The Music of Newfoundland and the World of Come From Away

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A conversation with Ian Eisendrath, Grammy-nominated Music Supervisor and Arranger of Come From Away and former Resident Music Supervisor and Director of New Works at The 5th Avenue Theatre

Can you talk a little about your earliest interactions with Come From Away?

I saw the presentation of Come From Away at NAMT in my capacity as Director of New Works at The 5th and it was very clear that the piece had tremendous potential and connected deeply with the audience. I was very excited about it. And I knew that Kenny Alhadeff, Steve Reynolds, and several of our stakeholders at The 5th Avenue Theatre were incredibly moved by it, and were also very interested in it. The next thing I heard was that Junkyard Dog (Rand Adams, Sue Frost, and Marleen and Kenny Alhadeff) had optioned it. And at that moment I thought, ‘Well that will be fantastic. I can’t wait to see it!’

And about six months later, Kenny asked us if The 5th would be interested in producing the developmental lab with him and Junkyard Dog. Of course, we said yes and were very excited for The 5th Avenue Theatre to be a developmental home for the piece. It was the kind of theater that we wanted to be doing with artists that we believed in.

At that moment in time, I was not part of the creative team. I was functioning as Director of New Works – assisting in putting together the process and making sure they had the tools and the environment they needed to succeed. And as they began assembling the team, there was the need for a Music Supervisor. And the team—specifically Kenny—set up a meeting with myself and the composers/lyricists Irene Sankoff and David Hein. So we had breakfast and talked all about the potential of the show, the music, the vision that they had, what my skill set was and how we might work together, and it all seemed like a really great fit. And I was brought on board to be the Music Supervisor, Conductor, and Arranger.

And from then on, it has been the most symbiotic, synergetic creative experience I’ve ever had. And that’s with ALL the members of the creative team—director Chris Ashley, with David and Irene, and choreographer Kelly Devine.

And I really saw the show transform in Seattle. I feel like we came in with a two-act musical with a lot of great stories and a lot of great potential. And we left with this tight, focused, highly theatrical, 90-minute experience that felt both heartwarming and comedic and also deeply moving and engaging. And across those three weeks, we just learned so much about the piece. And it really galvanized the team, the experience, and the great potential of the show and just set us on this great track.

Photo credit Jeff Carpenter

Come From Away has such a unique sound, musically. Were you familiar at all with the kind of music that was in the show?

It’s not something I knew. And once I knew what the show was about and the world it was taking place in, I just sort of immersed myself in the contemporary music of Newfoundland. And you know, both David Hein and I listened to hundreds of hours of music and really put our finger on the pulse of the bands and the sound of music that is coming out in Newfoundland right now. And while we couldn’t be slavish to that, and recreate that 100% authentically—because at the end of the day the music’s job is to tell the story and to forward the drama—we very much were trying to capture the essence of the incredible music making that happens there. And music is such a part of the culture. The instruments they play, the rhythms, the dance feels, all of that had a massive influence on all of our work on Come From Away.

How did the decision come about for you guys to be onstage?

You know, I think it was an impulse of Chris Ashley’s from the very beginning that this is a show where a group of people tells a story and that music, being the backbone—at least one of the major backbones—of the culture of Newfoundland—and kitchen parties, specifically are a thing where a group of friends gets together in a home in Newfoundland and they freestyle to traditional tunes and make up their own music. Music is a way of life there. And knowing that, I think Chris’s impulse in the beginning, and everyone’s impulse, was that the musicians are very much part of the storytelling and so putting them onstage puts the culture of Newfoundland and the sort of the role of music in that world onstage.

You left The 5th and Seattle to follow Come From Away on its journey to Broadway. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what your involvement with the show is now?

When I first worked on Come From Away, I just viewed it as one of those stories, those musicals. But I found it was really a movement that I really wanted to be a part of. And everything in me could not imagine saying goodbye to this show after it left Seattle. And you know, I had come to New York with A Christmas Story and that was a limited run, so that worked really nicely with my 5th Avenue Theatre job. And, you know, I’ve been at The 5th for 13 years. I grew up there! I credit The 5th Avenue Theatre with everything. It’s the reason that I’m able to do what I’m doing right now. I lived a wonderful artistic life there and I look forward to continuing that and returning. I by no means feel like I’m no longer with The 5th Avenue Theatre, but I just felt like this is the moment to relocate to New York and do this.

And you know, Bill Berry, Bernie Griffin, and David Armstrong—everyone has been so, not only supportive, but committed to me and throughout this experience and we remain in such close conversation and I really look forward to being back at The 5th collaborating on new musicals.

And so what that means for Come From Away is that I’m the Music Supervisor for all commercial companies— the Broadway company, Toronto, the North American tour (and I could not be happier that it’s launching at The 5th), the UK production (which will premiere in Dublin and then open in London), and then the Australian company, which will both play Sydney and Melbourne.

Photo credit Mark Kitaoka

Are you working on any projects other than Come From Away?

I’m working on six or seven other new musicals, several of them with Chris Ashley and another one with Junkyard Dog.

This world is tiny. You keep running into the same people.  As hard as it was to leave The 5th, I knew that I’d stay in close touch with the organization and will hopefully be back.  The 5th will always be family – my artistic beginning, and hopefully present and future!


Click for tickets to see Come From Away at The 5th Avenue Theatre, playing October 9 – November 4.

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