Thoughts on the nascent genre of podcast musicals, a natural evolution of the cast recording

This week, the release of the new show 36 Questions, featuring Tony nominee Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton, has got us thinking about podcasts, musicals, and the intersection of the two. As the trend towards audio fiction has taken off over the past few years, it would seem that the groundwork has been laid for the podcast musical to come into its own as well. We’re looking today at a few examples of the form and analyzing what is working and what still has room for growth.

Let me start with a little anecdote. One of the more magical moments of my young life came when my mother went to see a touring production of The Phantom Of The Opera and brought home a tape of the original cast recording. I must have played that tape every day until it nearly broke. Never once did I feel like I had missed out on seeing the show. There was something about having to envision it myself as I listened that was totally gripping. Bereft of artifice, the musical took on another life entirely, becoming something more pure. It ceased to be fiction and lived instead in the unassailable world of imagination.

A few years after I began to mainline cast recordings because they not only contained an hour’s worth of expertly crafted songs, they were also rich with story, characters, and motifs. I know quite well that I wasn’t alone. For many of my generation seeing the musical Rent was an unreachable dream, far off on a Broadway stage, but the CD was just a library card away. It is also probably safe to say that a plurality of Hamilton fans have only ever experienced the musical in this fashion as well. This simple fact has often made me wonder why the experience of the cast recording hasn’t grown to encompass the podcast medium, and vice-versa.

To be true, there have been flirtations with the format in the past. In 2014 and 2016 Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote songs for This American Life and RadioLab episodes respectively. These one-offs seemed to only further beg the question, where were the full-length original productions? In practice the model could even act as both proof of concept and digital out-of-town preview for a fledgling musical.

The first podcast musical to cross my path was the sporadic “Songonauts” feature that was produced as a part of Radiotopia’s The Truth. That show, featuring songs by compulsive songsmith Jonathan Mann, was a poppy, indie-inflected program following a band trapped in a magical realm called the Songiverse—thanks to a magic, talking drum machine—racing to figure out how to save music and return to reality.

The “Songonauts” series is a quirky rumination on music, fleeting success, virality, and the process of creation. The series’ creators obviously have loads to say, no least of which seems to focus on the disposability of musical culture. That the show comes at least in part from Mann, notorious for having written a song a day for over 2000 days, it’s an easy read to see it as a way for Mann to explore his own output through the lens of the show. All of this is no doubt an ambitious undertaking, but the story also struggles to find coherence under the weight of that ambition. It speaks to one of the limitations inherent with making a podcast musical. Anything is suddenly possible when freed of the constraints of physical reality, but it is important to remember that the audience is expected to keep pace with the production without visual signifiers or the traditional playbill for background. Therefore, diving headlong into an entirely made-up universe exploring such heady concepts isn’t likely the strongest choice when seeking to engage listeners.

It’s not to disparage Jonathan Mann and the team at The Truth for their undertaking. Their intent is admirable. The shaggy, “worst band ever” story, mixing fantasy elements with 8-bit cool feels of a piece with works like Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics, which feels a perfect fit for podcast culture. They’ve created several moments and characters that are genuinely neat and which help to elevate the overall experience. The show does however acts as an important lesson in aesthetic construction when considering podcast-first musicals. These are probably most easily distilled into a few key features, drawn from music history, the theater, and early Hollywood.

First and foremost, I believe that there is a need in this nascent genre for programmatic music, helping to give the score some of the narrative signifiers it no longer has. This is a technique borrowed from the canon of Western art music. Consider Peter And The Wolf by Prokofiev, or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, works whose strong use of theme and onomatopoeic compositions paint vivid pictures for listeners without any visual reference. Second, it would stand to reason that audiences are not accustomed to a musical with more than perhaps two act breaks, there should be more attention paid to the serialization of the story. This is to ensure that the breaks in action help to increase anticipation, or reset the action. Third, well, musicals haven’t always been a haven for nuance, with characters being more archetypal than real, relying on the audience’s ingrained associations to flesh out the unspoken details.

At the start of this year there came another entrant onto the musical podcast scene, and one that seems to have ticked a number of those aforementioned boxes. Though not a perfect piece, the aggressively weird, yet totally hilarious and engaging The Fall Of The House Of Sunshine is a production with lots of promise. The show feels more like something that would play a fringe festival, the sort of idiosyncratic work that could easily bloom into a Urinetown-style success on stage if it weren’t so hopelessly bound to the imaginary world. If anything Fall Of The House Of Sunshine doubles down on the craziness of The Truth’s “Songonauts,” but it does so in bold colors, playing on well-worn tropes which aid in the show’s easy familiarity.

Sunshine is a pun-obsessed murder mystery, complete with a hard-boiled private dick working the case. Only, the murdered party was alternate reality children’s television host Brushee Sunshine, where puppets are autonomous creatures, the practice of dentistry is a mysterious, quasi-religious practice akin to Masonry. It’s in this commitment to the magical world of New Molar, Indiana and it’s deep history and mythology that really helps to make the show successful. The show’s songs make the show feel like a close relative of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s Avenue Q. All are propulsive and catchy, larded with black humor and meta jokes. The show is remarkably committed to the world it has created, but since that world is kinda bonkers it sometimes suffers from under-explaining that world beforehand.

This Monday saw the release of perhaps the most high-profile musical podcast endeavor, 36 Questions from Two Up productions. Two Up were the studio behind the 2015 hit show Limetown, so expectations have been quite high. The first thing listeners are likely to notice about the show is how instantly audible the Two-Up team’s production chops are, with crisp sound design and excellent mixing. The world of 36 Questions sounds positively tangible. The show’s framing device is established right out of the gate with no narration, that Judith (played by Jessie Shelton) compulsively records moments from her relationship with Jase (played by Jonathan Groff, of Spring Awakening and Hamilton fame) on her phone, whether at a children’s concert or out hiking Snoqualmie Falls. After only a few snippets charting the progress of the relationship, listeners are thrust forward to a moment of denouement, where it is revealed that Judith has spent the last two years lying to her now-husband Jase, passing herself off as a woman named Natalie Cook. Jase has fled back to his childhood home upon learning of Judith’s deception, their marriage now hanging in a tenuous balance.

It is this time jump that doesn’t sit well as a listener unfortunately. Without an investment in Judith and Jase’s relationship, or having witnessed the fight which led to this moment the audience is adrift. As the show is not attempting to be The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s chronologically playful musical telling the story of a relationship its dissolution back to the first date, the choice to skip to the end feels a curious one. That weight is also curiously absent in Judith and Jace’s interactions in this first episode. with a distracting duck adding unnecessary levity to what should otherwise be an extremely emotional confrontation. We learn that Judith apparently came to the decision to delude Jase when the couple first met over a game of 36 Questions, the social experiment reputed to make strangers fall in love. So it is her idea to use the same set of questions to save the relationship. Because of this there is more of a meet-cute atmosphere to their communications than a butting of heads.

On the positive, the songs are easily the most enjoyable part of the show, expertly sung by Shelton and Groff. At times they even employ some multi-track doubling which adds a unique element that wouldn’t be possible in a live setting. As written, the songs by Ellen Winter and Chris Littler have a note of similarity to the work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The score is light, jazzy, and playful with minimal instrumentation and some modern pop touches. The songs are hindered slightly by the show’s reliance on them as a vehicle for recitative style exposition delivery. The episode’s best song is “Natalie Cook,” a number named for Judith’s fraudulent alter ego. Groff and Shelton sound perfectly vulnerable on the number and the orchestration builds like a fire slowly spreading from kindling into a roaring blaze. This is an apt construction, mirroring the content of the song as Judith is asking Jase to burn the remnants of her past life. Episode closer “For The Record” comes in at a close second, with an engaging and sprightly song propelled by a nudging piano line. If it suffers from anything, it would be repetition. The number 36 comes up more often here than in the entire Wu-Tang discography. But it serves as solid way to end an episode, filling listeners with its infectious energy and priming their tastes for the next episode.

I should note though that it would be folly to try and judge a show based solely on its first act. So while 36 Questions still has two more of them coming soon, consider this simply an intermission chat. From the third of the show I’ve heard, there is a lot of promise. 36 Questions is easily the most accomplished podcast musical, and its release is hopefully paving the way for many more like it to come. I may be biased in hoping for fare that makes greater use of the imaginary planes inherent to audio fiction, like Fall Of The House Of Sunshine or the Songonauts series. The idea of a podcast musical isn’t beholden to traditional Broadway style storytelling. There is much more room for experimentation and play.

In the end, it is both totally logical and yet still somewhat hard to believe that we’ve arrived at a place where podcast musicals are becoming a reality. There is so much promise for the genre to grow, offering up the delights of Broadway in a totally accessible manner to anyone connected to the internet the world over and without the feeling of having gotten only a partial experience. We’re not there yet though. Each of the shows discussed has elements that make a case for the medium, but it will still take creators who are well versed in the limitations that podcasts present, as well as how best to construct a narrative to spread naturally across multiple episodes. Make no mistake, the realization of this dream is bound to be just around the corner.

Subscribe to 36 Questions here.
Subscribe to The Fall Of The House Of Sunshine here.
Subscribe to The Truth here.