“Hear what The New York Times calls "the future of musicals"... 36 Questions, a three-part podcast musical starring Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton. 36 Questions is produced by Two-Up, a new podcast studio, from the creators of Limetown. Two-Up will explore the possibilities of audio storytelling. Two-Up isn’t beholden to any genre, theme, or even form. We just want to tell great stories, in whatever way they are best told, and that’s it. That’s the studio. “
I don’t exactly know how to go about reviewing 36 Questions, as it’s a musical and my musical vocabulary is definitively on the poorer end of the spectrum, but what I can say is, it’s good. It’s really good. And it’s innovative. 36 Questions is a three-act, one-off musical starring Jonathan Groff (of Hamilton and Frozen fame) and Jessie Shelton, a relatively unknown, but just as engaging, performer.
36 Questions tells the story of the marriage of Natalie (AKA Judith Ford) and Jace. Or perhaps more accurately, it tells the story of their breakup, and of Natalie’s attempt to pick up the pieces. Jace and Natalie were married for two years. But for the entirety of those two years, Natalie had been lying to Jace. Her name, you see, wasn’t Natalie, and her history wasn’t Natalie’s history. Her name is actually Judith, and she has something of a sordid past. When Jace finds out Judith is Judith and not Natalie, he retreats across the country to his childhood home in an attempt to run away from the marriage and leave Judith behind forever. But Judith finds him, and she has a plan to get them back together. That plan is to answer “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love,” a series of questions devised over twenty years ago by psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron and recently re-popularized in 2015 by a New York Times article. When Judith was Natalie, these are the very 36 questions that she and Jace answered on one of their first dates, and consequently they fell in love and got married. If they can just get through them now, if Jace gives her another chance, she reasons, he’ll fall in love with her all over again. He’ll fall in love with the real her. He’ll fall in love with Judith.
36 Questions is, at its core, a two-man show, with a vast majority of the songs and dialogue taking place between the two main characters. With that in mind, what 36 Questions explores on its deepest levels is the intimacy of the couple, the trust that goes along with that intimacy, and what happens when that trust is broken. From the outside, looking in, the nature of the intimacy between two people is almost unknowable. That should be clear from the sorts of simplistic pieces of advice given on relationships from friends and family members who see but a fraction of a couple’s interactions and often hear only one side of the story. With 36 Questions, we get something more. We see the whole story. We get perspectives from both sides. We see that the trust between a couple has been broken, but it’s more complicated than it might appear from an outsider’s perspective. Did Judith lie about who she was, and wound Jace deeply in the process? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that everything that happened in the past two years is meaningless. That doesn’t mean that the love they felt for one another wasn’t real. And it doesn’t mean (necessarily) that their relationship has to end (Judith hopes). The musical is centered around a betrayal, yes, but it’s also centered around a romantically epic (tragically epic) attempt to right that wrong. Can Judith convince Jace that a betrayal isn’t a negation of their relationship? That aside from her name and some of her history, she still is who he thought she was? Who he fell in love with? That is the One Question behind 36 Questions.
Although fictional narrative podcasts have come into vogue recently, 36 Questions is still experimental in the fact that it’s the first podcast I know of to tell its story in traditional musical format. The music is fun. It’s catchy. It’s good. I’ve found myself humming its melodies days after finishing listening to it. I’ve found myself adding the songs to my Spotify. I find lyrics from Natalie/Judith’s songs in particular repeating themselves in my head. What I’m trying to say is, even if you’re not a “Musicals” person, give 36 Questions a chance. Listen to it with an open mind. And I’m calling it now, watch for it to be adopted into an actual, on-stage musical on Broadway.
45 minutes - 1 hour ( and there’re only three episodes)
Overall Score: 9.0/10
All three. Start from the beginning.
If you like this podcast, you’ll probably like:
- Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel
- The Truth
- The Heart