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'Wait Wait Don't Kill Me': a podcast musical that (lovingly) satirizes 'Serial'

"Wait Wait Don't Kill Me" cast and crew: Back row (L-R): Kevin Laibson (director), Dave Holstein (writer), Howie Michael Smith, Greg Hildreth, Robin Virginie, Alex Gould, Clyde Voce, Lilli Cooper Front row (L-R): Alan Schmuckler (composer), Kate Loprest, Leslie Kritzer, Jessie Cannizzaro, Renée Albulario, Zachary Infante
Allyson Morgan

The annual Webby Awards were handed out last week — think of them as the Oscars for the Internet. This year, a new award was added to the podcast category: best original score. And the winner was truly one of a kind — the first serialized podcast musical.

In the 10-year-old world of podcasts, nothing has been as big a phenomenon as the first season of “Serial” — a whodunit about the real-life murder of a high school girl in Baltimore that was produced by the team behind “This American Life.”

Hosted by Sarah Koenig, “Serial” came out of nowhere in the fall of 2014 and quickly became a water cooler topic. It won a Peabody Award, and that first season has been downloaded more than 175 million times. As "Serial" was coming out, some musical theater guys decided to acknowledge its popularity with a high compliment: parody.

David Holstein is an L.A.-based screenwriter best known for his work on the TV show, “Weeds.” 

HOLSTEIN: The Flea in New York has a great late-night program called "Serials," ironically, where they do serialized short plays. And they asked us to come down and do a serialized musical version of "Serial" for cereals. And we started listening to the podcast and thinking what a great thing to spoof. And then as we got into it, we kind of decided it’s actually bigger than a parody, it’s maybe its own crazy monster.

Holstein wrote the script, and New York composer Alan Schmuckler wrote the music and lyrics.

“There’s something arch and ironic about telling a story about murder and about guilt and complicity with the kind of tongue-in-cheek sheen of, Musical theatre! Wackity-schmackity!, says Schmuckler, who has written several traditional musicals, as well as an interactive online musical, also with Holstein.

“There’s hopefully a comic and also disconcerting disconnect, for example, like in the moment when our fictional Sarah Koenig actually commits what may or may not be the murder."

Schmuckler and Holstein were planning on developing their musical in the traditional long, slow Broadway method, when a podcast company called Wondery approached them about doing their podcast satire ... as a podcast.

HOLSTEIN: They basically said, Look, we’ll give you a good chunk of change to get a great Broadway cast, three days in a recording studio — but instead of putting it up on the stage, we want you to record it as a radio play.

“Wait Wait Don’t Kill Me” follows the adventures of a fictional Sarah Koenig, as well as a fictional Ira Glass, and suggests that it was Koenig who committed the murder at the heart of “Serial.” It riffs on many familiar ingredients — from the mispronunciation of MailChimp to the tinny sound of prison phone conversations of the accused in "Serial," Adnan Syed.

SCHMUCKLER: That’s not the sort of thing that you would do if you were doing a live production of this, but it’s a very specific way to paint a sonic picture in this medium that I hadn’t heard before — like a duet across time and space, and through the ether of telephone wire.

You might think it seems tasteless to make comedy out of a real-life murder and imprisonment. Schmuckler and Holstein expected that.

“What the show is trying." says Holstein, “is [to] elevate itself past just a parody or a spoof of ‘Serial,’ but become a bigger indictment of the way Americans are starting to — or I would say have rediscovered — enjoying murder as entertainment. And also, to be clear, we’re like ‘This American Life’ super-fans, and it’s at the same time a love letter to NPR and to ‘Serial.’ And on the other hand asking the question: Well, wait a second ... maybe we shouldn’t be enjoying ourselves this much?

“Wait Wait Don’t Kill Me” just won the first-ever Webby Award for best original score for a podcast. Holstein says this format is an exciting new way to present musical theatre.

HOLSTEIN: Most people listened to "Hamilton" on Spotify before they actually could afford a ticket or get to see it. So we wanted to kind of reverse engineer that process, and say, if we could release a musical in a different form, where everybody could experience it but not actually pay a ticket to go see it, maybe that would give us a different way to develop a musical.

Holstein and Schmuckler are developing “Wait Wait Don’t Kill Me” as a stage musical. But in the meantime, maybe they’ve created the start of a brand new art form — the podcast musical.

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