This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Levon Ichkhanian
Musicals are platforms where one can journey into an imagined reality – travel back in time, relive the present, or be transported into the future. They are doorways that lead us to escape into magical worlds by experiencing a story through the union of music and theatre. Great musicals stand the test of time by offering audiences a seamless story, music, and theatrics. Once in a while, a great musical comes along that inspires reflection and discourse, and when experienced, changes us a little, for the better.
The Tony Award-winning musical Come From Away falls into this category. It tells the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded airline passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them following the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Cultures clashed and nerves ran high, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships. On September 11th, the world stopped; on September 12th, the stories of those affected moved us all.
[The Come From Away band – Canadian company: (L-R) JON MAHARAJ, MUSICAL DIRECTOR/CONDUCTOR BOB FOSTER, TRISTAN AVAKIAN, GREG HAWCO, ANNA LUDLOW, SPENCER MURRAY & KIM RATCLIFFE. OFFSTAGE: SEAN KILBRIDE. Photo by Matthew Murphy.]
Come From Away’s book, music, and lyrics are by two-time Tony Award nominees and Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Award winners Irene Sankoff and David Hein with direction by Tony and Outer Critics Circle Award winner Christopher Ashley (Memphis), musical staging by two-time Tony Award nominee Kelly Devine (Rocky), and music supervision by Ian Eisendrath (A Christmas Story). It features scenic design by Tony Award winner Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Tony Award nominee Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by two-time Tony Award winner Howell Binkley, sound design by Tony Award nominee and Outer Critics Circle Award winner Gareth Owen, orchestrations by two-time Tony Award nominee August Eriksmoen, and music arrangements by Ian Eisendrath. The Toronto company is comprised of 18 talented Canadian actors and seven musicians, along with the music director/conductor and his associate. The show maintains its flow through the efforts of the resident director, stage management team, company management, sound, wardrobe, hair and makeup teams, and
dedicated crew personnel.
Come From Away is not the first time Music Director and Conductor Bob Foster leads an original Canadian cast. His past credits include Rock of Ages, Hairspray, Dirty Dancing, and Mamma Mia!, plus numerous other shows in theatres across Canada. He is the recipient of two SOCAN Airplay Awards and two Betty Mitchell Awards, head of music at the Charlottetown Festival, and music supervisor for Evangeline and Bittergirl.
He also wrote the hit songs “Good Mother” and “Looking for It,” among others, with Jann Arden, and has played guitar and keyboards with her both live and in the studio.
Foster’s work on the show began long before the first day of rehearsal – getting to know the score, casting the show, ensemble and solo vocal coaching, and playing or conducting blocking and choreography rehearsals. He also had to learn the button accordion, which he plays along with keyboards and harmonium.
“At some point,” he explains, “usually later in the rehearsal period, the MD will lead band or orchestra rehearsals, separately from the cast rehearsals. This is where the group of musicians who have been chosen to perform the music in the show rehearse their parts. After a few of these rehearsals, the cast and band or orchestra will come together for what is known as a sitzprobe [meaning ‘sit and sing’ in German], where the cast will hear the musicians for the first time, and vice versa.
“Then,” he continues, “leading up to the first performance, the cast and musicians will transfer to the stage for tech rehearsals. Here, the MD works in conjunction with the sound designer to help create the right sound for the show. There will be sound checks, full days of tech rehearsals, and one or two dress rehearsals leading up to the first performance. Once the show is up and running, the MD needs to maintain the integrity of the show with notes to cast and band, clean up rehearsals, and so on.”
[The Come From Away Canadian company. Photo by Matthew Murphy]
This is done with the aid of Associate Music Director Richard Evans, who has worked in theatre, film, and television. His credits include Mamma Mia!, Kinky Boots, and The Bodyguard, and live performances and recordings with well-known musicians like Fergie, Michael McDonald, Colbie Caillat, Alan Frew, and others.
The Come From Away orchestra is housed at both ends of the stage in view of the audience, in contrast with most musical productions where musicians are in pits under the stage.
Selected by an audition process, the band was cast with musical theatre veterans Tristan Avakian, Kim Ratcliffe, Jon Maharaj, and Sean Kilbride, and the new-to-musicals Anna Ludlow, Spencer Murray, and Greg Hawco. It seemed destined for this diverse group of musicians to come together to re-create the music for the Canadian production eight times a week. In sharing their journey, they all speak of how they were moved by the Come From Away story, reflect on the inner workings of a theatre musician, and that somehow, they were preparing to play this show long before it was even written.
Drummer Sean Kilbride credits his roots for his connection to the show. “In some ways, my preparation for Come From Away began growing up in Atlantic Canada where traditional and Celtic music is almost a backdrop to life,” he shares. “However, my professional preparation began with a trip to audit the New York production. I quickly realized that this would be unlike any other show I’ve done. Not simply a collection of songs, it is like one long soundtrack to a beautiful story. While I’ve played many styles over the years, the majority of my career has been as a rock drummer.”
With a résumé boasting stints with Kim Mitchell, Haywire, Alannah Myles, and Sass Jordan, Kilbride became involved in musical theatre with the original Toronto productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rock of Ages, The Toxic Avenger, and Oh Canada – What a Feeling! He was also picked by Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor for We Will Rock You.
“I can’t say enough about the pleasure I take in playing the different styles incorporated in this music behind such outstanding performers,” he adds about Come From Away. “It’s a challenging book to learn, but playing a month of initial cast rehearsals and experiencing the production taking shape from the ground up was beneficial to say the least.”
[The Come From Away band in the dressing room: (L-R) KIM RATCLIFFE, TRISTAN AVAKIAN (SEATED), SEAN KILBRIDE, ANNA LUDLOW, SPENCER MURRAY, JON MAJARAJ & GREG HAWCO. Photo by Lisa Humber]
Fiddler Anna Ludlow shares similar sentiments. “We are all telling a story in Come From Away. The actors tell the real-life people’s story and the musicians tell the real-life story of the music in the East Coast. I am from Nova Scotia, so playing the fiddle parts in the show comes with much pride. I am so proud to be from the East Coast and I couldn’t be happier playing in a show that displays the true hospitality and kindness that this story shares about what home is like.”
A mainstay in the Eastern Canada music scene, Ludlow has toured North America and Europe with DRUM! Her debut album, Reel to Reel, drew nominations from both Music Nova Scotia and the East Coast Music Awards. While proficient in fusing traditional Celtic tunes with a modern percussive vibe, Come From Away pushed her to broaden her performance. “It was a learning curve for me in particular as I had always played Celtic music primarily and there are a lot of classical techniques. Getting to know my instrument more intimately has been the most rewarding for me musically, and this show in particular was the biggest musical challenge of my career as I had never worked with a conductor or been in an ensemble.”
With a 25-plus-year professional career as a guitarist, composer, and producer, Tristan Avakian’s credits include Canadian and international productions of We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages, Kinky Boots, and The Book of Mormon and work with artists as diverse as Lauryn Hill, Trans Siberian Orchestra, and Marc Martel.
The story of Come From Away has a deep personal connection. “As both a native New Yorker and long-term Canadian resident, I feel deeply connected to the vision presented in Come From Away, and honoured to help bring it back to Canada and to the world,” says the production’s first guitarist, who performs on both electric and acoustic for the show. “My now ex-wife is Canadian and we met in New York City. She was deep into the third trimester of her pregnancy with our first child, Chloe, on 9/11. After that, we started looking for a better place to raise her. We visited Toronto the following summer and I fell in love with the place. There was green space, a lot of it for a major city, and culture. There seemed to be a higher baseline of common decency. I wanted my children to understand other cultures and our essential interconnectedness, to grow up with a global perspective. We found it here.”
The score is comprised of contemporary theatrical pop songs influenced by traditional Irish folk and elements of world music. The blend of traditional and contemporary instruments is what brings it all to life – like the Newfoundland kitchen party tunes – to enhance pivotal moments in the narratives. The score even has a number that starts with a Christian hymn, followed by Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim prayers.
[Music Director Bob Foster (standing) & Associate Music Director Richard Evans. Photo by Levon Ichkhanian.]
Hailing from Newfoundland and Labrador, percussionist Greg Hawco explains that “every Newfoundlander living or working abroad feels a longing to be home almost every day. We have a saying, ‘You can take the man from the bay, but you can’t take the bay from the man.’ When performing in CFA, I get a little taste of Newfoundland every night. For that I am truly grateful.” Hawco is the music director and conductor for the Urban Orchestra in Toronto and also composes for film and television, with credits including Caught, Trail of the Caribou, Touch, Republic of Doyle, and His Turn.
“CFA is my first foray in the music theatre world, and what a way to start! I was hooked right away. The early Toronto rehearsals were so exciting. We all knew from the very beginning that we were a part of something special. The music and arrangements in CFA are superb. It’s a pleasure and indeed an honour to perform them every night – not to mention the ugly stick solo! I am so lucky to share the stage and perform with such an amazing group of actors and musicians. Top shelf all the way!”
Also new to musical theatre, Spencer Murray (whistles, Irish flute, Uilleann pipes) is astounded by the audience reaction to the show and the duties of the musical theatre musician. “When we first started performances in Winnipeg, I’d never experienced such a visceral and gratifying reaction from audiences in my life. I promised myself I’d never take that reaction for granted and every night I’m still so profoundly grateful. This is the first time I’ve played music in a situation where audiences are so emotionally invested in the story, and it’s so amazing to be a part of what is often a very cathartic experience for people, but there is also an added sense of responsibility to make sure we do our job to the best of our abilities every night to help best tell this story.”
Murray is the first Canadian ever to receive a master’s degree in Uilleann piping. He got his start playing the highland bagpipes when he was eight years old and went on to perform with Carlos Nunez and as a soloist with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, was nominated for Album of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, and currently anchors his own band, Spencer Murray & Pipeslinger. “One of the things I’m most excited about with this musical is that so many people are being exposed to the incredible music and culture of Newfoundland and Labrador for the first time. Newfoundland music is so incredible and it’s a privilege to be able to help in sharing it with the rest of the world.”
As a musical is live, no two shows are alike, and everything is pliable once the curtain is up. It resembles the “one take” model of a live-off-the-floor recording session, where the first take is the only take. There is no room for error or complacency, no opportunity to fix a part afterwards. A lead actor can be replaced by an understudy with a slightly different timbre or timing, so the musicians need to follow the music director/conductor’s cues for any split-second changes.
To be an ideal musical theatre musician candidate, one must be able to follow a conductor with a high degree of focus and discipline, musicality, feel, and groove. They must be able to read music, play to a click, be comfortable playing exposed and featured parts, and able to blend in as part of an ensemble. They must be fully invested, both musically and emotionally. Playing in musical theatre can expand a musician’s skills as the score may dictate learning a new instrument or even a new genre. Comfort zones are always challenged and music vocabularies expanded.
Come From Away is no exception.
Guitarist Kim Ratcliffe was happily minding his own business on holiday with his family when he was asked to audition for the second guitar chair consisting of mandolin, Irish Bouzouki, octave mandolin, and acoustic guitar for Come From Away. The next thing he knew, he was trying to figure out what to do with mandolins and such.
[The cast of Come From Away - Canadian company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.]
Fresh from a recording with guitarist Vernon Reid, drummer Aubrey Dayle, and bassist Ian de Souza, Ratcliffe’s theatre credits include Chicago, Hairspray, Grease, The Full Monty, and more. He’s also performed with a diverse group of artists. A member of the Faculty at Humber and Mohawk Colleges, Ratcliffe explains how the inner workings of the musical theatre musician go beyond technical proficiency; it requires focus, stamina, and physical and mental connections to the show.
“How to do the gig well and keep on? It’s almost like a zen koan. There’s a personal way into it, from your own experience, but you have to join everyone else on the path. What’s the sound of 40 people clapping with one hand, in perfect unison? With CFA, every show is different in subtle ways, so you need to be awake! One has to be able to dig deep to bring life, emotion, and intensity, and do it eight times a week. You need to commit to it and give it your best shot, knowing that there will be days when you fall off the horse. It’s also helpful to have your own thing going on, so that you have some creative energy to feed off of and bring back to the gig.”
Acoustic and electric bassist Jon Maharaj elaborates further: “I think the skills required of a theatre musician are the ability to play with consistency, the ability to maintain an intense level of focus, and, obviously, the ability to follow and interpret a conductor. It is quite a challenge to play the same show with the same energy and enthusiasm over a long stretch, but it is also extremely rewarding to be part of such an intricate machine night after night that evokes such an emotional response from the audience.”
Maharaj is a Juno Award winner who has performed with The Tenors, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Allison Au, Amanda Tosoff, and many others. He has toured North America extensively with a variety of artists and performed everywhere from Tokyo to Monte Carlo. His theatre credits include Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Queen for a Day. He is also on faculty at Humber College in Toronto, where he has been teaching since 2003.
“Playing this show has been one of the greatest experiences of my career thus far for a number of reasons. I love the fact that it’s a Canadian-made show that celebrates one of the most distinct cultures that exists within this country. From a musical standpoint, I’d say it’s more exciting than most theatre gigs I’ve played due to the sheer speed of the show. There is little to no downtime and I love the challenge of having to maintain intense focus throughout its duration. I also think that being on stage lets me feel far more emotionally engaged with the story, and lets me play off of whatever vibe the audience is putting out on a given performance.”
Prior to the half-hour call before the show starts, there is a vocal warm-up from the music director’s room that spills into the hallway as cast members sing and do stretches. Around this time, the musicians roll into the theatre. After grabbing a tea or coffee and catching up on conversations in the green room, they head up to the band room to put on their costumes prior to heading to their stations on stage to ensure their gear is in order and start warming up. For Come From Away, all the musicians are on stage except for the drummer, who heads to an isolated satellite room.
Stage management announces the half-hour, the 15-minute, and the ultimate “places” call – where the cast is side stage, ready to start, and the musicians are seated at their respective locations in anticipation of the music director’s cue to begin.
The show starts with the haunting and earthy sound of the Irish Bodhran, followed by the opening lines from the actor portraying the Mayor of Gander: “On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland, there is an airport. It used to be one of the biggest airports in world, and next to it, there is a town called Gander.” Then, the ensemble breaks into the opening song: “Welcome to the Rock.” The tone is set.
For 100 minutes eight times a week, approximately 1,500 patrons experience a story with music unlike any other. They will be flooded with thoughts, feelings, and hope as the story unfolds onstage, revealing its core message: compassion for others. In a small but significant way, the audience – much like the actors and musicians onstage – are changed.
Canadian Musician contributor Levon Ichkhanian is a third-generation guitarist with over 41 years of professional experience in all aspects of music. He owns and operates Global Village Creative Inc. – a music service company. Levon is currently the music contractor for Come From Away and is a PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at York University.