In March of this year, two-time Tony nominee Jonathan Groff (Hamilton, Spring Awakening) opened his email and one subject line caught his eye: Podcast Musical. “I was so intrigued because I love podcasts, obviously I love musicals, but I’d never heard of a podcast musical before,” says Groff. Interest piqued, he met with the musical’s composing/writing team Christopher Littler and Ellen Winter to hear more. “They were really interested in playing with this form and trying something new and different,” he recalls. “They talked about how expensive musicals are and how everyone would be able to listen to this musical for free. That was interesting to me.”
As Groff dug deeper, he fell in love with Littler and Winter’s style. “Jonathan just loved loved loved Ellen’s voice. He was eager to work with her and I was there too,” Littler says with a laugh. “He eventually loved me.”
Groff became hooked on their sound, what he calls “dirty Sara Bareilles.” “There’s a jazzy quality to them,” he adds. “It’s very atonal, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.” That sound in their score to their debut podcast musical 36 Questions—which dropped July 11—is a result of combined sensibilities and years as bandmates in Littler’s Chamber Band. Littler comes from a songwriting philosophy of creating character pieces and Winter’s taste blends her study of electronic music, composition, jazz, blues, and playwriting.
No matter how you categorize their genre, Groff admits to his infatuation with his 36 Questions creator. “There’s this amazing video Ellen on YouTube and I think I’ve watched it 800 times,” says Groff. “I’m so obsessed with her.” He decided to hop on as one half of the podcast musical’s cast.
The two-hander follows Groff as Jase and Jessie Shelton as Judith (or Natalie as Jase knew her), a young married couple whose marriage is on the rocks due Judith’s masquerading as someone she’s not. The two use the infamous “36 Questions” in the three-act podcast to try and right their relationship. (Released as three episodes, the final act hits airwaves August 7.) Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers of Two-Up Productions approached Littler and Winter with the parameters of the plot and the duo ran with it, turning it into a type of mystery—a genre that’s boomed on podcasts with series like the defining Serial.
“There’s something interesting going on where podcasts and mystery just go hand in hand,” says Littler. “I think it probably has to do with depriving you of one of your senses,” adds Winter. She and Littler took on Bronkie and Aker’s challenge to flex their writing muscles.
From the actor’s perspective, Groff says that while podcasting feels similar to voiceover work (having played Kristoff in Disney’s animated blockbuster Frozen), 36 Questions was a singular experience—a risk worth investing two short weeks of time. “It’s like the ultimate version of playing in your room by yourself, like when you’re a little kid playing pretend,” Groff says. “The cast recordings I’ve done you’re taking what you do onstage and putting it into an album, or with Frozen we’re recording it all, but then it’s largely the job of animators to tell the story. This is relying completely on voice.”
Time will tell how successful podcasts are as a medium of musical storytelling, but if nothing else, they can serve as a way to introduce new writers and talents to the greater entertainment marketplace.
Littler and Ellen didn’t set out to be pioneers with this piece, but there’s no question they’ve opened a door of possibilities. “I just keep thinking about all of the young composers out there,” says Groff. “If people were able to express their voices through a medium like this, think of all the great new composers we could have getting to really figure [their] stuff out.”
36 Questions is produced by Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two-Up Productions, written, composed and directed by Christopher Littler and Ellen Winter. Click here to download it now via iTunes for more information.