You may have seen musicals before (Lion King or Hamilton, anyone?) and you've definitely listened to at least one podcast, but what happens when you put the two together? And, perhaps more importantly, how do you do it?
Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, the founders of podcast studio Two-Up, wanted to do a show that "pushed and stretched the [podcast] format a bit".They came up with the concept for 36 Questions, a three-act podcast musical that launched on 10 July.
It centers on the story of a couple on the brink of a divorce who try to use the questions from a study by psychologist Arthur Aron in order to save their marriage.
The project was originally meant to be an independent film, with no musical elements.
"I don’t know exactly what it is about the questions, but when I first read them back in 2015, they felt inherently narrative. They get more intimate as they progress.
"I honestly think my associating the 36 questions with a musical came from a much more simplistic, technical place. I had done the 36 questions, I had seen other couples do them, and every answer took about two to five minutes… Song length," Bronkie told Journalism.co.uk via email.
Once they had the concept, Akers and Bronkie brought Chris Littler and Ellen Winter on board to write, compose and direct 36 Questions. We caught up with them to find out what goes into the production process, and what advice they have for people looking to experiment with the podcast musical format.
Let the story guide the format
Littler and Winter didn't know from the beginning how many episodes the podcast was going to have, and this changed as they developed the storyline and the characters more. They spent 18 months working on 36 Questions and only about 12 months in did they realise they were "writing a feature-length musical", as opposed to a 10-episode show.
"We felt it was essential to get though the entire 36 questions and we didn't want to do it in a way that was prescriptive, we wanted that to be natural in the escalation of the narrative," Winter explained in a recent Journalism.co.uk podcast.
"That made us ask how do these questions evolve over time? How do they evolve in their relationship to these two characters? and we felt the best way to do that was have it take place in three acts."
Start with the characters
A podcast musical is not about "dropping songs into the story or writing them for the purpose of a script" – they should feel like a natural progression of the storyline. So the composers focused on fleshing out the characters first, and the relationship between them, before moving into songwriting.
"That was the first thing we figured out: who are these two people, how are they in some ways diametrically opposed, and being different, how and why do they work together? Because you have to believe they are in love and that they have these different viewpoints that are going to cause some serious marital strife," Littler said.
"[The songwriting] happened simultaneously with us figuring out the plot outline, so we figured out what the story is alongside with the music and then we created a toolbox of songs where we understood the emotional impulse behind them," Winter added.
"We wanted to make sure there was a true moment and an earnest feeling that these songs were coming from."
Figure out who your narrator is going to be
In 36 Questions, the female character, Judith, narrates the story. Winter and Littler went through several versions of the script where there was a separate narrator, but they felt like they couldn't justify having a third person in the room observing the interactions between Judith and her husband, Jase.
"The biggest [lesson] I would say to anyone who is trying to create something like 36 Questions is that, in the audio format, you have to solve the problem of the narrator," Littler pointed out.
"You have to decide from the get-go if you're gonna have someone on the outside telling the audience what is happening, or have a very justifiable reason why a character is doing the same thing. And until you solve that problem you don't really have a show – you have to take care of the listener every single second."
Weave in the dialogue with the music
If you are making a podcast musical for the first time, you may be tempted to rely too much on lyrics, or the opposite, you might include too much dialogue where a song would be better used.
Setting yourself a rule for how long a scene of dialogue should be could help – for 36 Questions, the writers aimed for each scene to be three pages or less as a rule of thumb, Winter explained.
"We didn't want to live in a land of dialogue for so long that we forgot that we were also in a land of music. In act two, the big discovery for us was folding in the dialogue to the song so that we're having this 'dialogue immersed in music' moment.
"Then when we were writing the script and figuring out the movement for each scene, we realised 'this emotional moment matches with this song that we have dummy lyrics, a chorus and a verse for, and maybe a bridge'.
"But by putting it into the scene we were able to figure out the rest of the song and figure out the rest of the scene by placing it into the context of these characters and where they were on their journey."
Replace visual cues with audio ones
In a staged musical there are visual elements such as costumes and choreography to rely on. But in a podcast musical, there is no additional story being told through the space the actors are in, and a "so-so song" can't be covered up, said the directors.
The biggest challenge in making a musical in podcast format is that you only have audio to rely on, and any elements or scenes that reference sight, or that make your listener think 'I wonder what that might look like' will only distract the audience.
One of the scenes at the beginning of 36 Questions originally had Judith walking up the steps to Jase's house and admiring the sunset, which the listener couldn't see, so Littler and Winter replaced it with the sound of wooden steps squeaking.
"[The listener is] trained to hone in on what is being said and why it's being said, you don't get cut any breaks in this format," Littler said.
"We had to clock that there was no space, except for the space in your earbuds," Winter added. "There is no physical storytelling you can rely on to clue in the audience if they have missed something. I think leaning into the intimacy was the biggest lesson for us."
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