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Emmys 2017
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Podcasts

Jonathan Groff is starring in a new musical — but it’s a podcast

’36 Questions’ uses the famous set of queries to investigate questions of love, lies, and betrayal

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Alison Grasso for Two-Up

Back in 2015, a New York Times “Modern Love” column proclaimed, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” The “this” referred to asking a series of questions — 36, to be exact — designed to foster intimacy between two people. Now, those three-dozen questions are being put to the test again in a wildly inventive new musical podcast from the producers of Limetown and costarring Hamilton Tony nominee Jonathan Groff.

36 Questions, a new, three-act musical whose first installment is available now, stars Groff (Hamilton, Frozen, Glee) and Jessie Shelton as a couple who use those famous questions to try and save their marriage. Their story, which features original music and unfolds over the course of the podcast, poses questions about love, intimacy, and the lies people tell to their significant others.

“I saw a ‘musical podcast’ in the subject line and I was immediately intrigued,” Groff tells EW of being approached for the project. He plays Jase, who is married to a woman named Judith (Shelton) — except, that’s not the name she gave him when they met, dated, and wed. After learning of her deception, he flees to his childhood home and she follows, bringing a copy of the 36 questions along with her. (There’s also a duck involved, but we swear it makes sense in the context of the story.) “There are a lot of questions [in the musical] about identity and what we present in relationships as opposed to what we actually are in relationships, and what happens when those labels fall away,” he explains. “The story sort of ends up becoming like a Richard Linklater movie as it evolves. It jumps to places that you wouldn’t expect and you really get to see the emotional evolution in this relationship as it goes along.”

Producers first approached Chris Littler and Ellen Winter — who wrote, directed, and composed 36 Questions — with the idea for the musical a year and a half ago. From there, the pair used the works of Stephen Sondheim and other musicals as inspiration (“I like cheesy musicals and Ellen likes cool musicals so we kind of run the gamut on theater taste,” explains Littler), along with cinematic influences like Linklater’s Before trilogy and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The 36 questions were a part of the story from the very beginning and became integral to both the storytelling and unlocking the musical’s two central characters. “We knew from the get-go that we wanted to include all of them, we were hoping they would all be answered,” says Littler, adding, “We also figured out pretty early on that question 18 specifically — it’s a complete f— you right in the middle of the questions — question 18 is, What is your most terrible memory? It’s halfway through, it’s a question a lot of people don’t want to answer, so that was something that we were like, oh, there’s something there.”

Creating a musical in the podcast space, as opposed to a traditional theatrical production or a movie, takes the audience and cameras out of the mix, but that challenge was part of the appeal for the creative team. “We were like, we don’t really know how to do this, but that was what made it so exciting,” laughs Winter. Adds Littler, “We don’t have reservations about much. We’re not the reservations type — we’re more, okay, that sounds impossible — how do we do that?

For Groff, learning Winter and Littler’s “jazzy and bluesy and interesting and intricate” music in the short period of time he and Shelton had for rehearsing and recording was a challenge. But crafting a musical in the recording studio was a somewhat familiar territory. “It sort of ends up being like an old-school radio play from back in the day,” he says. “I actually really loved the recording aspect, and I’m sort of comfortable with it because of the recordings that I’ve done and also the acting that I’ve done in Frozen, where you get to live completely in your own imagination because there’s no set, there’s no audience, you’re in your own head. There’s an intimacy that comes with recording — the mic picks up everything. So the vocal performance gets to be extremely intimate, which will hopefully be an intimate experience for people when they have our voices in their ears.”

“I think what makes it relatable is that we all lie — lots of relationships are built on people bending the truth or at the very least showing each other the best version of ourselves,” he adds. “And so as the musical progresses and the story progresses and we get to know the characters more, it becomes about why we ‘lie’ in relationships and how sometimes that can be a positive thing and a negative thing and it’s a very complex thing, because it’s something we innately all do to survive.”

Without spoiling anything, Winter and Littler tease that Jase and Judith do get through all of the 36 questions by the podcast’s end, and much about their characters will be revealed as the task is completed. Things get heavy, they say, but it’s not completely dark (remember, there is a duck.) “You learn a lot about [the characters] through these questions, and you as the listener might get some of the answers you’re looking for,” says Winter. “I think a lot of it is about the lie and your words, your relationship, how those little things have a whole chain of events leading to it and after, and how it affects everybody — once you create a connection with someone, how all of your actions are going to affect everyone that they are connected to, in some way.”

And while the directions 36 Questions takes with those questions remains to be seen, Groff, Littler, and Winter all share the same excitement that the musical is a podcast — something anyone can listen to without the barrier of being able to afford a ticket inside a theater.

“[When I first] talked to the producers, and they were talking about how expensive musicals are, how it’s so pricey to see a Broadway show, even an Off-Broadway show, and they wanted to play with form in the podcast and do a podcast musical, which hasn’t really been done yet. So they wanted to do it as an experiment and create something as a way to provide people with an original musical as a podcast first, so you’re getting it for free. And I thought that sounded really cool,” said Groff.

As Littler puts it, it allows everyone to be in the Room Where It Happens. “It’s way cheaper than Hamilton! And has way more ducks.”

The first act of 36 Questions is available now (with the next installment coming June 24) — listen above, or via iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.