Groundhog Day: how does Minchin's musical match up to the movie?

Bill Murray’s deadpan misanthrope is now a jock belting out showstoppers. So does this stage replay bring new shine to the quirky love story – or kill a classic?

In the 23 years since Groundhog Day was released, its title has become shorthand for same-old, same-old. The movie concerns a misanthropic weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray), who is doomed to repeatedly relive one tedious day in the folksy small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. “Did you ever have deja vu?” Phil asks the landlady of his bed and breakfast. “I don’t think so,” she replies, “but I could check with the kitchen.”

Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day.
‘I got you, babe’ … Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day. Photograph: Snap/Rex Features

Phil finally escapes the time loop once he has become the best and most altruistic version of himself. The stage version, which had its world premiere at the Old Vic in London earlier this week, faces a similar challenge. Only a radical interpretation will enable it to escape the shadow of its source material. And there is another hurdle to overcome: while the movie was about repetition, the play is an example of it.

Deviations from the screen version are minor. Though this is a musical, written by Danny Rubin (who co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director, the late Harold Ramis) and with songs by Tim Minchin, it has no place for Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe”, the one song that featured prominently in the film. But many of the wisecracks, including that “deja vu” line, will be known to the audience before the words leave the actors’ lips.

No play looking to break free of its cinematic origins should kick off with a filmed segment, but that’s precisely what Groundhog Day does. Some of the dialogue is also unchanged, though the tone of the show is necessarily different. Ramis shot the film in a straightforward fashion which made its outlandish premise seem even weirder. Matthew Warchus’s production, however, is all pizzazz. Musical theatre has to be. It’s hard to be deadpan when the action needs to be paused so that characters can belt out showstoppers about their thwarted dreams.

Even allowing for that trade-off, it’s disappointing that unforced moments from the film are now underlined, italicised and reprinted in 40ft neon. A single throwaway line from the movie, in which a barfly admits to Phil that his own life resembles an endless succession of identical days, has become a five-minute number in which that same drunk croons about how no one cares what he says.

Groundhog Day’s original Ned Ryerson
Groundhog Day’s original Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) Photograph: Allstar/Columbia/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Unexpectedly, it’s easy to put aside our memories of Murray. Where he played the character as a defeated sleazeball, Andy Karl turns him into an arrogant jock. His snappy performance, which has some of the self-satisfied smarm of Jason Bateman, helps the show forge its own identity, as does Carlyss Peer as Rita, Phil’s producer. Rita is one of the beneficiaries of the musical format, which gives her room to reveal in song emotions that would have no other place in the story.

That goes double for Nancy, a minor character who gets a solo at the start of Act Two (“Playing Nancy”) in which she challenges her own slender role in the narrative. In the film, Nancy had one purpose: to be tricked into bed by Phil. But now, as played by Georgina Hagen, she sings knowingly about being “the perky-breasted giggly one” and wonders if she is “destined to be a detour on the journey of some man”. Not that this sort of retroactive backstory always works. The revelation that the unctuous insurance salesman Ned Ryerson is a heartbroken widower snuffs out the comedy in a character who was hilarious precisely because he was so uncomplicatedly repulsive.

Ned Ryerson (Andrew Langtree) in Groundhog Day at The Old Vic.
Unctuous insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Andrew Langtree) in Groundhog Day at The Old Vic. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

For long periods, most of the company’s energies seem to go into wheeling over-fussy sets on and off the stage. But with Phil’s unsuccessful attempts to kill himself, the show becomes properly theatrical at last without sacrificing the darkness that made the film’s comedy so bitter.

Groundhog Day the show won’t do for theatre what Groundhog Day the movie did for cinema. One need only look at the opening night audience to see how influential the film has been: among the attendees were Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), whose whip-crack editing owes a thing or two to Ramis’s film; Joss Whedon, whose Buffy the Vampire Slayer referenced it; and Richard Curtis, who tried and failed to make his own version with About Time.

Rubin and Minchin have written a bigger, broader Groundhog Day. It may not be innovative enough to inspire imitations of its own but there are enough fresh ideas to keep it from being a Groundhog Day experience in itself.

  • Groundhog Day is at the Old Vic, London, until 17 September. Box office: 0844-871 7628.

Three more Murray remakes waiting in the wings


Bill Murray’s 1980 breakthrough film, about the comic tensions between players and caddies at a US country club, becomes an ambitious sports-based love story in the hands of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes after their collaboration on School of Rock. After voting last year in favour of cutting tax credits for the poor, the creative team decide to stage the finale as a battle between the country club elite and the penniless caddies in which the latter are beaten into submission. Ballads include You Took Me Out of the Bunker (And Onto the Green) and Number 3 Iron (But Number 1 In My Heart). The animatronic gopher, from the team behind War Horse, and the lavish turd-in-the-pool set-piece, are highlights.

The team behind Black Watch bring Murray’s coarse 1981 army comedy to the stage, importing actual mud from battlefields around the world for use in the naked mud-wrestling sequence.

Lost in Translation
Murray was Oscar-nominated for his role as an actor holed up in a plush Tokyo hotel in Sofia Coppola’s tentative 2003 love story, with Scarlett Johansson as the lonely young woman who befriends him. Mark Rylance and Carey Mulligan take the leads in this David Hare adaptation, which displays complete fidelity to the original in its utter absence of incident and a final exchange between the almost-lovers that is inaudible to the human ear. In an initiative to make theatre affordable for the masses, this hotel-set play is a site specific work performed in Premier Inns around the country. Ticket price includes breakfast buffet


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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