Repetition is an art of infinite variety as it’s practiced by Andy Karl in Groundhog Day, the dizzyingly witty new musical from the creators of Matilda. Portraying a man doomed to relive a single day over and over and over again in a small town that becomes his custom-fitted purgatory, Mr. Karl is so outrageously inventive in ringing changes on the same old, same old, that you can’t wait for another (almost identical) day to dawn.
That might also be said of the bounteous surrounding production that opened on Monday night at the August Wilson Theater, which features songs by Tim Minchin and is directed by Matthew Warchus (collaborators on Matilda), with a book by Danny Rubin. Based on Harold Ramis’s 1993 movie, Groundhog Day reimagines a much-loved film about instant karma with such fertile and feverish theatrical imagination that you expect to it implode before your eyes. How many blazingly bright ideas can a single musical contain before it sets fire to itself?
You would think that in any adaptation of the movie, the biggest shadow would be cast not by its weather-predicting title critter but by Bill Murray.
Yet while you’re in the presence of Mr. Karl, which, thankfully, is for most of the show, he unconditionally owns the role of Phil Connors. Phil is a burned-out TV weatherman who winds up, through a bolt of metaphysical magic, being forced to relive the same day in the snug little town of Punxsutawney, Pa. (That’s the home of the celebrity groundhog, also named Phil, whose Feb. 2 sighting, or not, of his shadow is said to foretell the duration of the winter.)
In translating this story to the stage, this production plies the bold but risky idea of making entrapment in a hick burg feel like being caught in an all-too-chipper song-and-dance show, the kind of musical that makes people allergic to musicals. The citizens of Punxsutawney are first discovered prancing and crooning in ways you might at first mistake for a parody of the sentimental earnestness of another of this season’s arrivals, Come From Away.
Think of it: Perky, folksy people singing, forever and ever, about the pride of belonging to “a little town with a heart as big as any town” on an endlessly rotating stage. And you thought the characters in Sartre’s No Exit had it bad.
But this show, like the movie that inspired it, is to Groundhog Day what A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life are to Christmas. And during the production’s two and a half very full hours, Phil gradually trades in his cynicism for a grateful acceptance of life’s simpler pleasures. These, of course, include the love of a good woman, who, in this case, is a morally grounded young television producer named Rita Hanson, charmingly embodied and sung by Barrett Doss, who provides ballast without being boring.
It’s Phil’s journey more than his destination that makes Groundhog Day such joy, as Mr. Karl gives many-splendored life to each faltering on the road to self-discovery. Anger, prickliness, outrage, wonder, godlike omnipotence, drunken what-the-hell exhilaration, suicidal angst, Zen-like resignation — Mr. Karl turns these different feelings into a replete gallery of self-portraits, drawn with both comic panache and genuine feeling.
He uses every tool in the musical arsenal, too, often to devastating effect. Even his antic dancing traces a precise evolution of character. (Peter Darling did the choreography, with Ellen Kane.) And his pliable baritone covers the waterfront of emotions, from sardonic, pattering blitheness (“Small Town, USA”) to heavy-metal despair (the paradoxically titled “Hope”).
The insanely talented Mr. Minchin writes songs in many shades, though he’s probably most at home where shadows lurk. As in Matilda, his undulating melodies and whip-smart lyrics tap into the brooding sides of the supporting characters, extending the reach of existential anxiety beyond Phil’s solipsism.
There are unexpectedly poignant solos for supporting characters, like the town beauty (Rebecca Faulkenberry) and a bereaved insurance salesman (John Sanders). And the riotous “Nobody Cares,” in which Phil goes driving drunk with a couple of barflies (Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee, both hilarious), becomes an ingeniously staged exercise in hedonistic hopelessness.
Mr. Karl is a very persuasive guide to the show’s mercurial moods. And as he maps out the many phases of Phil, New York audiences have the rare chance to witness the full emergence of a newborn, bona fide musical star. Thanks to his character’s successive reincarnations, Mr. Karl is giving not one but many of the best performances of the season.
Soon after Matilda The Musical opened, six years ago, I started to chat with Tim Minchin about potential material for a new project. We kicked around a few ideas and then I remembered how much I loved the 1993 film, Groundhog Day. This story beautifully combines many of my favourite ingredients in one story—a meaningful message, brains, comedy, magic and romance. And that’s not all. With its darkness-into-light (night-to-day, winter-to-spring) structure, and its underlying theme of how we might aim to become the best versions of ourselves in the little time we have, I’d go as far as saying it touches on the profound.
I wrote to and then met up with the film’s writer, Danny Rubin. Then introduced him to Tim, and slowly the three of us (with input from Chris Nightingale, who also worked on Matilda The Musical) started to devise how to reconstruct Groundhog Day as a musical. As usual with new musicals, it was about a two-year process to get a first draft, but it was continually exciting from the moment we began.
The story effortlessly threw up so many ideas worth singing about and which were a perfect fit for Tim’s unique mix of ingenious wit and emotion plus, of course, a sprinkling of satire. The titles speak for themselves in reflecting the core ideas… ‘There Will Be Sun,’ ‘Small Town,’ ‘Stuck,’ ‘Nobody Cares,’ ‘One Day,’ ‘Hope,’ ‘If I Had My Time Again,’ ‘Night Will Come,’ …and one pivotal number actually inspired by the Proust quote on the right, ‘Seeing You’.
“A DELIRIOUS REINVENTION with its own defiantly unique personality, a relentless forward-backward spin that leaves you smiling, exhilarated and giddy, much like the Tilt-a-Whirl ride in the show’s second act. The humanizing of a heel is a story as old as time, but the miracle of what Rubin, Minchin and Warchus have pulled off here is to tell it without resorting to treacle.”
– David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
“A TEXTURED, TWISTED & TICKLISH COMIC MUSICAL from composer Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus. The creators of Matilda have worked their magic all over again. And again.” – Robert Kahn, WNBC-TV
The amazing thing about Groundhog Day is that, whatever happens, Matthew and Danny and I and the whole team have managed, despite all the pressures we’re under, to make it absolutely with our hearts. There’s no cynicism to it. I really do think that the way to make art is to make it for the art; and if you’re one of the lucky people who find it intercepts with an audience, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, at least you made it from your heart.
The incredible gift of Groundhog Day for a composer-lyricist is that the protagonist goes through a profound journey – analogous to an entire life. So I was expressing desperate neediness, nihilistic freedom, joyous selfishness, utter despair, love, grief, and—eventually—a gentle sort of wisdom. I want audiences to go home with their heads swimming with ideas and emotions and rhymes and tunes. I want them to go home remembering that happiness is a state of being, not a thing you seek. I want them to go home with a desire to see it again. I want them to buy the frickin’ cast album, and maybe a mug.
WATCH: Tim Minchin singing, ‘Seeing You’
WATCH: The cast performing ‘Philanthropy’ on The Today Show