Creating filmic effects onstage isn’t often a requirement for adapting a movie into a Broadway musical, but doing so effectively was vital to the success of Groundhog Day The Musical.
Set on the titular holiday as jaded weatherman Phil Connors (Tony nominee Andy Karl) is forced to relive the same boisterous boosterism of small-town America again and again and again, the stage adaptation—from original screenwriter Danny Rubin, songwriter Tim Minchin, and director Matthew Warchus—hinges on the ability to stop and then restart a scene with split-second precision.
Lights up on Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design.
“I was listening to an audio recording the first workshop, and, as soon as I heard that, I could imagine the style of production it was going to [require] to do the jump cuts from one scene to another,” Vanstone says. Already a collaborator for 20 years with Warchus, Vanstone had also already worked with Minchin and set designer Rob Howell on Matilda The Musical, describing their process as an almost invisible one.
“We all understand each other’s thought process, and so a lot of the work is done in the workshops,” he says. “And Groundhog Day had three workshops, so ideas begin to develop there and then they’re sort of fairly lightly discussed.”
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But Vanstone’s lighting isn’t just used to reset the recurring scene. As with every lighting design (whether audiences notice or not), Vanstone’s work draws the eye to the important areas of action and adjusts the mood accordingly, something that is crucial to a show such as Groundhog Day, which covers a lot of emotional ground as Phil matures from hedonist to humanist.
The time between the Olivier-winning London production and the Tony-nominated Broadway production also had a salutary effect on Vanstone’s work. Able to finesse details with additional time, he’s quick to point out subtle changes between stagings amidst the larger ones.
“There’s a number in Act 2, ‘If I Had My Time Again,’” he says, referring to a number sung by Barrett Doss’ much-put-upon news producer Rita, who takes Phil on a magical day that now includes fairground rides—a moment that was not in the London production. “When we were lighting that for Broadway, a lot of color came in for the fairground bit of the song. And one day Matthew said, ‘That color should go into the rest of the number so we’re really seeing the world more through Rita’s eyes in this song.’ Before it was a cold, gray walk in the park, and now it’s filled with color.”
Another color-suffused number “Hope,” in which a desperate Phil tries again and again to kill himself to escape what he perceives as a kind of purgatory. “The first time I heard ‘Hope’ I thought, ‘What a funny song. How many ways can you off yourself?’ This song was going to have a look, and it wasn’t a very long journey to the fact that everything is bathed in red. Other songs are a longer process, but I think every project is a riddle you have to solve to make all the things sit properly. And one of the things I appreciate about working with Matthew is that he is terrific at keeping relaxed enough about things that you can say, ‘OK, well, this may be one of three ways of doing this so let’s explore them all.’ And I enjoy that process of exploration and the comfort of being able to do that with someone. It takes quite a lot of trust.”