REVIEW: Groundhog Day - Original Broadway Cast
Good things come to those who wait. Having seen – and utterly fallen for – Groundhog Day last summer at the Old Vic in London, I’ve been (im)patiently anticipating the Original Broadway Cast recording ever since. Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis’s film about an obnoxious weatherman doomed to relive the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania over and over again until he rediscovers his humility and humanity would seem on the face of it to resist adaptation as a musical, but Rubin’s book for the musical isn’t simply a retread of his screenplay with spaces carved out for songs. In adapting his own work, Rubin has transformed what was essentially a star vehicle into a rather more complex examination of the various ways people find themselves living their lives in repetitive cycles. It’s a quirky, fiercely intelligent, very funny show, and Tim Minchin’s score is glorious; I walked out of the theatre humming There Will Be Sun and Seeing You, I’ve been humming them ever since, and I was eager to discover whether the songs I remembered so fondly stood up divorced from Matthew Warchus’s dazzling staging.
The good news is that they certainly do. There’s a one-two punch right at the top of the album, with the soaring opening chorale There Will Be Sun immediately followed by Small Town USA (tracked, slightly irritatingly, as part of the longer Day One sequence on the album), a swinging, snowballing diatribe against the horrors of being trapped in a town where there’s just “one little store selling plaid shirts and rakes”. Both of these songs have refrains that will lodge themselves right between your ears and stay there, and Andy Karl’s performance of Small Town USA mines every last drop of bitter humour out of Minchin’s biting lyrics. Later in the first half, Barrett Doss’s immensely likeable Rita – a rather better-written, more complex character here than she was in the film – navigates the tricky, pattery wordplay of One Day, a richly, ruefully comic deconstruction of the Frog Prince fairy tale, with tremendous verve. The song, again, is superb, and so is her performance.
There’s rewarding material, too, for a number of supporting characters. Nobody Cares, a twanging country-and-western duet for two spectacularly inebriated barflies, is a comic showstopper in the theatre, and it’s riotously funny here. More controversially, the second act gives very prominent solos to Nancy, the pneumatic blonde with whom Phil has a one-night stand, and Ned Ryerson, the irritating insurance salesman played so memorably by Stephen Tobolowsky in the film. Both songs, on the face of it, appear somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the show’s plot, and in the case of the former Minchin leaves you to join the dots for yourself rather than explicitly stating the point of the song. To me, these songs are a big part of the reason I found the musical a richer property than the source film, but their placement in the show seems to be one of those things you either buy or you don't. Playing Nancy, delivered with perfect ingenuousness by Rebecca Faulkenberry, expands upon a point already made in Nobody Cares: there's (way) more than one way to become trapped in a seemingly inescapable cycle (it also offers a sly feminist critique of the kind of stock role characters like Nancy play in movie plots). Night Will Come, a stark meditation on grief given to a character who has no corresponding moment in the source film, is simply stunning. It’s by far the finest song in the show, and it's sung with devastating restraint by John Sanders.
If there’s any criticism to be made of the album, it’s simply that the score contains several numbers in which the staging carries as much of the content as the words and music, and inevitably those tracks are going to be a little baffling if you haven’t seen the show yourself. You’ll get the existential despair behind the Act Two rock belter Hope from the ironic contrast between the inspirational clichés in Minchin’s lyrics and the heavy rock chords underneath, but you won’t get the dazzling, pitch-black comedy of Matthew Warchus and Peter Darling’s staging, in which the song takes us through Phil’s (many) suicide attempts, each of which ends in him waking up at 6am on February 2nd. Three more tracks - Philandering, Philanthropy, and Punxsutawney Rock – reflect sequences which, in the theatre, are all about Darling’s musical staging. Chris Nightingale’s dance arrangements are great fun, but you’ll need to read the synopsis if you want to understand what’s going on, and on the album - sadly - you don't get to see an actor in a groundhog suit centre-stage playing drums.
And then there’s Minchin’s lyrics. Purists complain that he reaches too often for a rhyme that isn’t quite there, and that’s a valid criticism. To me, he gets away with it where other writers don’t because his work, overall, is so inventive and so funny that I can look past the technical imperfections. That won’t be the case for everyone. He’s a distinctive, idiosyncratic talent, but he doesn’t rhyme like Sondheim.
He’s capable, though, of surprising delicacy. Some of the best moments in the second act are the quietest: Night Will Come, yes, but also Phil’s sweetly fragile Everything About You, in which he tries to convince Rita of how much he’s learned about her over hundreds/thousands of February 2nds. And while the finale – the lovely Seeing You – does build to a climax, the ending, again, is handled with tremendous restraint. There’s great potential in this material for a slab of treacly, trite moralising once Phil gets back in touch with his humanity and finally wakes up on February 3rd, and Minchin – thank God – entirely avoids falling onto that trap.
Overall? This is a wonderful recording, and the score cements Minchin’s position as a major, exciting new musical theatre talent. The songs are packed with wit and melody, the band sounds crisp, the vocals come across beautifully clearly, the performances are terrific, there are some nice production photos and a decent synopsis in the digital booklet, and – most crucially – the album succeeds beautifully in communicating the show’s intelligence as well as its humour. For Broadway fans, it’s a terrific introduction to/souvenir of one of the very best new musicals in recent years; for those of us who saw it in London, it was well worth the wait.
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Groundhog Day - 2017 Original Broadway Cast Groundhog Day Andy Karl Danny Rubin John Sanders Barrett Doss Tim Minchin Rebecca Faulkenberry Christopher Nightingale Matthew Warchus Philandering There Will be Sun Day One Seeing You (2) Punxsutawney Rock Philanthropy Night Will Come Everything About You Nobody Cares Playing Nancy One Day Hope Toggle Additional (19)