Like Phil Connors, Make Every Day Groundhog Day By Peter Filichia
Never mind the lyric “Day after day after day after day after day after day” that Stephen Sondheim used twice in Merrily We Roll Along.
If you really want to hear about someone’s “day after day after day after day after day after day,” here’s the original cast album of Groundhog Day – the new musical that’s been nominated for seven Tony Awards.
It is, of course, the musical version of the beloved 1993 film of the same name. Groundhog Day had its world premiere on July 16, 2016, in London, where it and its star Andy Karl won 2017 Olivier Awards. Both are now up for Tonys, too.
So is Danny Rubin, who adapted his original screenplay into the musical’s book. Rubin again tells the story of Phil Connors, the obnoxious weatherman who has great contempt for his next assignment: February 2, Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where a member of the marmota monax family is brought out in early morning. If “Punxsutawney Phil” sees his shadow, spring will be a little late this year, to the tune of six weeks. If he doesn’t, the East Coast will spring forward that much sooner.
The first song the elders of Punxsutawney sing – “There Will Be Sun” – shows their love for their hometown. Tim Minchin – now also up for a Best Score Tony – provided a melody that’s so reverential that, with a lyric rewrite, could serve as a hymn.
Fans of the film will recall that every morning at six, Phil’s clock radio went off and blared out Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.” Rather than seem derivative or be judged lazy (and/or to avoid paying royalties), Minchin penned his own jingle which is hardly, uh, Punx-rock, but jolly listening.
(It had better be. You’ll hear it, needless to say, more than once.)
“We can guess but we won’t know if we should dress for sun or snow until we hear it from Punxsutawney Phil,” the townies joyously crow. When they hear Phil’s “verdict” – forty-two more winter days – they give a disappointed “Awwwww” before rallying with a “Yaaaaaay!” That’s so endearing, for we see that a reason to celebrate (and national recognition) are enough for these folks.
Not joining in on the joy is Phil (Andy Karl again, and also Tony-nominated). In a song unceremoniously called “Day One,” Phil rues, “Small town, tiny minds, big mouths, small ideas,” a few words before he adds, “big rears.” He sings with finality, “You couldn’t pay me to stay here one more night.”
Ah, but you will, Phil.
“I think I’m going to lose it all together if one more person talks about the weather,” he grouses. The weather and its blizzard, however, are what will keep Phil in Punxsutawney. How he repeats the same day over and over is a question best answered by God(s), but they’re not talking.
Phil panics. “It’s a flashback from when I was twenty and ate magic mushrooms and thought I was Aquaman,” he sings. As funny as the lyric is, it’s funnier because of the musical tribute to Aquaman that orchestrator Christopher Nightingale adds.
“Working with Phil Connors,” moans Rita, his network colleague, in her section of “Day One.” She adds that “they all told me he would be an – ” well, this is a family blog, so we’ll eliminate the seven-letter profanity that defines the crass soul that Phil is. As Rita, newcomer Barrett Doss sings this and her other musical soliloquies to good advantage.
Musical theater writers are always urged, when adapting a property, to “make the property your own” – don’t just slavishly musicalize what the original had. Minchin certainly succeeded here by creating the all-new idea in “Stuck,” a musical sequence where Phil decides to seek outside help. What Punxsutawney has to offer are an alternative therapy healer who “did an on-line course for a week or two”; a naturopath who thinks “soup made of rhino scrotum” will do the trick and a pharmacologist who says, “I specialize in mental illness,” before adding, “in cows.”
What’s left for Phil but to befriend the “Tawney’s townies,” who welcome the interest of anyone new, for they’re fully aware that “Nobody Cares” among the people they know. Many of us think of so-called “country music” as Southern, but Minchin reminds us that Punxsutawney (pop. 5,962) and Jefferson County certainly qualify as country. At one point, he has these ne’er-do-anythings groan, “I think I had a point there, but the point is, it don’t matter, ‘cuz it’s pointless having points.”
(Minchin, as we’ll continue to see, likes l-o-n-g lyrics lines.)
He also has a penchant for slant rhymes – ones that sound close to rhymes but aren’t quite: “beaver/either” … “same/pain.” In one song, a la “Frank Mills” in Hair, he makes no attempt to rhyme at all – and winds up just as successful as James Rado and Gerome Ragni were in the no-rhyme lyric they gave Galt MacDermot.
But Minchin gets in a marvelous and true rhyme when one of the townies sings, “I eat a piece of toast I found toasted in the toaster, then I goes ter get my jacket.” Yes, this guy would pronounce “goes to” as “goes ter,” wouldn’t he?
Phil isn’t nice to them and is worse to Rita, who’s pretty discouraged with the male sex. “Some day my prince will come,” Disney has assured young girls since 1938, but Rita is no longer buying that. The best she can muster is, “Some day my prince may come but it doesn’t seem likely,” in her plaintive song, “One Day.”
Still, she lives in hope of at least some good guy cropping up, as we hear in another long Minchin line: “He’ll come riding on the back of a horse but of course I’m allergic to horses.” The upshot? “How will I tell him he’ll just have to sell him?”
In the spirit of Sondheim’s having Sweeney Todd sing a beautiful song while slitting throats, Phil sings, “Never give up hope” (twenty-eight times, in fact) while he’s trying to commit suicide. He doesn’t, partly because of his growing feelings for Rita. “And I know you think that I’m shallow,” he admits before amending, “but if you knew how deep my shallowness goes.”
There’s another good long line. Nifty melodies abound, too; see if you agree with me that the finest is the introspective duet, “If I Had My Time Again,” that Phil and Rita share. You might just wind up putting that song on “Repeat.”
You might even soon feel, like Phil, that one day is repeating itself, because you might not be listening to anything but Groundhog Day – maybe through February 2nd – or even six weeks beyond.
The Groundhog Day Original Broadway Cast Recording is available on iTunes here and Amazon here. Listen on Spotify here and Apple Music here.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.