Judith is voiced by Jessie Shelton (“Hadestown”) and Jase by Jonathan Groff (“Frozen,” “Hamilton”). Jase’s pet duck is uncredited, and if that duck dies a tragic, Éponine-esque death in the third act, hey, confit for all. As directed by Mr. Littler and Ms. Winter, Act I — which has already racked up 28,000 downloads and topped the charts at Pocket Cast — is disarmingly conversational and musically shrewd. The dialogue geeks out at times — O.K., a lot of the time — but the songs are booby-trapped with hooks. And the people crooning them into your earbuds feel bracingly, embraceably real.
“36 Questions” was conceived by Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers of Two-Up Productions — a team whose previous podcast effort, the creepy, distinctly unmusical “Limetown,” was an adrenaline cascade disguised as docudrama. So a romantic chamber musical must have felt like an obvious next step.
What makes the “36 Questions” project that much more surprising is that it’s very likely the first (mostly) serious musical of the podcast era and a gauntlet thrown to any composer daunted by the hassle and cost of a live production.
Plenty of radio dramas draw on theatrical forms, and lots of podcasts have strong musical components, from stalwarts like “Prairie Home Companion” to newer ones like the “Welcome to Nightvale” spinoff “The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air)” or Jemaine Clement’s “The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium.”
As if Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t have enough accolades already, you can credit him with helping pioneer the podcast musical genre with “21 Chump Street,” a 14-minute, crazily likable piece he wrote for an episode of “This American Life.” A few longer entries have followed, like the episodic sci-fi series “Songonauts”; the “Serial” parody “Wait Wait Don’t Kill Me”; and the manically incomprehensible “The Fall of the House of Sunshine,” with songs by the composer Matthew roi Berger.
But “36 Questions” is a full-length and more or less traditional book musical written expressly for the podcast form. Ms. Winter and Mr. Littler, who play in a nerdcore group called Chamber Band and cite Stephen Sondheim and Esperanza Spalding as among their influences, had to learn how to write a musical and how to make that musical intelligible to the headphone set.
After all, not every musical would work as a podcast. “A Little Night Music” or “The Secret Garden”? Probably. “Miss Saigon” or “Starlight Express”? Probably not. And this differs from an original cast recording, a newly popular genre, in that it’s not a record of another phenomenon. The podcast is the thing itself.
“There was a big learning curve,” Mr. Littler said in a phone interview.
Ms. Winter added, “It was a lot of balancing the writing with the sound effects we were hearing and imagining.”
Early on, they dismissed the easy out of having an external narrator, a typical podcast trope, and decided to loop the two singers’ voices into multipart harmonies to avoid the need for a chorus. After settling on a quiet mix of live and electronic instrumentation, they structured each episode as a series of voice memos that Judith records on her phone.
The result? A show that sounds like eavesdropping on a talky pair who just happen to vault into a tangy soprano and a boyish lyric tenor whenever emotions run high. It’s like having a front-row seat — or sitting even closer than that.
“Every breath and sigh and inhale and exhale reads on the microphone,” Mr. Groff said by telephone. “Everything is like a close-up on the voice. The microphone picks up everything, every vocal gesture.”
That’s a kind of intimacy that maybe only a command performance can offer. But a podcast can reach a lot more people than even a Broadway long-runner, without the lotteries, the rushes, the scalpers, the hurried preshow meals and obstructed views. It is free, and it sounds as if it was recorded just for you.
Two episodes in, “36 Questions” is a charmer. (I’ve even forgiven it for the duck. Mostly.) It’s made me greedy for the finale and for Ms. Winter and Mr. Littler to write for an actual wood-and-plaster stage. But it’s most exciting in the challenge it sets other composers to turn their treble clefs to podcasting. “This format works,” Mr. Littler said.
I’d like to think that listening to “36 Questions” will have musical theater writers asking themselves about the form. Maybe they’ll even fall in love.
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