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July 10, 2017, 6 a.m.
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Musical (about marriage) as podcast? Why not, say the guys who brought you the sci-fi Limetown

It even stars Hamilton’s Jonathan Groff.

It’s surprising when you’re listening to a podcast and suddenly the speaker bursts into song. But that is the point of 36 Questions, the new podcast from the creators of the hit faux-NPR sci-fi podcast Limetown: It’s a musical. It’s about a couple on the brink of divorce who try the “36 questions that lead to love” — known to many from a New York Times Modern Love column that went viral in 2015 (the book was released last week) — in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage.

The podcast, which will be released in three parts starting Monday (with one episode every other week), includes 12 original songs that will be simultaneously released as free singles. It was written, directed, and composed by Ellen Winter and Chris Littler, who happen to be in a band together. The husband is played by Jonathan Groff of Hamilton (!), Frozen, and Glee. The wife is played by actress Jessie Shelton.

“A basic rule of musicals — of storytelling in general — is that the content has to dictate the form,” said Skip Bronkie, one of the creators of Limetown along with Zack Akers. (Their production company is Two-Up Productions.) “In this case, we came to [Chris and Ellen] with the form and they were the ones who took that and made the content come first — so that it made sense for it to be a musical podcast.”

“It was a podcast so we knew that it had to be very clear, and had to solve the narrator problem,” Littler said. “Who’s telling the listener what’s happening? Why are they telling them that? Also, they have to have a reason to sing.”

“A big revelation for us was making the narrator presented through voice memos,” Winter said. (This is somewhat similar to the tactic used in GE’s LifeAfter.) She said there were advantages of presenting a musical in podcast form: “In the instrumentation and orchestration, we have eight-part harmony, nine-part harmony of the two same people that are singing the lead lines. That is impossible to do live on a stage. So we really leaned into the recording elements, the advantages we had as a team going into a recording studio versus a live performance.”

Littler and Winter also chose instruments and electronic sounds that “live really closely in your headphones,” and directed the actors to “approach the microphone as they would if they were recording an album. We didn’t need belting. We wanted this to be an intimate listening experience that you could only get through your earbuds, or at home listening on a sound system, not something that you’d want to see on a stage.”

The first season of Limetown (there are plans for a second) got more than 9 million downloads, and so, when it came to making 36 Questions, Zach and Skip were in a different place. They got film, book, and TV deals for Limetown, represented by William Morris Endeavor. Two-Up Productions is a full-time job for both of them. It cost around $90,000 to produce the seven episodes of Limetown. By contrast, 36 Questions cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to produce, Akers said. “I imagine it is one of the more expensive podcasts ever made.”

Knowing the business better, having more contacts and more money, certainly made producing 36 Questions easier in some ways. But “it is also just as hard, because it’s not Limetown Season 2,” Akers said. It’s a podcast musical, from the guys who brought you Limetown, which does not make any sense on a very basic level.”

“I have no idea how people are going to react to this, and we’ve been feeling this way for almost 18 months,” Bronkie said. There are a few other examples of musical-ish podcasts out there — variety shows like Night Vale Presents’ Orbiting Human Circus — but they aren’t narrative. “There was nothing we could look to or point to to know if we’re getting this right, or if this is going to get traction.”

If this does work, though, it could open up a new potential revenue source for people who like writing musicals — “there are a lot of them out there!” Littler said — but are daunted by the expense and complication of producing a traditional one. “This is the least expensive, somewhat least complicated version of it,” Littler added. “I am very interested to see if it opens that door for people and allows them to make musicals for the ears first — or just for make them for the ears. A new way of experiencing musicals.”

“Also, I’m excited that you don’t have to come to New York to see the show,” Winter said. “That’s exciting as a creator, because you’re really diversifying the audience who’s listening.”

POSTED     July 10, 2017, 6 a.m.
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