The Strange Magic of Play it By Ear


Zach Reino, Ross Bryant, Zeke Nicholson and Jessica McKenna sing a centaur song in S1E3.

Play it By Ear is a show produced by Dropout, with its premier season of five episodes starting on Tuesday, September 13 and ending on Tuesday, November 8. In it, 4-5 singers and 2-3 musicians perform a 30-minute musical.

Here’s how it works: The host, energetic and charismatic Mano Agapion, gives the band and performers their setting and the type of story they’ll play. Next, Agapion will have the cast perform songs for the musical, with curveballs of course. Sometimes that curveball is a phrase that must be incorporated into the song, for example, in episode 3 a song that takes place in a car must include the phrase “a change of gears.” Other times a prompt will include an action that a singer must perform at some point in the song, for example, also in episode 3, a scatting solo.

Most importantly, this musical, complete with group numbers, solos, duets, dancing, and expert music, is completely improvised. The main selling point of the show is that no one on stage is given any kind of script or even forewarning as to the show they are going to perform. As the musicians have to coordinate and create interesting music without preparation, the singers must improvise lyrics and an entire storyline.

The magic of musical improv really speaks for itself. If you like musicals or improv, it really is a treat to admire the talent on display on any episode. The stories themselves vary wildly from genre to genre. They all have an undeniable common feel, but it’s impressive the range that they are able to achieve.

In “Humpty Dumpty,” the classic fairytale character Humpty Dumpty is given an inspiring backstory.

In “Muck of Merkmere,” the Victorian city of Merkmere finds itself home to a gritty tale of revenge.

In “Whimsy on Wheels,” an everyday introvert is taken on a wild, transformative ride.

In “Skyline Flight 314,” a routine plane flight takes a highly unexpected turn.

In “Space Rocks,” asteroids and aliens are no match for the power of love.

The thing about musical improv is that it’s hard. It’s really hard. Contradicting plot points, unresolved plot threads, nonsensical plot twists – if you have any experience with improv, you know this is simply part of the experience. It might be an aspect you love – perhaps the rough edges simply feel charming and honest. Or perhaps those errors somewhat take away from the performance. I found myself in the middle. Some of the mistakes were funny and added to the show, but my favorite episodes were the ones where everything goes right.

These breaks in the fourth wall are pretty common in this series. Some episodes have more than others, but no episode has none. For me, this is the biggest flaw of the show, but it’s worth noting that it is, firstly, unfixable due to the nature of how improv works, and secondly, that it is mostly a preference. On the Dropout Discord server, it’s common to have people expressing their love of the silly disorder that occurs when the story breaks apart. It’s more about the journey than the destination, and these issues could just as easily be seen as clear signs that the cast is being honest about the improvised nature of the show.

And the songs are good! Obviously, they aren’t nearly as meaningful or clever as songs written and edited over and over, but in the context of improvisation they are catchy, funny, and even moving, but always coated with a layer of silliness. Speaking of silliness, this show is absolutely full of it. Again, this is just the brand of any kind of improv show, but it’s something one has to embrace to actually enjoy it. That’s one reason the show isn’t for everyone – it’s understandable to be unable to get over the underlying nonsense over every plot beat and song. 

Overall, Play it By Ear gets an 8 out of 10. Musical improv is hard to come by, and despite its flaws, the show delivers quality musicals in spades. It’s worth mentioning that although the cast rotates, two members are constant: Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino. This is because the two are an expert duo in the world of musical improv. Their podcast, OffBook is also about improvised musicals, with an hour-long performance every week. The feel is significantly different, so I recommend giving it a listen if it interests you.

The show is behind a paywall – the subscription service. In my opinion, it is totally worth it, but it’s understandable to be hesitant about paying for a show that you just might like. But don’t worry, you’re in luck – on the CollegeHumor Youtube channel, Dropout released episode 3 – “Whimsy on Wheels” totally free. If this sounds interesting to you and you want a free taste, check it out.