We live in the age of the reboot, the rehash and the remake. The formula is a simple one: take a well-beloved tale of the ‘80s or ‘90s, remove it from its lovingly maintained mint-condition packaging, stick it in a new environment (if it’s a book or a film, make it a play, if it’s a video game, make it a near-unintelligible action movie, if it’s a comic, expand its universe until it overtakes all heretofore known dimensions) and commodify as best you can.
The West End have seen a string of these in the past few years with varying success. For every Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, there is a Bend It Like Beckham. Despite my ferocious love of all things Murray and Minchin, this endless cycle of repeating old stories rather than enthralling us with new ones (this becomes important later) made me wary of the new Groundhog Day Musical mounting a limited run in The Old Vic. Plagued with a fleeing producer, an allegedly uncertain transfer to Broadway and a delayed premiere, all the signs pointed to potential disaster of Suicide Squad proportions.
Thank Heavens I was wrong. Groundhog Day is a truly breath-taking musical, the kind of work where you realise, wide-eyed, perhaps just before the halfway mark, that you’re witnessing the beginning of something really special. With a clever and mischievous score, sharp design and a cracking cast, one is left with the feeling that Groundhog Day, beloved 90s rom-com though it may be, was a story that was always meant to grace the stage.
For the benefit of the unenlightened, Groundhog Day tells the story of disgruntled weatherman Phil Connors, forced to visit the parochial Punxetawny to report on the Groundhog Day celebration of February 2nd, where a large rodent predicts the coming of an early Spring. Having blustered through the day in as unpleasant a manner as possible, Phil is forced to repeat Groundhog Day over and over again, triggering a classic redemption story through the reliving of Phil’s past transgressions until he reimagines himself anew. The film was only warmly received upon release – Robert Ebert awarded it a dreaded three stars, a decision he later revised – but has gradually come to be recognised as a masterpiece, with Danny Rubin’s knowing script and Bill Murray’s charisma often cited as its greatest triumphs.
On stage then, the first concern was its Bill Murray-less-ness. ‘He’s too handsome’, my date remarked as we watched the loop of film that plays as the audience settle into their seats, referring to Andy Karl, who plays the misanthropic meteorologist in this production. ‘Far too handsome to be Bill Murray’, I agreed with trepidation, but Karl’s performance turns out to be pretty inspired. Avoiding a weak Bill Murray impression, he instead turns Phil Connors into an entirely different kind of asshole, the guy who calls you a bitch when you won’t give him your number on a work night out and tells you you’re the one that’s missing out. Rather than harbouring a simmering distaste for the world at large, he offers up a sense of entitlement and self-importance that is gleefully dismantled in the first half of the play, allowing his bereft shell of a human being to be rebuilt, reformed, in Act Two. This reinvention updates the story’s gender politics too, as Rita, played here by Carlyss Peer, is a fully fledged person he must learn to value and respect rather than just a prize for Connors to win. It’s one hell of an arc to follow, and we’re with him all the way.
Technically, the show is difficult to fault. It’s meticulously structured right down to molecular level, with a score that appears to eat itself as the Groundhog Days blur into weeks, months and years (the general consensus is that Phil Connors is trapped in Groundhog Day for roughly 34 years). This is unsurprising coming from the pen of Minchin, who has always matched his comedic ability with technical prowess throughout his career. Rob Howell’s design keeps up the motif, with a rotating stage that swivels like the hands of a relentless clock, which Peter Darling and Ellen Kane’s choreography uses to great effect. The provincial setting of Punxatawny is realised with great attention, and it’s a treat to watch it crumble before Phil Connors’ eyes as he loses his mind. This really is an example of a talented bunch of people combining to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
The Groundhog Day story hinges around the idea of repetition, and that’s the very lifeblood of the theatre, isn’t it? The idea that by doing the same thing over and over again, somehow you can reach a kind of enlightenment. That the subtle changes from performance to performance and production to production can have unprecedented impact, can teach us things about ourselves, both artists and audiences. It’s true, in the Era of Remake I often find myself crying out for new stories, but perhaps some tales thrive in their repetition, only really reaching us in the third or fourth or fifth telling. Roger Ebert’s re-evaluation of the movie twelve years after its release is a testament to Groundhog Day’s unexpected staying power, and the raw talent and smart decision making of the creative team of this production have performed the same trick once again.