Above – Andy Karl and Elise McCann. Cover – The Australian company of Groundhog Day The Musical. Photos – Jeff Busby

Christians, Kabbalists, Buddhists and even economists have contacted screenwriter Danny Rubin to let him know what they think his 1993 film is actually all about. Can a creative ever really know what their work will mean to others, particularly when it takes on a life of its own? And what for a filmmaker is the greater honour, having your work reside in the United States National Film Registry because of its cultural and historical significance or, minimising the universal need to understand Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’? Thanks to Rubin’s film title entering the vernacular, instead of a philosophical explanation for a monotonous, repetitious existence, we need say nothing more than – “Groundhog Day!”

You have to be pretty bold to meddle with the iconic given you risk dashing the visions of a fan base. Examples of stage to screen and screen to stage adaptations missing their mark are many – the film version of Cats is perhaps, a ‘Memory’ best forgotten!

Stephen Sondheim considered having a crack at Groundhog Day but suggested that to do so would be to “Gild the lily” and to be fair, he’d already written Not a Day Goes By. We’ll never know how Sondheim’s efforts may have turned out but we do now know what another accomplished wordsmith did instead.

After the incredible success the pair enjoyed with Matilda the Musical, it was Director and Developer Matthew Warchus who approached Tim Minchin and asked him to consider writing the music and lyrics for a musical version of Groundhog Day. Warchus secured the rights to adapt the film and brought its original writer, Danny Rubin on board for the book. Minchin first mentioned that he was working on the project in 2014 and put forward that this version of the heralded 90’s film would be “both instantly recognisable, and utterly different.” That really should be the baseline of any commentary about this work because it’s so abundantly accurate.

Groundhog Day the Musical opened at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2016 for a criminally short season given it was so incredibly well received by critics and the public alike. In 2017 the show was nominated for 8 Olivier awards and went on to win Best New Musical and Best Actor in Musical for the shows lead Andy Karl. In 2017 the show transferred to Broadway, again with Andy Karl in the lead. Despite being nominated for 7 Tony awards, the Broadway season proved less successful than was hoped and ran for only 5 months with a proposed US tour failing to materialise. Fortunately, the Old Vic revived the show in 2023, again with Karl in the lead, and it went on to exceed all previous box office records and become the highest-grossing production in the theatre’s history. Before closing in August 2023, rumours of sharing the show with a wider audience began to emerge and shortly after, a Melbourne season was announced – with Andy Karl in the lead!

Cynical arrogant and all-round unpleasant TV weatherman, Phil Connors gets sent on assignment to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Inclement weather means he’s unable to leave after filing his report and he’s forced to stay another night in his bed and breakfast accommodation. Having made a career out of offering meteorological glimpses into the future, Phil awakes to find himself stuck perpetually in the present, living the same day over, again and again and again in a seemingly endless loop of alarm clock hell.

To live the same day over – would we change? Could we change? Would we recognise our mistakes, retract that moment, unsay that thing, revel without consequence, act for gain, do different or do better? What does it take to not take our days for granted, who do we need to show to be believed? Groundhog Day is a parable, an allegory, a morality tale of transformation, redemption, enlightenment, love, trust and self-rescue.

The existential nature of the narrative acts as the springboard for comedy as well as for tension and is of course, a direct lift from the film. But this is more than just a screen to stage relocation, this a heartfelt re-examination seeking, discovering and transposing essence. 

Tim Minchin is so deservedly lauded for his punishingly witty rhyming audacity that what another composer may or may not have done with this piece is frankly tiresome contemplation. Minchin’s lyrics and music are so wonderfully clever and never fail to give us just enough time to get the gag before offering up the next. But it isn’t all laughs, in context, being “utterly defeated by your laces” is a lyric that screams of despair and Playing Nancy sung by a relatively minor character so early in Act 2 is as surprisingly painful as it is intertextual. Hope, Night will come and Seeing You – incredible musical story telling. Genuinely affecting and never sentimental.

The entire company of this Melbourne production are simply outstanding in delivering such a technically challenging and relentlessly paced work. A multitude of exceptional performances bring the folks of small-town America to life all while magnifying the plight of the man who finds himself stuck there. Groundhog Day is the story of Phil Connors and in the story of this show, Andy Karl has been Phil Connors since the beginning.

It may just be that no one else could play this role as well as Andy Karl and given he has opened this show in London on two different occasions, in New York and now in Melbourne, there’s certainly no one more qualified. This role has been a part of this man’s life since early 2016 and what he’s delivering on stage at the Princess Theatre is propelled by every one of those eight years. 

The journey we go on with Phil is so incredibly enjoyable because of Karl’s perfect measure of sleazy anti-hero. We want to like him and ultimately we do. While playing this role for as long as he has must make it second nature, never once was there a moment of complacency. This performance is a marathon and just like the shows astonishing illusions, it was confounding to witness once let alone consider it happening multiple times. Seeing a performer of this calibre is an opportunity readily available to those with easy access to the West End and Broadway and this is an opportunity no theatre person or fan should miss here in Melbourne.

Groundhog Day the Musical is astoundingly good and it succeeds because of its creative and technical collaborators. Pulling together so many of those responsible for the likes Matilda and other Old Vic triumphs such as A Christmas Carol has resulted in a production so strong that it’s impossible to imagine how or what might be improved.

It really is thrilling to see our capital cities fight it out to be first with major international productions, but with our beautiful theatres so ready and able to receive these big shows, Melbourne will continue to be the obvious choice for hosting Australian premier seasons. For those who created this show, for those who are in it, for those who work on it, for those who see it and for those who got it here because they understand the importance and peripheral benefits of Arts investment, please keep doing it.

Event details

A Whistle Pig production, produced in Australia by GWB Entertainment
Groundhog Day The Musical
book Danny Rubin | music and lyrics Tim Minchin

Director Matthew Warchus

Venue: Princess Theatre | Spring St Melbourne VIC
Dates: 1 February – 7 April 2024
Bookings: www.groundhogday.com.au

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