On Saturday night, just 48 hours before the splashy musical adaptation “Groundhog Day” was set to open on Broadway, composer Tim Minchin unexpectedly stepped onstage to address a preview-performance audience.
“These are the moments these guys train for and dream-slash-nightmare about,” Minchin began.
Andy Karl, who plays the lead character of Phil Connors, had hurt his leg onstage the previous night, and Andrew Call, his understudy, was stepping in, possibly for weeks. The Connors role is intense — different from the turn made famous by Bill Murray in the 1993 film. For nearly three hours, the weatherman runs, jumps, slides, shimmies and generally shoulders the ontological weight of mankind. Call had learned he was performing the part that morning.
“This is a night you’ll be able to say, ‘I was there when,’” Minchin noted, then added, “Hopefully, in a good way.”
The behind-the-scenes drama was a fitting prelude to the “Groundhog” opening. Unexpected struggle, laughter through the darkness and, of course, do-overs are key elements of the source material. Since the film’s lead screenwriter, Danny Rubin, began working on the musical five years ago, the project had faced a number of crucibles. They all led to an award-winning run in London and now, one of Broadway’s biggest bets in years, both financially and culturally.
“At first, it didn’t seem like it would work. The film is all about montage and cutting, and you can’t do that onstage,” Rubin said over coffee last week. “But then I realized this story could be told different ways in different mediums.”
Unless you missed 1990s pop culture entirely or have never turned on cable TV, you know the basics of the Harold Ramis-directed “Groundhog” film. Connors, a slick Pittsburgh meteorologist, wants to get in and out of small-town Punxsutawney, Penn., on Feb 2 after cursorily covering the annual animal rite. The weatherman runs roughshod over Rita, the producer assigned to work with him, and many of the small-town folks he holds himself above.
But matters change — and a fantastical fable unfolds — when Connors finds himself trapped in the same day over and over, leading variously to nihilism, despair, giddiness and altruism.
Rubin, Minchin and director Matthew Warchus (the latter two collaborated on 2013’s “Matilda: The Musical”) didn’t so much adapt the film as split it open; think Christopher Nolan working with the Batman mythology to create “The Dark Knight.”
Rita (Barrett Doss) is given a rich back story (a lean-in feminist one, in fact). Ditto for many of the townspeople. Even Ned Ryerson, that “bing”-ing insurance salesman, has his moment. The happy beats soar higher, thanks to the music, while the dark ones go deeper and more emotive (as with Connors’ attempted suicides).
And the philosophical ideas? The ones about death, divinity, fatalism and free will? Well, in the movie they can be held in check behind Murray’s laconic gaze. But here they’re given freer expression, in the externalized form of a musical.
“Our idea in putting together this show was that if you want a great night out, we’ll give you a great night out,” Minchin said by phone Friday. “And if you want an existential text, we’ll give you an existential text.”
The composer’s creations are one way the show aims to be different. There is much of Minchin’s trademark playfulness in the lyrics (“I think I’ll lose it altogether / if one more person talks about the weather.”) Even more, Minchin deploys a range of genres — sometimes to underline, sometimes to dilute — the swings to non-Broadway-ish tones. His piano-driven score, for instance, morphs into industrial music to accentuate Connors’ self-damaging impulses, while bluegrass makes his adolescent acting-out lighter and more bearable.
The first section even goes for some schmaltzy beats — ironically. “You want the town to feel a little annoying, like a Broadway musical, so that even though Phil is a jerk, you’re with him in wanting to get out of there,” Minchin said.
“There,” however, soon becomes a much stranger place.
For all the ramshackle qualities of the film, the show is intent on pushing matters in an even weirder direction. The groundhog, for example, is turned into a character — an actor in a full-body furry suit occasionally passing ghostlike across the stage. One time, he functions like a god and dumps snow on a miniature van. Later in the show, he plays the drums.
“We wanted to stay as far from the middle of the road as possible,” Warchus said, “while still being on the road.”
The director took that principle to heart with his staging. A pickup truck is assembled in a millisecond onstage, then becomes part of a pursuit by police vehicles, creating an illusion of movement. That itself soon shifts to a “Frogger”-like view of a miniature pickup truck and police cars, held on poles like puppets, in what is surely the most unusual — and perhaps the first — car chase attempted in a Broadway theater.
Actors, particularly the townspeople, go through as many as 20 costume changes as they move on- and offstage with what might be called seamless freneticism.
And then there are the revolves, the five interlocking stage plates that elaborate the choreography during, say, a small-town parade or a snowball fight. They also allow characters to walk and sing at the same time, literalizing the metaphor that people in “Groundhog Day” always seem to move without getting anywhere.
Such stasis was how Rubin felt for years.
After the film became a sensation, the screenwriter, who largely controlled the rights, had ideas for extending the story. He thought at one point of converting it into an animated series. He entertained interest from the luminous likes of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine for a musical, then decided he didn’t want to turn it over to such imposing authorial types.
At the same time, he had no musical experience himself. Then he was introduced to the “Matilda” team, and things began to click. (Sony, which made the film, came aboard later through its theatrical department but was not involved at the development stage.)
Rubin wanted the piece to reflect his philosophical and at times surrealist intentions in a way he felt the movie’s shooting script, which was reworked by Ramis, did not always do. He also wanted to cut overt references to the film — there’s no clock-radio “I Got You Babe.” (Rubin did discuss the musical several times with Ramis, who died in 2014 and he said approved of the project. He also spoke with Murray to get his blessing and invited him to opening night — it’s unclear, as with so many things Murray, whether he’ll show up.)
Karl himself was uncertain about whether the musical would work, at least for him.
“I got the call about it and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m right for this part,’ ” the actor, a burgeoning Broadway star thanks to “Rocky” and “On the Twentieth Century,” said in an interview at his apartment Friday, just hours before the injury, noting that he wasn’t the same sardonic figure as Murray. “I thought, ‘They better be careful; this could go very wrong.’ Then I read the script, and my head exploded in a hundred directions. This was a show about both sides of the argument — how you go through a day when you have no connection to anyone, and how you can live so that you feel wonderfully a part of everything.”
Equally important for Rubin was a different theme.
“It’s about the limits of sight,” he said. “How do you understand and experience what by definition is so far outside of yourself?’
Articulating that onstage wasn’t easy. Warchus estimates he has spent 300 hours calculating the physics of the revolves alone, playing with different weights and speeds to get the movement just right. “It’s all about turning mathematics into emotion,” he noted.
It’s also about turning dollars into mathematics. Thanks to its complex staging, “Groundhog Day” cost nearly $18 million to mount, which means that more than just our memories are at stake.
Whether it will work to merge the life affirmation of Oprah with the human bleakness of Camus — in a stage musical, no less — is an open question. Will the groundbreaking approach have the commercial effect of a “Hamilton”? Or will it become another “Hands on a Hardbody,” one more Broadway musical too ambitious for its own financial good?
For the moment, at least, it can feel a little like “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
Even before Karl got injured — by late Sunday afternoon, it was still unclear whether he would return for the opening Monday — technical issues abounded, mirroring the existential struggles of its main character. On the first preview night, a Wi-Fi issue caused one of the revolves to stop working, prompting a 15-minute delay; when the show resumed, it was done as a concert.
Another night, a citywide brownout caused the show to briefly lose some power. As recently as Thursday, with many critics in attendance, the revolve failed during a critical scene, prompting a small delay and a stage manager to offer the requisite “since this is ‘Groundhog Day,’ you’ll get to see the scene again” quip. The rest of the show came off smoothly, as did Call’s performance Saturday night, which he expressed by gesticulating an exaggerated sigh of relief during the curtain call.
Creators say the process has been instructive, as humbling to them as they hope Connors’ journey is to audiences. Few shows, after all, are about conflicting emotions as much as this one.
“I’m sure the Germans or Swedes have a word for it — that happy sadness, like when you’re lying under the stars and feel melancholy, because you’re everything and nothing at the same time,” said Minchin. “That’s what we’ve felt, and that’s what we hope audiences feel.”