The current and ever so long Broadway shutdown has made so many people eager to get their musical fix in any way they can, and this new age of podcast musicals provides an exciting and immersive way to sit back, relax and enjoy some incredible musical content from the comforts of your own home.
Few are quite as elusive and exiting as The World To Come, which was produced entirely in quarantine. We had the chance to sit down with the team who made it all happen to talk all about the process and details of the musical, check it out below!
The Knockturnal: Tell us a little about the process behind producing this project all during quarantine. What challenges did you face?
Rachel Kein: When we set out to create the World to Come, we hadn’t imagined how large in scope the project would become. When the real world shut down in March, Andy, Erik, and I decided immediately that we wanted to create a project that utilized our skills as theatrical storytellers, but that also explored beyond the usual limitations of the stage. After the first virtual table read of the first few episodes, we knew that this was going to be more ambitious than we had originally anticipated, which is why we reached out to David about joining the team!
We created a system for rehearsing and recording remotely, which was certainly an adventure in and of itself. The cast would meet with myself, Erik, and our Audio Producer, Mike Lunoe, and we recorded the sessions with the actors performing with one another, while self-recording. The methodology here was to create the same sort of rhythm that one develops while building a scene in a rehearsal room, as opposed to recording everyone individually, as is more traditional with voice overwork. Now here’s the fun part–as I mentioned, the actors were all recording from home, with drastically different recording setups from one another. Some had microphones and audio software and all of that fancy technological stuff from the outset, but some had to get crafty with their setups. Em Grosland who plays Bastien transformed his closet into a soundproof recording mini-studio, Kate Hoover who plays Millicent Knickerbocker, and Luis Villabon who plays the Cardinal both had multiple roaming recording locations throughout the process, such as a closet full of gowns, a leather couch surrounded by designer dogs, and on the beach at Fire Island. My personal favorites though are Tsebiyah Derry and Carson Robinette’s ingenious creations: The good old-fashioned blanket fort system. When all the actors were rolling, their cue for me to call “action” was a thumbs up, however with those two, I knew they were ready as soon as their screens went dark! This sort of creativity and ingenuity is what made this process possible, and makes me feel confident that the theatre will survive.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t make special mention of the sound team: Audio Producer Mike Lunoe, Sound Designer Sean Hagerty and Sound Apprentice Cadence Hira, who are absolute magicians and took these recordings from drastically different setups, and wove them together into a top notch, professional studio sound. It takes a village to create a world, and this team has been incredible.
Andy Peterson: As for the music, we recorded (and are still recording) the songs as Erik and I finish writing them. Once I have finished orchestrating and producing the musical accompaniment, I send it out to the actor to start learning and laying down some vocals. They send me back-vocal takes that I note and suggest adjustments to enhance their performance. We go back and forth like this until the song is complete. It’s simpler if it’s a solo number because the singer has all the freedom to interpret and perform the music in the moment. For any ensemble numbers, it’s a much more tedious process because, on some songs, we have upwards of fifteen people singing together so for us to be able to construct a clear and lyrically coherent ensemble moment, I have to send out tracks with a guide vocal (provided by my talented husband) to which our cast have to match all their cut-offs and diction with as they record their harmonies.
We also have a small group of live musicians that are layered in with my orchestral samples and synth programming which are also recording remotely. I will send out click tracks, sheet music, and orchestral backings for the musicians to record over. It’s a similar process to the vocals in that there’s a bit of back and forth until we land on the right take.
Once I have received all the vocal and instrumental tracks, I send them off to our audio team who have the “fun” task of constructing the songs and making them sound like they weren’t all recorded on different mics in various apartments and studios all across the country. It’s pretty incredible what the team has been able to achieve! It’s a very collaborative process and whilst it doesn’t make up for the fact that we can’t all be in the same room together creating music, it’s a damn good substitute.
The Knockturnal: Tell us about The World to Come! What is the premise?
David Treatman: The World to Come is an epic, episodic, fully-immersive, free audio journey. The story follows a post-apocalyptic world with no internet or electricity. Future New York (the city-state of Fiveboro) is home to tribes that worship bygone pop-culture. The factions range from artsy to trashy in taste. When a powerful figure who calls himself The Cardinal invites the leaders of the factions to his Roost, the announcement he makes threatens to shake Fiveboro to its very core and upend a peaceful detente that has ruled the realm for over a decade.
That’s the official “what’s the story,” but I thought it would be fun to share how I personally relate to The World to Come. I’m probably slightly more religious than the average New Yorker – but if all written records were lost tomorrow, there’s no way I could preserve a substantial portion of any bible. I guarantee you, though, that I could recite the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to you word for word, shot for shot, and note for note. This is what grabs me about The World to Come. It’s a window into a future where my generation was responsible for creating culture and ritual anew, and the result is a future of pop culture based religions and organization – where the lessons of our on-screen heroes guide us through the wilderness. Beyond the micro-story of the fellowship and the Cardinal, beyond the amazing sound design, music, and scoring, and beyond supporting artists during COVID-19, what I cherish about the podcast is the macro message that we’ll be okay. Humanity finds a way, and life goes on from one set out foundations to another.
Rachel Klein: The World to Come weaves a great deal of pop culture into its premise. There is a much larger expanded universe being built here, but with Season One, the focus is on the five principal factions of Fiveboro, each attributed to a specific existing borough. There are the Hepburners of White Way Island who cherish the “Good Old Days” of Hollywood, the Fansci Folk of Queensrealm who are the scifi/fantasy heads, Los Escandalistas of Boogie Town who live life by the code of the telenovela, all of which are interlaced with Easter Eggs for super fans of any particular genre. I am personally most tickled by The Criterione Collective of Soderburg who worship art films, and the Snookis from the Real Isle of Staten, whose name I suppose says it all.
Sure, it’s a post-apocalyptic adventure saga, but it’s also a hilariously clever pastiche, and a lushly scored musical experience.
The Knockturnal: What can we expect to hear in upcoming episodes?
Erik Ransom: First and foremost, I would consider “The World to Come” to be a story of adventure and our first season is pretty epic! It’s chocked full of comedy, romance, satire, high stakes drama paired with campy melodrama, and much more. Rachel is fond of referring to the tone of “The World to Come” as a marriage between “Game of Thrones” and an 80s dance party and the way the piece is constructed, it’s essentially an animated TV series that just hasn’t been animated yet. As a writer of theatre, I’ve never had the chance to write a musical with so few constraints. Without having to worry about cast size, set versatility or other budgetary restrictions, the sky was really the limit. Our team took full advantage of this opportunity to create an audio phonic experience that feels really cinematic in scope. Andy Peterson, Rachel Klein and I are all epicists in our respective roles, and I think the size and scale of this saga represents the greatest realization of our artistic goals as collaborators. Our listeners can expect to hear an incredibly eclectic repertoire of earworms in diverse genres sung by stellar performers from Broadway and beyond. I think anyone who knows the methods we used to record this project will be shocked at the quality our audio engineering team was able to achieve from a group of actors recording on lots of different equipment ranging from studio-quality set-ups to built-in iPhone mics. It’s a world where different entertainment genres clash it out, so whether you’re drawn to Sci-Fi or Reality TV, I think there’s something for everyone in The World to Come!
The Knockturnal: Which episode is your favorite and why?
Andy Peterson: That’s a tough one because there are so many great moments throughout the series so I’m going to pick two episodes. My first choice is Episode 1 because you get a full introduction into the insane world that our show takes place in. On top of that, you also get to sample the many of the various music genres that make up the world of Fiveboro. Plus, you also get to hear Tara Martinez belt her face off in the second song of the season, which gives you just a teaser of the stunning vocals she provides for the character of Ripley.
Another of my favorite episodes is Episode 9, mainly because of the music I got to write for that episode. It starts off with a soaring, cinematic duet between Tara Martinez and
Justin Sargent. Then we moved to an insanely fun disco number performed by the incredible Marissa Rosen and Sandra Marante, followed by a heavy rock number, belted out by the incomparable Tsebiyah Derry. It was just a blast to write and (hopefully) it will be a blast to experience.
The Knockturnal: What about the musical are you most excited for viewers to hear?
David Treatman: The love. This project is the result of thousands of hours of work filled with such joy, that its very existence is a challenge to 2020. I truly believe that the care is palpable and obvious in the final product and you can’t help but smile when confronted by it!
Erik Ransom: The grandeur. It’s truly remarkable that a group of artists with no budget to speak of could conjure such an epic into life. It speaks to the commitment of everyone involved who worked tirelessly to give birth to this bouncing, baby saga!
Rachel Klein: The songs! (All 56 of them!) As Erik mentioned before, the music so beautifully captures the multiple genres that exist within the piece, and help us to carve out such a lush, vivid world for the audience to experience.
Andy Peterson: The art! I’m just thankful that, in creating something new, we have been able to do our little part to keep our industry alive during a time when the theatre had practically stopped all around the globe.
Check out the first two episodes of The Word To Come here!