In Strange Woods
Dating back to their days at UVA, Jeff Luppino-Esposito and Matt Sav could be counted on to bend a genre or two. From 2009 to 2011 they took musicals online before it was really a thing, famously helming an online musical project that featured a different segment every week inspired partly by suggestions from their fans. They were the talent and brains behind viral videos including Pokemon: The Musical (which, honestly, you should check out).
These days they are scaling new creative walls by morphing musical theatre with true-crime podcasts. But rather than creating sendups like “Serial: The Musical,” they are raising the bar for themselves by partnering with the podcast studio, Atypical Artists, to create a first-of-its kind original true-crime musical podcast, In Strange Woods. The idea came to them from fellow collaborator Brett Ryback – not a Hoo they point out- but “still a good guy.” Ryback was one of many Americans strangely captivated by the podcast S-Town. If you have not listened, S-Town represents the genre’s pinnacle of “real life” stories with characters that seem decidedly out of this world.
“We were both fans of these kinds of podcasts,” Sav said, “and this seemed like another great opportunity to push a musical into a new space.” They somehow managed to thread the needle, crafting an original story of murder and mystery and a fascinating cast of characters that prove truth and fiction to be equally strange – and highly entertaining. You don’t have to take my word for it, The New York Times recently hailed it as one of this year’s “Best Winter Podcasts” and a quick search online introduces you to growing legions of In Strange Woods fans.
It was the kind of opportunity that allowed both to use their UVA academic experiences (Luppino-Esposito majored in English and American Studies and Sav combined a Media Studies degree with one in Music). “I think my American Studies major gave me a willingness to consider so many different angles that all impact each other,” Luppino-Esposito said. “It gave me this belief that someone could write a work of fiction that might affect the political landscape. So I think that definitely bleeds into us saying, so there is this obsession with true crime, and we write musicals. How can we weave those together?”
The fact that these two genres felt diametrically opposed in many ways offered just the kind of challenge these longtime friends and collaborators can’t resist. “It was quite an interesting pairing,” Sav said. “You have the musical, which is very surreal and theatrical, and you have the hyper-realistic docu-style podcast. It made for some really interesting conversations about how we would marry the two.”
They chose to introduce this union to their audiences gently, bringing audiences into the story of a tragic death and its rippling aftershocks across a small midwestern town. You are deep into the first episode before a single note is sung. Even then, the line is carefully maintained, as the docuseries reality and musical theatre tracks come together almost imperceptibly. “As the podcast goes on we start to open things up and it becomes more surrealist in the way that a traditional musical might be.”
The music springs from influences ranging from Hadestown, Dear Evan Hansen, Leonard Cohen, and Phoebe Bridgers, to name a few. Its folky American sound is as good to listen to as it is true to and illuminating of its characters – a cast album well-worth adding to any modern musical theatre playlist.
The production process for In Strange Woods could likely have spawned a podcast/musical of its own. The team had put together an intricate production plan that would lean into the realism of the piece, shotgun mics and all. With a flurry of last boxes checked and hurdles cleared, they were set to go into production last March. Yeah, remember last March?
Luppino-Esposito, Sav, and their team adjusted, they retooled, they pivoted (official word of 2020, and maybe 2021?), and they made it happen. They shipped full recording rigs and color-coded instructions to 20 cast members spread throughout the country, making sure to capture not just the songs with 7 musicians and working with tireless and talented sound designers to capture the spaces where the story would be taking place, from the woods to the diner and beyond. “We were so lucky that everyone was willing to give 110% to solve these challenges, because they were difficult, to say the least,” Luppino-Esposito said.
With the first season behind them, he and Sav are looking at their next set of challenges. Is there a Season Two on the horizon? Will they take their talents to the small screen and give the story the miniseries treatment? Everything is on the table at this point, they say, and given that they pulled off this gem in a pandemic, it doesn’t seem wise to bet against them.