When composer-lyricist Tim Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, and original screenwriter Danny Rubin first started writing Groundhog Day The Musical, Rubin desperately wanted the stage adaptation to differ from the film he wrote with the late Harold Ramis.
But as imaginative as Rubin is, the team agreed that there are certain things about Groundhog Day you don’t mess with.
The group admires the original story, and refused to force it to become a musical. According to Warchus, the philosophy was: “If at any point … it doesn’t want to be a musical, we’ll stop. We’ll back off. We don’t want to be accused of just exploiting a title.”
Fortunately for them, Groundhog Day seemed to beg for musicalization. “You have to explore how they’re feeling, and you have to explore the themes more, or else don’t do the writing,” says Minchin. But his writing isn’t necessarily the kind of showtune fare typical of Broadway. “I think you get certain impressions from certain producers and stuff in film and Broadway that say, ‘Ah but a Broadway audience [won’t want that],’” says Minchin. “I don’t care what you think a Broadway audience wants—we want to tell a story that we think will make us laugh. I think I would love Groundhog Day. I would be furiously jealous that I didn’t get to write it, if I saw it. But I would love it.”
In writing a musical he loves, Minchin wasn’t afraid to extract and examine the darkness in Groundhog Day—much like his dauntlessness with his first Main Stem outing, Matilda The Musical.
But Minchin, Rubin, and Warchus titrated a balance. “If someone was getting too comedic or trivializing something we would bring ourselves back to: what is the theme, the core moment? Similarly, if it’s getting too deep or dark or preachy, or any of those things, we’d remind ourselves of the romance and the comedy,” says Warchus. “It’s very funny, very romantic, but that humor and romance is harnessed to the story, which is very wise.”
Of course, Bill Murray’s performance as Phil Connors seems inextricably linked with the humor and success of the original movie. You can’t replace Bill Murray. Even Andy Karl, who stars as Phil, agreed.
“When they were first casting this I thought I was so wrong for the part, I’m gonna say it,” says Karl. “Because you’re looking at it and you’re going, ‘Who’s going to imitate Bill Murray or take over in that iconic role?’” But the team wasn’t looking for a singing Bill Murray.
“The Groundhog Day movie wasn’t a real iconic performance of Bill Murray harnessed to something trivial,” Warchus explains. “It was a great iconic performance of him at the heart of a really important piece of writing.” After five workshops, each with a different actor in the role of Phil, Warchus found his vehicle for that narrative in Karl, who he calls a “phenomenon.”
“Exploring [the journey of a man] through a musical is, I think, even a little better than the movie,” Karl continues. “We are able to go a little abstract and sing some of the internal angst.”
“If you’ve done a musical adaptation of a movie which doesn’t within minutes bring the audience away from the original movie into what’s happening now, if it doesn’t successfully do that it will be off [closed] in days, quite rightly,” says Warchus. “You stand and fall by that.”