Thu, Jun 8, 2023 6:54 AM
By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Well this is fitting: “Groundhog Day” is back. Again.
The story of a jaded weatherman fated to live the same day over and over began as a beloved movie, then became an award-winning stage musical. On Thursday it opens at London’s Old Vic Theatre, where it had its acclaimed original run in 2016.
For writer Danny Rubin, it’s the latest chapter in the three-decade journey of an idea that changed his life and added a new term to the dictionary: “Groundhog Day, noun: a situation in which the same usually negative or monotonous experiences occur repeatedly."
Rubin said he imagined weatherman Phil Connors — who wakes every morning to discover he's still covering a weather-forecasting rodent in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — as akin to Siddhartha, the ancient prince turned wandering monk who came to be revered as the Buddha.
“It’s about a human being going through life’s journey,” said Rubin, who came up with the original story and co-scripted the 1993 film with director Harold Ramis.
It also turned out to be a resonant metaphor for a modern-day ennui: fear of missing out, angst at getting stuck. The movie, starring a sardonic Bill Murray as Phil, quickly became a classic comedy in which generations of viewers have found deep — even spiritual — meaning. Phil can’t get unstuck until he undergoes a personal transformation.
“It’s totally the existential situation,” said Rubin over coffee in London, where he’s helping tweak the musical for its new run. “None of us know why we’re here, how we got here, or what we’re supposed to do. How is that any different from Phil?
“I think that’s one of the reasons it appeals to people in a very personal way. Phil’s transformation is not out of our reach. It’s pretty clear that the worst day of Phil’s life is also the best day of Phil’s life, and the only difference is Phil."
Years later, Rubin realized the story wasn’t finished with him. He considered turning it into a novel before settling on a musical. At one point, Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim expressed interest in adapting it. That didn’t work out, but it was a vindication of the concept.
After a long search, Rubin teamed up with composer-lyricist Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus, the team behind Roald Dahl-inspired hit show “Matilda: The Musical.”
“When I met with Matthew, immediately (he) felt like the right partner,” said Rubin. “And then I met Tim and immediately felt like the right partner. They were like me in many ways that I appreciated, including the fact that we did the whole thing on a handshake and said, ‘Let’s keep the business people out of it until we’ve written it completely and nailed down creatively the best show we can do.’”
The musical is sharply funny and musically ebullient, but doesn’t shy away from darkness as Phil, in despair at realizing he is essentially immortal, tries varied ways of killing himself. The Old Vic website warns ticket-buyers that “the story ends happily but passes through some emotionally darker phases,” and includes phone numbers for mental health charities.
Rubin said the creative team agreed that “it really was a journey for Phil. And so if it had to go dark, it was going to go dark, and we weren’t going to rely on platitudes.”
“Groundhog Day” stormed London in 2016 but had a relatively brief Broadway run the following year, despite scoring seven Tony Award nominations. One setback came when lead actor Andy Karl was injured early in the run, and, Rubin said the show was up against “many really remarkably good shows” in a bumper Broadway year.
But “Groundhog Day” keeps popping back up. The new production has made some tucks and trims that will make it easier to tour, but remains essentially the same show that won Olivier Awards for best new musical and best actor for Karl, who returns in the lead role.
It must be tempting to have another crack at Broadway, but Rubin said the team is proceeding by “baby steps.”
“Let’s see how we’re received here,” he said.
Rubin, who lives in New Mexico and teaches screenwriting, cheerfully acknowledges that “Groundhog Day” has defined his career. A huge early success can be hard to live up to — Orson Welles never surpassed his first film, “Citizen Kane” — but he has no complaints.
“The groundhog has been very good to me,” he said.
“These things that we do, we like to think that they’re going to make some kind of effect. And you never know how a career is going to go. I could have written ‘Porky’s 3’ or 4 or 5 and had to apologize to people when I meet them at a party and they say, ‘What do you do?’
“It’s nice to be associated with something that’s so loved.”