Jonathan Groff Stars in New Musical Podcast From 'Limetown' Creators

'36 Questions' Jonathan Goff Jesse Shelton - Screengrab - H 2017
YouTube screengrab

The story of a couple trying to revive their marriage, '36 Questions' is told through 13 original songs that make up a three-act musical.

Thirteen years after the release of the first podcast, the medium is still largely dominated by talk shows, true crime and other unscripted formats. But the team behind drama series Limetown is hoping to break through with a new musical podcast. 

Two-Up Productions, the company founded by Limetown creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers, has debuted the first installment of its new podcast, 36 Questions, which stars Hamilton’s Jonathan Groff and newcomer Jessie Shelton as a couple trying to save their marriage. The three-act musical centers around the 36-questions study made famous in a 2015 Modern Love column, and follows the couple as they answer the questions and subsequently work through the problems in their relationship.  

“I don’t know exactly what it is about the questions, but when I first read them back in 2015 — along with everyone else — they felt inherently narrative,” says Bronkie, a director and producer. He explains that idea for 36 Questions was conceived more than two years ago as an indie film. “It should feel like the Before Sunset of musicals — beguiling and mysterious and intimate, but more than anything, well lived in.” 

But Bronkie and Akers, a former sports documentary producer, put the project on hold to develop and release Limetown, a six-part fictional podcast about the disappearance of the residents of a small town in Tennessee. Limetown shot to the top of the iTunes podcast chart and drew rave reviews, leading to plans to adapt the project for television with WME and a book deal with Simon & Schuster for a prequel. 

After Limetown, they returned to 36 Questions. “Once Limetown blew up the way that it did, and we saw that the medium was actually a viable and smart option for us, we started having more and more conversations about the podcast version of our little film idea,” says Akers. “And then Skip came waltzing in with this musical conceit, and that scared the hell out of me, so I knew it was the right thing to do.” 

For help writing the project and its 13 original songs, Bronkie and Akers tapped composer Ellen Winter and musician Chris Littler, who are both members of Chamber Band. Winter and Littler served as writers, director and composers on 36 Questions. The final product is a little longer than two hours, split into three installments that will be released every two weeks beginning July 10. The story follows Groff's Jase and Shelton’s Judith as they grapple with the fallout of a lie that could end their marriage. 

36 Questions is the first show to debut on Two-Up’s new podcast channel, on which they hope to distribute between three and four shows a year.

A musical might seem like a big departure for the company given its success with Limetown, but Akers says they were drawn to the challenge of creating a musical in podcast form. “Our feeling was, let’s try something else. Let’s do something that people aren’t doing right now,” he explains, adding that there is more room to explore in podcasting because it is still such a new medium. “In podcasting, there’s still a lot to figure out and a lot of challenges to overcome. We want to be a part of pushing the medium forward.” 

Winter and Littler note that there were plenty of challenges to creating a musical that would only be heard, not seen. To start, there was the question of why someone would be listening to the intimate conversation between Jase and Judith. They decided to give Judith a quirk in which she frequently records moments in her life, explaining the recorded dialogue but also creating a narrator who could describe what was happening between songs.

Then, there was the issue of making sure the recording didn’t sound like a Broadway musical. There are very few characters in 36 Questions, after all, so the decision was made not to bring in a chorus. “We knew from the get-go that we wanted to keep things intimate,” says Littler. “That was our secret weapon. Our musicality came from a place of knowing that we weren’t developing show tunes, per se.” Adds Winter, “We were also excited by the fact that we could record this like an album.… When arranging the vocals, it was liberating to write eight-part harmony for two voices, rather than an ensemble.”

They point to everyone from Sylvan Esso to Adele to Regina Spektor to, yes, Hamilton as inspirations for the songs they eventually wrote. And they ultimately found that the challenges presented by the podcasting form became assets, too. “Some of our earlier drafts, while they still have a plan in our heart, didn’t fully embrace the form,” explains Winter. “We would listen back and be like, ‘Dang, this would look so cool.’ And then we realized that was a bad thing. We shouldn’t want to see it, as the listener. Ideally, we are totally into the story we are getting strictly through our speakers/earbuds.” 

She continues, “Learning that was a turning point in how we developed this narrative. It didn’t make it easier, but it certainly clarified our methods of storytelling.” 

But given that Bronkie and Akers, who are serving as producers on 36 Questions, both come from filmmaking backgrounds, it’s not entirely impossible that the podcast could become a film or musical in the future, much like how they are adapting Limetown for television. “We need to think through the adaptation carefully, and make sure the story is right for the medium,” says Bronkie. “The content has to dictate the form, and it’s super easy to forget that when you have an original concept that feels ripe for lots of formats.” 

Meanwhile, they are already hard at work on their next Two-Up show, which will be a feature-length project they are calling an “audio film” about weather vane thieves in the 1970s. Says Bronkie: “It feels like the Fargo of podcasts."