GROUNDHOG DAY book by Danny Rubin; music & lyrics by Tim Minchin The Old Vic Theatre 14 September, 2016
Weather is about change, and Londoners know that well. The saying ‘If you don’t like the weather in London, wait 15 minutes,’ is absolutely true. Forecasting weather- predicting change- well…good luck with that. ‘Groundhog Day,’ a new musical filling the stage at The Old Vic, centers on the ideas of change, change wanted and change unseen. It’s central character, the weatherman Phil Connors, is a man aching for it. A huge show curtain of a weather map, charting incoming fronts and forecasts, starts ‘Groundhog Day’, and it is dotted with dozens of LED images of Phil Connors, Phil Connors, Phil Connors- as obsessed with the weatherman as he is with himself. The images play on and on as Phil sees his own life playing out and playing away in endless repetitions, with no change on any front: smart, confident, bland, plastic.
Phil is assigned to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which in his eyes is a pathetic celebration in a pathetic town. Phil's one goal is to finish the day and leave as soon as possible. The story, of course, is that Phil never leaves the town. In fact, he never leaves the day, but finds himself trapped in an endless cycle of Groundhog Days where nothing, nothing, nothing ever changes.
This endlessly inventive show makes great delight in using repetitive forms in music and dance to physicalize Phil’s situation. The music of ‘Groundhog Day’ is firmly in an American idiom: Jazz, blues, country, rock ballad, even John Philip Sousa. The songs, dances, and even scenes reprise again and again. He’s trapped in a sonata form which establishes, repeats, but never develops.
The variations from scene to scene as Phil relives his endless February 2nd are a part of the fun of the show, and the staging makes the most of this. The stage cycles around to the same moment again at a dizzying pace, confounding Phil, and creating some truly wonderful theatrical moments of surprise. This cyclone staging also winds up the tension of the first act, as Phil’s panic and then despair become more pronounced. The act ends as it began, with Phil in the exact same place he started, the bed and breakfast in Punxsutawney: “Ugly curtain. Ugly Wallpaper. Pointless erection.”
Phil is doomed to relive the same day, an omnipresent present with no future. This opens up possibilities for Phil, and he finds he can do anything within a world of all cause and no effect. He drinks, he whores, he crashes cars (in a very cleverly staged aerial view high speed car chase), and he lies with abandon. When this becomes tiresome, he attempts suicide…again, and again, and again. In a driving rock ballad, Phil sings ‘Never Give Up Hope,’ joined by the company in a string of self-stabbings, self-electrocutions, self-slaughters, each time hoping to affect his life, to create change of some kind. Each spins him back to the same bed, the same place, the same morning where he was before. He is a snarky Sisyphus, rolling the same boulder of a day up the same hill, again and again.
In seeing the same day in replay, Phil begins to notice the world about him, first in noticing Rita, an associate producer with whom he is given the opportunity to have thousands of first dates. Each of these is less fruitless than the one before, and even as he comes to know everything about her, he realizes he knows nothing. To his wonder, it is that opportunity to know nothing, to encounter her as a creature of surprise, which captivates him. He may have never noticed her before, but now he cannot stop chasing her, designing each tomorrow to be his next opportunity to be the best today.
As Phil’s awareness of his world widens, so does the play, offering vignettes into the other citizens of Punxsutawney: the pretty blonde trapped in her tight jeans (“if that’s what you look best in, that’s what they want you dressed in”), the eager life insure salesman struggling with death and loss. Each manages as best he can with lives filled with regrets and somedays. “Someday I’ll lose the weight. Someday I’ll get a new coffee maker.” These choruses of ‘Someday’ are both laments, and promises. Tim Minchin’s lyrics are filled with references to time: one day, someday, hopefully tomorrow. In Punxsutawney, Minchin has created a town always on the cusp of spring, looking forward. Their strength is not in huddling to stay warm through a winter, but to know that dawns will come, with warmer days and change. It is much to the show’s credit that ‘Groundhog Day’ is not a paean to the healing power of smaller town life. It is rather an appreciation of small lives choosing to go on.
Phil sets forth to change the day for everyone, to create the tomorrows they have not created for themselves. The wonder is the effect it has on Phil himself. Perhaps salvation isn’t something which happens to us, but in how we affect others. ‘Groundhog Day’ is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ set on its side. Instead of offer a vision of a life where he never was, Phil is given the opportunity to see a life where he was never truly there. In the warm, funny, exciting production, we are reminded that every day we are given the opportunity to save our own lives.