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“Groundhog Day” is the Musical We Need Right Now

You know, of course, that Groundhog Day is one of the best movies of all time. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s creative, it’s original, it’s philosophical, and it’s weirdly optimistic. 

In 2008, Stephen Sondheim said, “I feel to make a musical of Groundhog Day would be to gild the lily. It cannot be improved; it’s perfect the way it is.”

And yet! The musical Groundhog Day, which had a brief life on Broadway in 2017, is a miraculous work of art, excellent against all the odds.

So, while a lot of us are hanging out at home, please consider me your overenthusiastic docent, giving you a tour of this show. You can play the cast recording in the background as you read on; I’ll be structuring the rest of this post around it. (And here are the lyrics on Genius.)

Overture: Why now?

Listen: You don’t write 3,000 words on a topic unless you’re possessed by a writing goblin who’s obsessed with that topic. (Yes, this post is 3,000 words. Sorry! I promise I edited myself.)

I’ve been spending my pandemic time cycling through recordings of musicals at a rapid clip. Here’s a rough map of how I spiraled in the first few weeks:

In addition to the themes of isolation and community I mentioned above, I think time loop stories, specifically, feel right for our current moment. Life is both on pause – no sports, no parties, no get-togethers, no shows – and accelerating at a rapid pace. 

That’s how time loops work, too: they’re asynchronous. You keep evolving while the world holds still, like in Groundhog Day. (The inverse of a time loop is when you’re paused while the world around you changes, like Fry in “Futurama.”) Either way, when it’s all over, you emerge to incongruities – Fry’s dog has mourned him, or Phil Connors has learned to play the piano “overnight.” What incongruities will we find after this pandemic? All of us can only speculate, and it’s a speculative fiction I can’t help but keep writing.

Groundhog Day is doing the same.

“There Will Be Sun”: We got so lucky with this creative team

The show’s book writer (and co-writer of the original film, with Harold Ramis), Danny Rubin, started working on the Groundhog Day musical in 2009. You can feel the weight of those years of creative ideation in every fiber of this show. Composer and lyricist Tim Minchin came onboard in 2013. He’d just composed the score for the Matilda musical, another unexpected creative heavyweight. 

Minchin’s music vibrates with pathos. In Matilda, his score is elastic, adapting to every kind of character moment, from the achingly wistful “When I Grow Up” (one of my favorite theater moments of the 2010s) to the rock-and-roll crescendo of “Revolting Children.” Minchin repeats the feat here, in a wildly different genre. 

This song introduces a refrain that will recur throughout the show:

Tomorrow, there will be sun
But if not tomorrow
Perhaps the day after

What lyrics could be more suited to our current times? Here, on track 2, these lyrics feel simplistic. Later, they’ll be grimly ironic, and finally, they’ll feel transcendent and insightful. Come with me. I’ll show you.

“Day One”: The cast doing the impossible

How do you live up to portrayals from iconic actors like Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell? You don’t. You make the terrifying choice to stray from the source material, reimagine fresh versions of these characters, and trust that the story is so powerful that those characters will still hit the same plot points and character beats organically. In this case, the story is Groundhog Day, so yeah, it works.

I’ve been following the career of Andy Karl, who plays Phil, for over a decade. He first caught my eye in the powerful role of the UPS guy in Legally Blonde: The Musical. He then headlined the original cast of the Rocky musical — another creatively ambitious movie adaptation. This is barely relevant, but one time he knocked out his two front teeth on stage in Jersey Boys and then sang “Sherry” with his dislodged teeth in his mouth.  He’s a famously decent and hardworking actor, he’s one of my favorite theater actors, and he was simply the perfect choice here. 

Karl’s Phil Connors is still the kind of jackass we all know. However, he’s a different variety of jackass from Murray’s Phil: More vain, more superficially charming, more obviously vapid. You’ll recognize him right away.

Opposite Karl, a seasoned veteran, Barrett Doss makes her Broadway debut as Rita. Rita is an impossible part. How can you invest in a character’s arc when you know their memory is constantly resetting? How do you enrich this character so she’s a person, and not a plot device Phil uses to escape the time loop? 

Barrett Doss and Andie MacDowell take two different routes to the same answer: No pandering to the male gaze, no neat capitulation to male characters’ actions, and a whole lot of genuine, stripped-down charm. I look forward to 2038, when Barrett Doss will make an appearance in Magic Mike XXL the Musical and, I am certain, win a Tony for it.

The ensemble is a winsome mishmash of people who look like – well, people. It’s like watching a musical populated by folks you’d see at Target on a Saturday morning. It’s like discovering that somehow they all have been hiding extraordinary talent. In this show, the people of Punxsutawney keep surprising both Phil and the audience with their complexity, their capability, and their kindness. We get a glimpse of that here, when no one is upset that winter will continue. The people of Punxsutawney are excited to embrace whatever life brings them.

“Day Two”

Somehow, a song that’s literally a retread of the song you just heard is catchy as hell. How?

Well, here is an incredible sentence I get to write: The key is in the lyric, “Suck my balls, I’m out.” Phil is getting to know the melodies of Punxsutawney, but he’ll still layer on his own words. 

Interestingly, the creative team initially considered having Phil refuse to sing until the end of the show, to illustrate his cynicism in contrast with the earnest people of Punxsutawney. But it’s hard to build a musical around a protagonist who isn’t singing, so we get this subtler, smarter compromise.

“Day Three”

So many movie-to-stage adaptations can’t get out of their own way. Once you’ve seen something in the fully realized, relatively literal medium of film, it’s hard to distill it back to its primordial ingredients on stage. Elaborate sets and unnecessary songs end up cluttering the audience’s attention. 

By contrast, Groundhog Day whisks us through Phil’s repetitive days with an economy that still conveys his mounting dread.

“Stuck”

  • A necessary character beat, presented succinctly and with humor.
  • Standout lyric: “Who needs enemas with friends like…?”
  • Hints about Phil’s mental illness are scattered throughout these early songs, from Rita’s initial observations to Phil’s reference to Xanax. This is useful color on who Phil is, but the show doesn’t conflate depression or anxiety with selfishness.

“Nobody Cares”

  • Raymond J. Lee and Andrew Call are so, so good as Ralph and Gus. (Lee has since appeared in Soft Power, another unexpected gem of a show.)
  • Scenes in cars are typically poison to present on stage. It’s hard to make driving look right in this medium! This is the only show I know of that nails it.
  • Gus and Ralph are surprisingly sympathetic here. They’re also the first characters with whom Phil sings in unison, rather than singing competing lyrics above them. He’s learning to listen and relate! Now if only he could do it sober.
  • Ralph sing-howling “What is your point?” in the background while Gus is talking is something I think about…often.
  • This song grapples a little bit with the question of “What to do with a dead-end man?”, placing Ralph and Gus in the rich theatrical tradition of Jud Fry and Trekkie Monster. It’s a pandemic and I’ve decided this is the hill on which I will die.

“Philandering”

  • This song joins a proud musical theater canon of sexytime songs like Rent’s “Contact,” Pippin’s “With You,” and Avenue Q’s “Loud as the Hell You Want.”
  • The title is (of course) a pun, and the twin of “Philanthropy” in Act Two.

“One Day”: Reframing who is a protagonist

  • Rita is here with our Act One closer! This is another break with expected form: While Elphaba is belting out “Defying Gravity” a few blocks over, Groundhog Day is shifting the focus from our egocentric protagonist and handing the mic to someone else.
  • And then the scope widens, and the residents of Punxsutawney each get a brief moment to showcase their own inner lives. Phil is the only one in a time loop, so in a sense, all other characters’ emotions and experiences are disposable, and that’s how Phil’s been treating them. What the audience, and Phil, must come to realize is that all the non-Phil characters of Groundhog Day have interiorities and arcs as rich and evolving as Phil’s, even though they keep resetting.
  • Even Joelle, a half-remembered flashback character, gets her own voice! 
  • Phil senses what the audience already knows – that Rita is the key to escaping the loop. And as we learn more about Rita, we begin to understand this is about more than seduction: Rita’s standards in a partner are basically just guidelines for human decency, and by the end of the song, Phil is feeling overwhelmed. “I brought you candies / Can I get in your panties now?”
  • Phil sings, “I’m not your fictional man; I’m just me. I can’t be any more than I am. This is all that there is.” But of course that’s not true – Phil is the only one who gets to preserve his character growth as the date resets over and over. He has to take responsibility for his own character.
  • Shoutout to this run of lyrics that I bet made Sondheim himself jealous:
    I’m not picky, I just ask
    That he likes me, and I like him
    And I’d rather be alone
    If the only other option
    Is succumb and settle down
    With some condescending clown
    With a great rating from some dating service
    Some self-professing Mr. Perfect
    Another narcissistic legend
    Made a million out of hedge funds
    Another sexually ineffectual
    Self-obsessing metrosexual
    Pseudointellectual
    Getting drunk and existential
    Every time the Steelers lose a game
    Thanks, but perhaps some other day

“Playing Nancy”: The ways we’re all complicit with the male gaze

Act One ends with a Phil Connors who is resolved to die. So we open Act Two…with a metatheatrical suckerpunch that’s also the best commentary on the male gaze since Jessica Rabbit’s “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” 

In most musicals, the song at the top of the second act sets up the new status quo – think “Thank Goodness” in Wicked or “What’d I Miss” in Hamilton. Groundhog Day pointedly uses this space not to reorient the audience, but to disorient us. Groundhog Day is adapting to the medium of theater before our eyes, with Nancy apparently awakening to the fact that she’s in a musical: “So throughout the endless week / And all through the weekend / You will find me here / Playing Nancy.”

While most shows fail to deliver on the momentum of their first acts, it’s clear the first act of Groundhog Day was simply putting the pieces in place for the second act to have maximum impact. I can think of only one other musical that attempted this: Julie Taymor’s original version of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. (I don’t have enough time today to talk about Turn off the Dark. Maybe during the next pandemic.) So it’s fitting that a Turn Off the Dark alumna, Rebecca Faulkenberry, is our voice here. Her performance is straightforward: One woman singing a song while looking directly into the audience. No blocking. Just a solo for a character who’s already served her one humiliating plot purpose.

When you’re watching Groundhog Day, the musical, you can’t stop thinking about how life is imitating art – how these performers, like all Broadway actors, are stuck repeating these same scenes, eight times a week. “Playing Nancy” embraces that fourth-wall weirdness.

So, if you’re keeping track, both the Act One closer and the Act Two opener are coming at us from the perspectives of secondary female characters. Groundhog Day keeps doing this – forcing us to connect with characters other than Phil, forcing us to get invested even as we watch them reboot over and over. Like Phil, we get to know them, and like Phil, we start to find ourselves more interested in other characters than we ever expected to be.

“Hope”

  • We go from deconstructing the medium of theater and how it intersects with the male gaze to a technically ambitious, viscerally upsetting suicide montage.
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda once called “Nobody Needs to Know,” from The Last 5 Years, the “ultimate infidelity jam.” I submit that “Hope” is the ultimate suicide jam. (Runner-up: “There’s a World” from Next to Normal.)
  • The visual tableau of every member of the ensemble dressed like Phil, each killing themselves in a different way simultaneously, is haunting.
  • Director Matthew Warchus’ staging of this song is so good it’s almost distracting. I’ve watched this bootleg recording so many times, and I still can’t get over the smoothness with which Karl keeps reappearing in bed immediately after apparently killing himself in a new way. (Fun tidbit: The incredulous “really?!” at the start of that clip gets a huge laugh because this bootleg is from when the show was in previews, and the cast has just restarted the song after having to pause for a technical glitch.)
  • Musically, this song is unlike any other in the show, and Karl brings a little bit of a different vocal style to match. I love the slow acceleration of this song, the sense of inevitable doom that never arrives, no matter how you yearn for it.

“Everything About You”

This song is short because Phil is flexing a brand new muscle: talking about someone other than himself. And yet, the details he describes are so specific that you can’t help but think they’re authentic. I think about “you like films, but as a rule you think they should be ten minutes shorter” all the time.

“If I Had My Time Again”’

  • Another musical staple – the 11 o’clock number – handed to Rita rather than Phil. (To keep with our Wicked analogy, this is roughly when Elphaba is singing “No Good Deed.”)
  • In “Hope,” Phil talks about being exhausted by the time loop, but Rita’s immediate reaction to learning about the loop is to imagine it as a chance to rest. There’s a lot to be learned here about mindfulness, accepting each moment as it comes, and making peace with the passage of time. However, I’m 2,300 words into this and have five songs to go, so, like time itself, I must keep moving forward.
  • The interlude where Phil keeps rambling on about his masturbatory habits while Rita is sharing her hopes and dreams…is so good. That’s all.
  • I love that Phil thinks he’s done absolutely everything you can do on Groundhog Day, and Rita immediately comes up with dozens of fresh ideas. You can draw a direct line from this song to Phil finally learning how to be a better person. She’s even the one who suggests learning piano to him!
  • Phil, on a Tilt-a-Whirl, blatantly also talking about life itself: “I find the thing with these revolving rides / They’re only fun ’cause you know they’re going to end.”

“Everything About You (Reprise)”

Rita isn’t listening this time; she’s asleep. Phil isn’t singing for her benefit. 

“Night Will Come”

It’s a song about death sung by Ned Ryerson, and also it’s an insurance jingle. I can’t believe I’ve been writing about Groundhog Day for weeks and hours when really I only needed that sentence.

Just a couple years after Hamilton brought rotating stages back into vogue, Warchus uses rotation brilliantly here to show the passage and recurrence of time. Onstage, Phil struggles daily to save the life of a homeless man who freezes to death on February 2. 

When the people of Punxsutawney sing about “tomorrow,” you feel the irony knowing how far away tomorrow is for Phil. But when Ned sings about the arrival of night, he’s speaking to a daily reality. Over and over, Phil fails to save the homeless man’s life through the night until the morning.

“Philanthropy”

This song uses a tap dancing showcase to represent how Phil is so in tune with Punxsutawney’s needs that he can spend a whole day dashing from one fortuitous encounter to another, always popping up where he’s needed most. It also delivers the delightful surprise that all of Punxsutawney can tap dance. It’s such a perfect way to illustrate how the quirky people of this community are so good at moving in unison.

Here’s a slightly odd performance of the song on the Today Show, which conveys a bit of it, although it by necessity cuts several elements that make the whole thing feel more frantic. And a bit of trivia: Karl opened the show wearing a knee brace three days after tearing his A.C.L. vaulting over an ensemble’s member’s back during this song. High stakes!

“Punxsutawney Rock”

Basically a cover of the jingle that plays when Phil’s alarm clock goes off. And Phil plays piano now!

“Seeing You”

If you had to pinpoint the exact moment Phil breaks the loop, I’d say it’s this song. It’s fitting that in a story about an egotist, the resolution song is titled “Seeing You.” It’s also a moment of acceptance: Phil has learned to embrace the mysteries of the time loop and the mysteries of other people. He’s found contentment in his existence, in accepting every moment that comes and simply striving to be better.

Maybe, if we do the same, we too will emerge to a new day someday.

Featured photo: Barrett Doss and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day on Broadway, by Joan Marcus.

Published inCulture

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© Mary Gaulke, 2020.