hire and rehearse the demo singers and instrumentalists,  engage arrangers and orchestrators, oversee the creation of the scores that will be used for rehearsal and production, and really…just do what needs to be done to get the material ready for rehearsal and filming.   During rehearsal, I spend a lot of time coaching the actors on their vocal performances (connecting every musical choice to character, dramaturgy, and the acting values that the director and actors are discussing), work closely with the (very talented) vocal coaches brought on to support each specific actor (Eric Vetro, Liz Kaplan, Fiona McDougal), work closely with the songwriters, director and choreographer to ensure that they are getting what the need out of the music and vocal performances being developed, supporting the dance creation process – which often involves adding or shifting music to support what will be happening on camera, and working closely with the entire production team to plan how we’re going to record and playback music and vocals for each camera setup (what are we recording live?, when are we lip-synching to playback?, how do we get in and out of a each section of music?, what will the actors and filmmakers hear?)

During the shoot – principal photography – the entire music team is responsible for making sure that everything goes seamlessly from a musical perspective and that they are never waiting on music. I am also on hand to implement in-the-moment shifts and changes to the music, to coach and oversee  vocal performances. It is so crucial that the performance being captured on camera is both musically and dramatically sound because we will be living with that timing and performance forever!  

During post, I work closely with the music editorial department to support the director’s process throughout their picture cut, manage and oversee the recording and production of the final versions of each cue, and participate in the mixing process for the music in the film.  I am also sometimes lucky enough to conduct the orchestra, which is one of my favorite things in the world to do.

You worked on the Broadway version of Come From Away also right?

I was fortunate to be involved from the beginning and to work closely with David [Hein] and Irene [Sankoff], the writers – who are also the songwriters, the director, Chris Ashley, and the choreographer, Kelly Devine, on the creation and development of the Broadway production. I was engaged as the music supervisor, music director, and arranger, and in addition to my work as a music supervisor, I wrote the musical arrangements, conducted the band, and played keys and accordion. From a musical perspective, our goal was to use songs, themes, and motifs to create (what feels like) a 100-minute, through-composed documentary, something that felt unlike any other show currently playing on Broadway. [ I was so fortunate to be the Music Supervisor, Arranger, and Music Director for almost every phase of development, including readings, workshops, rewrites, out-of-town productions in La Jolla, Seattle, DC, and Toronto, and the original Broadway production.    After a successful opening on Broadway, we ended up opening four additional companies – Toronto, UK, Australia, and the North American tour, telling the story across the globe.   

When and how was it decided that you’re going to make a film version of this show?

The pandemic made this adaptation timely and necessary. There had been an ongoing discussion of adapting it for feature film, but with live theatre shut down, it became necessary. We were in a time when people were in dire need of stories that bring comfort and inspiration, and also in need of anything close to what feels like communal story-telling and music making. So – our producers and creative team decided to create a film version of the live theatrical production that gives people that experience of watching the show in the theater. 

So is the show that you created a single performance? Or were there multiple takes that were compiled together?

It was a combination of a single performance in front of a live audience – I believe it was the first audience that had been assembled in a Broadway theatre since Broadway shut down – and many shorter takes, from various angles and distances. 

So what changes, if any, did you have to make for the production to let it be filmed?

The material remained untouched, but we had to re-approach HOW we filmed and recorded the material.  This is what made my job as music supervisor most interesting on the film.  The show features live music – instrumental and vocal – that runs throughout 95% of the show, underneath intimate dialogue, solo vocals, and featured instrumentals. I really enjoyed working closely with our sound team (Gareth Owen, Sound Designer, Tod Maitland, Production Sound Mixer & Recordist and Russell Godwin, Sound Associate) and our music production team (Wendy Cavett, Scott Wasserman, Derik Lee, Chris Ranney, and many others) to figure out how to playback and record music in a way that would provide as much separation and flexibility for the editing process.

It’s sort of ironic, because, in order to create a film mix that gives the audience the impression of a live experience, we needed to get as clean and separate of an audio capture on the individual elements – solo vocals, group vocals, solo instruments, dialogue, foley/environment, etc… – as possible. We ultimately decided to fit every actor and musician with in-ear monitors, as you would on a film, so that we could keep the theatre as quiet as possible in order to capture live vocal and instrumental elements. We’d sometimes do a pass with the soloists singing out loud while the group vocals and instrumentals would be performed silently, and then we’d get isolated coverage on solo instruments, foley, shouts, etc…. Once we finished filming, all of the raw material that was re-assembled in the music and picture edit process (shoutout to August Eriksmoen, our Associate Music Producer who helped me balance this while working on a couple of other film projects), remixed the music and hopefully ended up with something that feels like a live theatre experience.

It sounds like it was a big job. How long did it take to like complete the adaptation from stage for film?

We found out about this, I think it was November of 2020. And then everyone started working non-stop, working on the changes that needed to be made to make it filmable, many, many discussions with the talented musicians and sound team members about how we were going to record and produce the music. [It also involved] working with the film team and working with general management on, how do we get everyone, an entire company, and film crew, quarantined, living in a hotel, COVID tested and COVID free so that we could all gather in a contained theatre with cast and  members not wearing masks. This was earlier in the pandemic, when we didn’t know how COVID worked, and the rules were constantly changing!  It was a massive undertaking, from many people across many facets of production – from creative to management, to talent, to catering, to transportation, to hotels…everyone had to think way outside the box. And, honestly, it was this beautiful synthesis of the film world coming together with theater world and figuring out how to bring together the people, cultures, and traditions of film and live theatre, because we all need each other to make this happen. Sort of like what the film is about…, all of these people from all over the world ending up together without any warning, during a moment of crisis, figuring out how to survive and make the best of a challenging time. So it feels like we were having our own Come From Away experience while we were filming and telling the story.

Yeah, I did have a more general music question too. I noticed that it said the traditional Newfoundland songs are included. How was it decided which ones to use?

David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers, and I immersed ourselves in the music. We fell in love with the music of Newfoundland, had playlists that last four to five days, and just listened and loved the music.  We brought on Bob Hallet (Newfoundlander musician, writer, producer of GREAT BIG SEA fame) to be our music consultant, August Eriksmoen (orchestrator/multi-instrumentalist with a massive background in folk music), and we hired several musicians from the Celtic/folk world to be part of our band from the first out of town production through the closing of our Broadway production.  These incredibly skilled and knowledgeable musicians – Ben Power, Caitlin Warbelow, Romano DiNillo – were great mentors to me throughout the process.  

Our goal was to honor and recreate the incredibly unique sound of that region.  Since the music in the film is almost entirely original music, with the exception of a couple references to pop songs, some traditional prayers, and two folk songs of Newfoundland, we spent a great deal creating and arranging themes and motifs that supported character and story, while also capturing the essence of the music of Newfoundland. In the end, we have a rhythm section (drums, keys, bass, and guitars) plus instruments that are part of the traditional and contemporary music scene in Newfoundland (fiddle, whistles, flutes, button accordion, octave mandolin, mandolin, bodhran, etc…)  I love that the ultimate sound is a mashup of traditional and contemporary, Celtic and pop…best of all worlds.  

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I’d like to thank Ian Eisendrath for taking the time to talk with me about his work on adapting Come From Away for the small screen. I hope you enjoyed this interview and have a great rest of the day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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