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Is the musical theater podcast the new concept album?

January 15, 2020

5,6,7…podcast?

Musical theater has always made superb use of aural formats, with original Broadway cast albums filling the gap for theater-goers who can’t shuffle off to the Great White Way at the drop of a top hat. But with the current podcasting boom, original musicals are finding a new breeding ground, a place where concept and cast albums can become complete shows in their own right.

In 2017, creators Chris Littler and Ellen Winter splashed onto the scene with 36 Questions, a three-act musical inspired by a 2015 New York Times “Modern Love” column that posed the idea of asking 36 essential questions to foster intimacy between two people. It boasted impressive credentials with the producers of Limetown shepherding it to our ears and Tony nominee Jonathan Groff lending his vocal talents to the proceedings. It was an auspicious start for a burgeoning new possibility – the original musical as podcast.

That was just the overture for this new format. There’s John Cameron Mitchell’s (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) Anthem, a rock musical about a man raising funds to treat his brain tumor, which features the vocal talents of theatrical luminaries like Glenn Close and Patti LuPone. Broadway breakouts Hailey Kilgore and Ali Stroker headline the prom-focused Loveville High, now seeking a wider audience on the burgeoning Broadway Podcast Network. And Atypical Artists, founded by fiction podcast The Bright Sessions’ creator Lauren Shippen, is also joining the fray with In Strange Woods, aiming for a 2020 release. It combines the true crime format of audio dramas like S-Town with a folk-pop score, and its pilot features the likes of Hadestown’s Patrick Page and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Donna Lynne Champlin.

But just what is the musical podcast? Is it a concept album, à la Jesus Christ Superstar, cut into bite-sized pieces? A glorified take on a cast recording, or something entirely its own? And what does it mean for musical theater at large?

The answer starts with the accessibility factor of cast albums and the possibilities explode from there. “Cast albums are like podcasts in a way,” says In Strange Woods’ co-creator Brett Ryback. “They are stories that we hear. We put together what’s happening onstage based on the recording of the songs and a couple of lines. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you envision it in your brain.”

Shippen takes it a step further, crediting the global success of the Hamilton cast album for the musical-as-podcast format. “Hamilton is a big part of why audiences are primed for audio-only musicals right now,” she points out. “Because you can listen to that whole cast album, and it’s making it accessible to people who don’t have access to the Broadway ticket.”

In a similar way, Broadway Podcast Network founders Alan Seales and Dori Berinstein see it as being able to offer musical theater content to an increasingly on-demand audience. “We’re bringing Broadway from the stage to your pocket,” Seales tells EW. “We’re giving it to the on-demand generation.”

But it’s also about increasing access for creators, not just audiences. Podcasts are a rising source for intellectual property. Hit audio series provide fodder for buzzy TV shows like Homecoming and Dirty John, and films like the Awkwafina-starrer The Farewell.

“Creating a Broadway show is tremendously challenging. It takes a long time. This is another way to tell these theatrical stories in a medium that has immediate access to a very large audience and can be very immersive and engaging and theatrical and fun,” stresses Berinstein. “People who love theater, not just people on Broadway, can practice their art. There are so many amazing and talented people in the community – this is a wonderful way for them to hone their craft and to work on storytelling as they move toward creating a Broadway show.”

“People are empowered to try their hand at things they maybe didn’t have the resources or accessibility to try before,” points out 36 Questions co-creator Ellen Winter. “We want musicals right now because we want to feel something that’s transcendent – people have access to those tools [more] than ever before, which is why we’re seeing more of it. We have more power than ever before to tell musical stories in different mediums.”

Mitchell, who is already discussing a Broadway adaptation of Anthem with various producers, sees podcasts as a new way to tackle development or costly workshop processes. “You can do your developmental out-of-town production on audio with the best possible actors available,” he explains. “It’s a democratic way of developing pieces of creating standalone audio art. The usual way was put on a little reading or a tiny off-off-Broadway production and pray that [someone from a theatrical] literary department will come and give you a reading. When you have something like this, they can easily listen.”

It’s a boon for talent too. Mitchell recounts a tale of LuPone putting a towel over her head and screaming “Screw you” into her iPad in London, before sending it to him to edit in the file back in New York. Stars like Groff and Stroker, who both appeared on New York stages last year, can invest time and effort into characters without having to clear months from their schedules. The final product is in the can without years of development, auditions, revisions, out-of-town tryouts, and more.

“It’s cheaper to produce something in this medium than it is to put it on stage – and once you’ve made it, you have it,” remarks Ryback. “You don’t have to keep replicating it night after night and employ people forever to have the thing. Once you’ve made the product, you can share it with as many people [as possible], but the making of it has been completed.”

Loveville High writer and lyricist David Zellnik also revels in the freedom this grants creators from developmental hell. “You’re working without a net,” he details. “You go a lot more with your first instincts. The danger with development is you’re going to get an endless litany of good ideas. Trying to integrate them all, sometimes the work can get lost. When you write a show, you write a blueprint. But when you write a movie or a TV show or a podcast, you write the product.”

That product can also exist in its own right without any intention of ever being adapted to a Broadway stage. Anthem began as a stage sequel to Mitchell’s cult hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch before morphing into a pitch for a television show and finally arriving in its final form as a podcast. 36 Questions, Loveville High, and In Strange Woods were developed specifically for the podcast form.

Winter and Ryback both liken the process more akin to writing for film or television than the stage. “When you’re writing for the stage, you’re not really thinking visually. Material plays, musicals – they’re very language heavy. It’s the director’s job to visualize what the piece is going to be, but you don’t do that work on the page,” explains Ryback. “Because it’s audio, you have to help the listener to create a picture.”

In many ways, that prompts new forms of storytelling, particularly exploring the artistic possibilities of sound effects. “You’re totally immersed in this world you’re listening to,” notes Seales. “You’re dealing with adding sound effects and a new platform for Foley artists. [It’s] a way for us to interact with the audience completely in an auditory way that you can’t on stage because you’re only able to look forward in one direction.”

Intimacy is also essential. People predominantly listen to podcasts alone, in their headphones or while driving in their car, making this form of musical theater far more about the emotional listening experience than a communal viewing process. It’s limiting, but in a way that necessitates invention. “You might not be watching it in one sitting,” explains Berinstein. “There aren’t any rules, necessarily, and it’s an opportunity to be very inventive and to try things you can’t really do on stage.”

36 Questions co-creator Chris Littler likens the storytelling process to more of a “novelistic” approach. “The limitations are so extreme or specific that you end up having to create a really good story,” he says. “You can’t get away with relying on spectacle. People are hanging on every lyric because they have nothing else to pay attention to – you have to jam-pack it full of meaning.”

It’s a peculiar blend of freedom and restraint. There are the specific requirements of telling a story completely through audio, but also a prevailing sense that for musicals, podcasts are the wild west. The musical podcast is an opportunity for artists — a controlled environment in which to push the century-old form into new modes. For starters, it means everyone has to up their game to catch an audience’s attention in a market where virtually anyone can produce and release content.

“If the episodes are short, it does demand the stakes be high right away, which will be a good thing for musicals,” explains Loveville High composer Eric Svejcar, while co-creator Zellnik adds, “It has to keep being good or people turn it off. There can’t be a wasted 30 seconds of dialogue that doesn’t move action forward or a song that doesn’t land because people can turn it off, and they will. Musical theater will be the better for it.”

But more than that, it’s a chance to redefine the form entirely, to welcome new voices to the mix, ones that might not have previously felt they had a place within musical theater.

“This is an opportunity to expand the concept of what musical stories can be,” proclaims Ryback. “It will raise the bar for what we expect we can put on stage and what we think qualifies as a musical, and what styles of writing can exist on stage.”

Part of that is the variety available in studio – you can experiment with different musical styles and sonic techniques within one project the way a more traditional musical score might not.

As Winter astutely notes, “Musicals are a format, not a genre.” Thus, something like the folk-pop score of In Strange Woods that draws more on the sound of The Decembrists or Sufjan Stevens than theatrical composers can call itself a musical.

“There’s all these musical artists who never think of the term musical because they don’t like Broadway or it seemed unattainable, and this is the perfect place for them to combine narrative with music,” concludes Mitchell.

For Shippen’s part, as she helps lead the charge as one of the producers and developers of these original podcast musicals, she hopes it can become an equally viable form for musical storytelling that receives as much attention and love as Broadway shows. “I would love for podcasts to become part of the musical theater canon,” she muses. “The same kind of talent can thrive in fiction podcasts as they can on stage, and we can get more musicals out faster to a larger number of people [without] this bottleneck of experience. It’s just having a musical story – sometimes I go to the theater and sometimes I just sit on my couch and listen to it. Those are both complete experiences.”

Not only are they both complete experiences, but the beauty of it is that unlike Broadway shows or national tours, which come and go, a podcast musical is always there waiting to be discovered. No revivals or anniversary concerts necessary. As Winter so succinctly puts it, “it’s a show that never closes and it’s a show that’s always opening.” A prospect that’s music to our ears.

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