When Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton & In The Heights fame*) recommends a musical, you listen. Following his Twitter post directing readers towards the first ever ‘podcast musical’ 36 Questions, I found myself doing just that – listening. That, in part, is the beauty of 36 Questions – it is a full-blown musical that you can experience as it was intended to be experienced from the confines of your home, your car, or wherever you please really!
What an experience it is too, but more on that a little later. The really exciting thing about this piece is its implications on theatrical experience.
The traditional theatre experience entails sitting in a crowd full of people you don’t know, experiencing the magic unfold on stage together. It’s a once in a lifetime performance. The same performance will never be replicated. Sure, the same show will play hundreds of times (if it’s a good one), but it’ll never quite be the same experience because of the nuances of live performance and different audiences. As a medium, live theatre is very ‘fleeting moment’. It is what makes theatre so special. Unfortunately, it’s also the mediums biggest limiter. No matter how high you price tickets, you only have a set number of seats to sell.
To fund future shows, producers do try to distribute through other media. Original cast recorded albums of the music in a show is a fairly common one. You can pretty much get the entire story of Hamilton from the cast album as the show is entirely sung through. Simply listening to the recording though is not the full experience – evident in Miranda’s decision to withhold one crucial song from the album. He likes to surprise first time audiences with it when they come to watch the show. For a fuller experience, some productions release full-show recordings, like the brilliant Globe on Screen series. Similar to these show-recordings, there’s also been attempts at producing ‘cine-plays’, which are plays that have been filmed like movies – but they’re just that; movies. They fail to really capture the magic in the same way.
Enter stage left: Podcast Musicals. Yes, you still miss out on the human experience. You miss out on watching people in the flesh surrounded by strangers experiencing in unison (we’ve all heard it –– fact). Granted, that is a big miss, but there are two distinct up-sides to this medium.
1. Barring a miracle and the sale of one of my kidneys, I’m not seeing Hamilton on stage anytime soon. 36 Questions on the other hand, which stars an actor from Hamilton, I was able to catch sitting in India. Not a diluted version of it – the real thing. Podcast Musicals would give the world access to the greatest musical stars
2. 36 Questions boasts an intimacy that I would argue, cannot even be replicated in the theatre. The musical follows an estranged couple trying to save their marriage which they recently discovered was based on lies. There are only 2 characters. You’re listening in, a fly on the wall, as these two people grieve unapologetically, laugh, argue, and reminisce. You hear every sniffle, crinkle, chuckle, breath. The whole time, I felt like I shouldn’t really be listening in on this supremely private process; but it holds your attention the whole time, feeding into your voyeuristic nature
36 Questions feels like something special, and a start to the next big thing for Musical Theatre. Maybe, podcast musicals would have to be limited to these intimate stories with 2-3 characters.
They might lose some of their magic if it tried to tell the story of an 8-10 person cast. The classic BBC audio drama ‘A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ for instance, is compelling at times, but at other times so hard to follow because of the complexity of the plot and the number of characters it introduces along the way. It becomes progressively harder to distinguish between all the voices.
Of course, podcast musicals, in no way would replicate or replace the joy of a day out to the theatre; but I feel like there’s a genuine space for them to flourish. By enabling a much larger audience pool (the world is podcast musicals’ oyster), the medium may also drive interest in visiting theatres again – a ‘gateway drug’ of sorts. If you haven’t already, you should definitely give #1 a listen and join me on this bandwagon -.
Having received extremely positive feedback from the global theatre community and fandom – the writers of 36 Questions Ellen Winter & Chris Littler are already well into writing podcast musical #2. I for one, cannot wait.
Johnathan Groff whispering sweet nothings into my ear by way of intimate podcast musical? I’ll have some more of that please.