Ever since Groundhog Day writer Danny Rubin hit it out of the park with what was only his second screenplay, Punxsutawney has kept calling him back. His first impulse was to revisit the story as a novel that would recount “every single day of Phil’s life we don’t see in the movie. ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be fun,’ ” he said with one eyebrow arched. “Every chapter is Chapter 1 until the last one is Chapter 2.”
Ultimately, he settled on a musical. “I guess because I’m musical myself and I like musicals and I write songs, I was thinking of it in terms of theme and variations or a rondo or any kind of music where there’s repetition,” he said. In 2009, Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis told MTV News that his former collaborator was adapting the film into a musical.
Four years later, director Matthew Warchus and composer-lyricist Tim Minchin were thinking a musical based on Groundhog Day might be the perfect follow-up to their Tony-winning smash Matilda. “More than anything, it’s a premise that just screamed theater,” Minchin told me. “Phil’s trapped in a space and time he doesn’t understand the parameters of. It’s such a Stoppardian or a Beckett-like concept.”
It’s hardly surprising that Minchin, whose comedy act often includes songs full of humor and metaphysics, was drawn to the project. “The more I can talk about death and sex and the meaning of life, the better,” he said.
But first there was the delicate matter of suggesting to Rubin that they would be suitable co-parents for his baby. “Our expectations were that Danny might be very protective of his story,” Minchin said, “but actually it was the complete opposite. He was so willing to be adventurous, so much so that it was often us going, ‘Oh no, we don’t want to change that.’ ”
And so began more than three years of conversation, often over Skype. In fact, Rubin ended up feeling more fulfilled than he had as a screenwriter because, he said, “I was at the table. I was watching the actors in the workshops and saying ‘let’s make it more like this’ and rewriting it that way along with Tim and Matthew.”
Together they hashed out what Minchin called “the great question of any musical,” namely “who sings what when.” “I see the whole thing as a kind of puzzle,” he said. “I don’t start writing songs until I’ve made all those decisions about what the style will be, what those songs will be about, what kind of energy they might have, and how those songs contribute to an overarching musical idea.”
The breakthrough for Minchin was the realization that, musically speaking, the show should avoid theme and variations, “because if you repeat a song, that’s a convention that’s very common in musicals, so it does the opposite of the job you want,” he said. It was the action and the dialogue that should repeat, because this would be more unsettling for the audience.
Their other epiphany was that, unlike the movie, the musical could give voice to the secondary characters, all of whom have their own aspirations and disappointments. “One of the early conversations that kept coming up was ... ’Do the characters interact with each other in song? Or do the songs more represent an internal voice?’ which is what we wound up doing,” Rubin recalled. “One thing that Tim did quite brilliantly and subtly was take us out of Phil’s point of view. We’re all ready to go on the ride with Phil and all of a sudden we realize, ‘Oh, my God, I’m also guilty of ignoring these other characters and not realizing they’re people with their own stories and that things Phil does affect other people, too.’ We gave each character a little story.”
For example, do you remember Ned? Ned Ryerson? On the surface, this blast from Phil’s past may be “a clownish idiot,” as Minchin describes him, but thanks to the power of song, the audience finds out that not only does the insurance salesman have a rich inner life, he “holds one of the ultimate wisdoms that Phil needs to understand: our acquiescence to the inevitability of death. He sings in the very beginning, ‘Death comes to everyone/ You gotta love life/ You gotta love life/ You gotta love life insurance.’ The lesson was in there if Phil cared to listen.”*
Another thing the collaborators all shared was a determination to avoid schmaltz. “The high-kicking razzmatazz of Broadway with the jazz hands is for some projects just right, but for this one, I knew it was wrong,” Rubin declared. As a result, the show walks the same tightrope as The Book of Mormon: celebrating and mastering Broadway conventions while not altogether buying into them. “It’s got a massive tap number in the second act, which is not something I thought I’d ever see in one of my musicals,” Minchin observed. “Audiences walk out feeling real joie de vivre, but they’ve watched a musical where someone actually shoots himself in the head and kills himself, and there’s an entire song about death, there’s panic attacks.” And, like It’s a Wonderful Life, another holiday-themed tale depicting the existential abyss beneath an apparently cheery celebration of small-town Americana, it ends on the traditional showbiz note of redemption.
The trick was to keep this slight ironic distance without becoming cynical, to honor the philosophical questions in the original film that have launched a thousand think pieces and dissertations—many of which have suggested the story is a metaphor for the workings of karma or dharma. However, Rubin insists he had in mind simply a coming-of-age story, adding that he didn’t think of it “in terms of reincarnation or self-actualization or enlightenment. To me, it was about a young man’s journey through life and what he learned from his experiences and how that changed him. The fact that those experiences all happened on the same day gives it a wonderful resonance, because we all encounter our lives one day at a time.”
With the Broadway production, Groundhog Day itself will be on its third incarnation. A 2016 London run received largely glowing reviews from critics and audiences, with Warchus’ amazingly inventive, kinetic staging (even the runaway truck sequence is there) receiving special mention. Just last week, in the run-up to the musical’s Broadway debut on April 17, the London production won two Olivier awards (Britain’s Tonys), one for Best New Musical and one for star Andy Karl, who will also play Phil on Broadway.
Will audiences familiar with the film feel like they have lived through it all before?
“Enough characters and lines from the movie made it through that it has a certain familiarity, yet enough is different that it doesn’t feel like just a remake,” Rubin declared. “And we were also able to satisfy people who’d never seen the movie. That was very gratifying, that the things we’d imagined in our dark little room all by ourselves actually connected the way we intended.” They escaped the abyss. Now, on Broadway, it could be Groundhog Day for a long time to come.
*Correction, April 25: This article originally misquoted this line as “You gotta have life insurance.” It’s “You gotta love life insurance.”