Things got weird last year. A lot of us found comfort or temporary reprieve in unexpected places. Maybe you baked a lot of banana bread; maybe you refamiliarized yourself with the popular 1970s knitting alternative latch-hooking. Alex Caress and Kelsey Jayne, the hosts of The Hills Are Alive: A Movie Musical Podcast, found their escape in musicals.
“I don’t want to be dramatic and say [the podcast] rescued me,” says Jayne, “but I would say my top motivation for doing it was [to have] something healthy to do, and something totally different from anything that I’ve ever done before. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think the podcast would’ve happened.”
Caress and Jayne are sitting at a table outside Earnest Bar & Hideaway, a Wedgewood-Houston spot just down the street from the We Own This Town studio where they record The Hills Are Alive. The two banter just as they do on the podcast, with the same warmth and ease that comes with knowing one another for years.
Caress, a professional musician who fronts the alt-country band Little Bandit, is a lifelong musical devotee. He was hooked as soon as he saw The Sound of Music on TV as a kid, and began acting in theater productions shortly thereafter.
“I started being in musicals in, like, second or third grade,” he says. “I was in The Music Man. I was Winthrop. I had to thpeak with a lithp. Then I was in every musical I could be in after that, through high school.”
Jayne, a lawyer by day, admits to being more of a casual fan. “I wasn’t a theater kid,” she says. “I definitely started watching more and have gotten a little bit more invested as we’ve been doing the podcast, but when we first started talking about doing the podcast, my role was intended to be your casual viewer. Not somebody with a lot of musical theater experience.”
What sets The Hills Are Alive apart from other film- and pop-culture-focused podcasts is the level of sincerity Caress and Jayne bring to the discussion, while still maintaining a critical eye. In Season 1 they recapped musicals they sincerely love, for the most part — The Sound of Music (“Nuns. Nazis. Hills!”), Dreamgirls (“If you love spinning newspaper montages, you’ll love 2006’s Dreamgirls!”), and Fiddler on the Roof (“Papas! Mamas! Sunrise! Sunset!”). And while they disagree on Annie — Caress loves it while Jayne says, “I would never watch it again” — they both enjoyed openly mocking “the erotic weirdness” of The Phantom of the Opera.
“We’re not Andrew Lloyd Webber fans,” Caress says.
For Season 2, which kicked off last week with a special Halloween episode about The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Hills hosts will travel through the decades. In November they’ll discuss The Wizard of Oz (1939), in December they’ll cover what Caress calls the “not very Christmassy Christmas movie” Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and after that, they’ll have an episode dedicated to one of Jayne’s favorites — Oklahoma (1955).
“I’m really excited to do that one,” says Jayne.
I personally can’t wait until they get to the ’70s, when they’ll watch and discuss The Wiz, Motown Productions’ adaptation of the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with an all-Black cast featuring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne and more.
It’d be so easy to fall back on snark when discussing many of these films — musicals can be very goofy! In the world of musical theater, a conman convinces an entire town to buy his musical instruments as a way to break a nonexistent billiards habit. A dead man dramatically and selfishly terrorizes a theatrical production because he’s still in love with his childhood friend. People are constantly breaking out in song and dance, and sometimes puppets are involved! Musicals require a certain amount of imagination and willingness to embrace the fantasy, and that can make for some pretty low-hanging comedic fruit when put in the wrong hands.
But Caress and Jayne sincerely love musicals. Even the not-so-great ones.
“Musicals are about escapism,” says Caress.
He hasn’t been able to tour or play shows for going on 20 months. He’s working on a new Little Bandit record, but the pandemic has paused that process, too.
“I feel like the pandemic and lockdown have affected people in different ways,” he says. “Some people have felt really creatively motivated by it. I have felt the opposite. I feel like the podcast has given me a chance to do something creative. I’ll have another album in the works, eventually, but this has been more of a chance to do something rewarding in the meantime and scratch the sort of musical itch I’m not getting other places.”
“We try to bring as much earnestness and appreciation for the musicals as the movies do themselves,” says Jayne.
“And a healthy amount of cynicism!” Caress adds.
“Yeah, I mean, we’ll talk some shit,” Jayne agrees, laughing. “I kind of describe it is as going downtown on Broadway [in Nashville]. You can have a good time if you are willing to embrace it.”
“Accept it for what it is!”
“Yeah, if you go into it like, ‘I hate honky-tonks! I don’t like country music! I don’t like musicals! Why is that gang dancing?’ You’re gonna have a bad time! I think everyone can enjoy musicals if they just let themselves.”
Check out the rest of our ongoing Pod Goals series: Versify, Cocaine & Rhinestones: The History of Country Music, Mirror Mirror, Something’s Not Right, The Promise, Nashville Sounding Board, My Fantasy Funeral, Off Ice, Ladyland and Salute the Songbird.