36 Questions podcast: Identity, love and relationships explored through song
Captivating from the get-go, this unique podcast is an ideal alternative to documentaries
Jonathan Groff stars in 36 Questions
The overture is a series of vignettes, snippets of conversations between a couple with a pacey piano beating swiftly in the background. We’re made immediately aware that one of our protagonists is recording audio of moments in her life, whether or not she intends to ever listen back over them or not.
It’s captivating from the get-go, and as the music begins to rise, we’re made immediately aware that this is not some low-budget experiment, a gimmick. The audio vignettes are brief and tense, placing us slowly but firmly in a gripping story. It requires close listening, attention payed: this podcast is not just a background thrum, rather a dedicated listen that requires and deserves our ears.
Judith is lying about who she is. She is trying to salvage her marriage, talking earnestly into her voice recorder, preparing herself. The tension is incredible, made all the more so by the soundscape and music: here we do not need visuals, the audio easily constructs a scene and a world.
When Judith finally begins to sing, through a door – it feels organic, as it does in any good piece of musical theatre. Her voice is husky and still refined, the lyrics are conversational, and the narrative does not lose tension for the musical break, rather somehow gains it – the songs serve to bring us further into the emotional arc of the story, rather than alienate us. Here the podcast utterly succeeds: bringing us in to this vulnerable moment in a marriage wherein we as listeners know that neither partner is being honest with the other.
There’s a duck called Henry, pithy jokes about sitcoms, a smashed urn full of ashes – a lightness and buoyancy to the performances that is oddly uncommon. The narrative and deception unfolds through effortless, light and speedy dialogue rather than heavy-handed storytelling.
The songs in this episode aren’t necessarily ones you’ll be singing to yourself immediately after listening – they’re establishing songs that show us who our characters are, and unveil more about their situation. The performances are skilled and it isn’t at all difficult to go with them into the story, especially given the unusual approach of telling it via the form of the sometimes challenging form of musical drama. While the initial songs are not Cole Porter or Andrew Lloyd Webber showstoppers, they have a catchiness and warmth that kept me listening – and as the episode progresses, the songs escalate in drama beautifully. The songs fit the tone – they have a modern, easy style that avoids jarring the listener out of the drama.
There aren’t many podcasts of this ambition and style about, and while it is absolutely something that requires and deserves attention and close listening, it isn’t convoluted or demanding. It therefore hits a rare sweet spot in audio drama, one that I haven’t experienced before – and may not arise in this particular musical form again.
This is a unique podcast, one that draws listeners right in, and is worth pursuing for those looking for a good break from documentaries and dramas and upheavals of true crime. Identity, love and relationships explored through conversation and song, beautifully performed – 36 Questions is rare, and gives the listener hope for more diverse modes of storytelling, and shows us what kind of emotional transport is possible and worth striving toward with the form of the podcast.