Back in December, just after PodCon, I tweeted about wanting so much for Lauren Shippen to give us the next 36 Questions:
Little did I know that Shippen would soon give us The Bright Sessions‘s “50 – Rose,” and that we all would be, in fact, destroyed, finally, for good. “Episode 50 – Rose” is a dream come true, in more ways than one, for fans of The Bright Sessions: it’s a full musical, complete with a sweeping “I Want” song, a sweet duet, and reprisals–all within the protagonists’ dreams.
As a note, this review will have light spoilers for the episode.
All art used in this review, including the header image, was made by Anna Lore, who does all of the podcast’s design work as well as voicing Chloe.
The episode follows newer character Rose, who has the ability to walk through–and even alter–others’ dreams. The episode directly follows the previous episode in which the characters get together to watch old Hollywood musicals. It’s a common phenomenon that the media people engaged in just before bed carries into their dreams, and here, the dreams have all become musical numbers. Rose is the first, giving an introduction to the framing device of the episode with her take on a traditional Disney “I Want” song, “To See What I See.” As Rose explains to her dream companion, an imagined version of Agent Green, people see themselves as they want to be seen in their dreams, and this is a theme firmly established in Rose’s song–as much as she may not want to admit it. The listener has been told time and time again about the perils of dream walking, but here, Rose makes it seem beautiful and charitable. By dream walking, Rose asserts that she can help her new friends confront the inner demons they keep trying to ignore through song. Rose makes herself out to be a hero, and the listener believes in, largely due to Alanna Fox’s incredible performance. Fox absolutely belts this song with precision and force.
As the episode continues, almost every current major character gets a song. For those who follow Lauren Shippen on social media, it should come as no surprise that her work on Sam’s song, “Foolish,” is stunning. Sam gets another emotional ballad, but it’s much more mature, introspective, and dark. Shippen’s voice easily moves between Sam’s desire to embrace her newfound happiness and her anxiety that it won’t last, that she should steel herself for disappointment. It’s a complex song with complex emotions, but Shippen’s performance makes it seems as second-nature as listeners all know it is for Sam. Something that sets Shippen apart from so many other performers is how quickly she can transition from self-loathing in lines like, “Don’t be foolish / this feeling won’t last/ don’t go fooling yourself” and the vulnerable, pained, quiet, “He makes me want to be foolish.” Sam’s always been a multifaceted character, but this song has Shippen’s emotional range in full display.
It should come as no surprise that Caleb and Adam’s sweet, catchy, funny, indie-folk-esque “Against the World” steals the show (or that I have yet to listen to it without sobbing). The song is all the acoustic guitars and joking asides usually given to couples in contemporary romantic musicals, but hearing it as sung by two men, in the roles of two teenage boys, feels like a revelation, a rebellion, and a relief. The trappings here are all things we’ve heard before, but attaching these characters to such a setup is perfect. The song begins sweet and quaint; Caleb and Adam are honest with each other, but their tendency towards being mushy-romantic is usually accompanied by some nerves and shy chuckles. By the time the two have become comfortably with shouting about their love, a killer brass section kicks in, making every line feel punctuated with an emotional exclamation point. The lines “With you by my side / to keep me green / I can’t do anything but win” are so simple, so direct, and absolutely flawless.
Surprisingly, though, Caleb and Adam’s song wasn’t my favorite. I wasn’t expecting anything to top “Against the World,” but I was proven wrong by “Together Again,” the song for Mark. To avoid too many spoilers, I won’t dwell long on this song–or the episode’s final song, the perfect conclusion the episode could have–but it’s genuinely one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking pieces I’ve ever heard in a musical, podcast or otherwise. Andrew Nowak’s performance is fragile, authentic, and haunting. In the midst of belting ballads and an earnestly-shouted love song, “Together Again” is quiet, small, and all too realistic.
Each song in the episode has music and lyrics by Lauren Shippen and Evan Cunningham, and sound design by Mischa Stanton. It’s clear that the three have worked seamlessly together for years now; every single moment of this episode, whether it’s the songs, the dialogue, or the dreamlike soundscape, add to each other as well as the plot and the characterization. This team, along with their actors, have become something of a beautiful machine. Everything compliments each other. It’s difficult to tell if each moment is meticulously planned, or if the crew knows each other and The Bright Sessions so well that everything falls into place as it’s built. This episode genuinely feels like the culmination of all of the work the three have done, built into both an incredible episode for its creators and a true gift for the fans.
Specific accolades should be given to Mishca Stanton for their design work on this episode, though. Stanton’s work with both ars PARADOXICA and The Far Meridian show their ability to create strange, high-concept worlds in audio, but their work in “50 – Rose” makes the listener feel completely immersed in the dream world. A moment of particular beauty is when Rose dips into Joan’s subconscious, only to find it a rapidfire swirling mess of anxiety. Stanton perfectly balances that feeling of chaos with the clarity of what Joan’s thoughts are saying. The audio doubles over on itself, makes a storm of chatter, but the listener can still make out the exact thoughts. Another moment is when Rose tries to take control of her dream, willing things out of creation with an incredibly satisfying whoosh-snap that makes the next moments sound somehow more silent than the silences that preceded it. What’s so amazing about Stanton’s design work is that it feels completely organic within the world. There’s so much happening at each second that with anyone less talented, the episode easily could have sounded over-produced. Instead, Stanton knows exactly how to use a light hand while also creating so much of the episode’s emotions and atmosphere. Shippen and Cunningham have written a beautiful musical opus, and Stanton’s design work is dancing ballet throughout.
“50 – Rose” feels like a natural destination for The Bright Sessions while still being such an incredible surprise. Expect to see an A+ rating for this episode on the upcoming This Week In Podcasts roundup, something I’ve only given to a handful of others; “50 – Rose” is a nearly perfect piece of audio by itself, not even taking into account how important it is within the show’s overarching plot and character development. I’m still hoping for a full podcast musical from Shippen, but if “50 – Rose” is her first attempt, I cannot imagine how phenomenal a second would be.
The Bright Sessions‘s “Episode 50 – Rose” is available on the podcast’s feed, website, and YouTube channel. The podcast is a serialized audio drama, though, so make sure you start from the beginning. You can purchase the songs from the episode on any music streaming or download platform, and you can support The Bright Sessions on Patreon.