Awards Radar had the opportunity to speak with Ian Eisendrath, the Executive Music Producer of Apple TV+’s Come From Away. Eisendrath is a storyteller at heart and a full believer that music lets audiences envision the story at all times. For Come From Away, Eisendrath worked in close contact with directors and songwriters for over five years to develop a narrative-driven score, brainstorm character-specific songs, and incorporate traditional songs from Newfoundland
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.
In this interview, Eisendrath dives into his early career with Broadway musicals, transitioning into film and some of his favorite songs from Come From Away.
How did you get started on Broadway?
At the age of ten, 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.
How did you get involved with Come From Away the play specifically?
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 one of the greatest adventures of my life!
What about the film?
The pandemic obviously shut down our entire industry, with so many people out of work
and no way for audiences to experience theater, so our film studio and producers
decided to bring COME FROM AWAY to people’s living rooms! I was already in development and production for a couple of films, so this was a welcome opportunity to rethink and reimagine the Broadway show as a film experience.
What has been the most challenging thing about transferring a play into a film?
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.
What has been the most rewarding?
I loved revisiting all of the material, having a second crack at everything, and reimagining the music and soundscape for the screen. Our objective was for the film to feel as if it was a live musical and theatrical event happening on your screen. Of course, the execution of creating that vibe requires a vastly different approach than creating something for live theater. It was so much fun to dial in all of the sound and music elements that one cannot control in live theatre.
Could you describe your day-to-day job on the set of the film?
Every day is so different, depending on where we’re at in the process. During the months
before shooting, I worked closely with the Director, Producers, Writers, Sound and Music
teams to craft our approach to the filmed version of the material, to figure out how and when to record all of the sonic elements at play (solo vocals, ensemble vocals, onstage band, dialogue, etc…). I coached and rehearsed with the actors and band on their material, and supervised and produced the recording sessions in advance of filming. When we were on set, I oversaw the integration of all the vocal elements, vocal sync, and live performances of vocals and instrumentals. During post, I worked closely with our Director, Editors, and Sound team to craft the final sound and music picture for the film. I also have to mention that there were some other key music personnel in the trenches with me for all of this – August Eriksmoen (our incredible Orchestrator and Associate Music Producer), Derik Lee and Ian Kagey (Recording Engineers and Music Mixers), Sheri Ozeki (Music Editor) and of course, our incredible writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
What is something readers would be interested to know about your job on the film that may surprise them?
I worked very closely with Chris Ashley (Director) and our Writers (Irene Sankoff
and David Hein) to craft a narrative-driven score, made up of story and character-specific songs and motifs, traditional music from Newfoundland, and a handful of existing songs. Our goal was for the music to move in tandem with the quick pace of the action, turning on a dime to support constant shifts in location and character perspective. We employed an on-camera band of seven musicians, playing instruments commonly featured in the traditional and contemporary music of Newfoundland.
With a twelve-person cast portraying over fifty characters, specific themes and motifs are connected to each character, helping to identify 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 support the story and action.
Were there any songs that stuck out to you that you worked on?
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.
I also wrote the vocal arrangements, and absolutely loved working with our 12-person cast to create the vocal and ensemble sound that functions as lead storytelling vocal, backup vocals, and a score-like counterpoint to dialogue and throughout the show.
And lastly, what’s next for Ian Eisendrath?
I am currently Executive Music Producer on three film musicals: Sony’s Lyle, Lyle Crocodile starring Shawn Mendes, Javier Bardem, and Constance Wuand Apple TV+’s Spirited starring Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell, and Octavia Spencer are currently in post, coming out this fall. Additionally, I’m currently living in London for six months working on a new 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.