Theatre Review: Groundhog Day, August Wilson Theatre, NYC

I liked this musical. I never saw the movie… but I read a good review in the NYT and I saw that it was nominated for Tony Awards. So, I thought it was worth a shot (and I could get a discount ticket to see it; second row to the front on the side, pretty great!).

I’ve been reading the book ‘The Secret Life of the American Musical’ by Jack Viertel, which is a very interesting tome about how musicals are or should be constructed for success. So, there were a number of elements of this musical which were confusing, compared to other musicals. There really are only two main characters, the weatherman and Rita, his love interest. The narrative drive, or conceit of the musical, is quite strange: will the weatherman ever get out of this time warp of waking up in the same day, every day? At the end of the first act, that was the only question for me, as I didn’t really care about the characters enough. Phil Connors doesn’t actually begin his moral and emotional development until the second act.

But I like Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics, he of ‘Matilda’ fame, an Australian who also acts, and did a fabulous political song about how the morally corrupt George Pell should be brought back to Australia to answer to the charges of him being in authority when numerous Catholic priests were abusing children (‘Come home’, a minor hit).

I read a review that excoriated Minchin’s writing: he hated the imperfect rhymes and that he reached too much. But I like them. The lyrics are slightly quirky, slightly reaching. They seem to both poke fun at our everyday lives but reach for something more, just like a good number from a musical should. I like them because they are NOT typical. On the other hand, they are recognisable. He has a certain melodic structure that I recognise from Matilda, but happen to like. They’re simple, but have some sort of drive and emotion, as Viertel would call in his book, an ‘I Want’ song. Like ‘When I Grow Up’ from Matilda’, he seems to specialise in this in-between place: ‘If I had my time again’ for example. And I found the other songs tuneful: ‘There will be sun’, ‘One day’ and ‘Seeing you’ though I couldn’t hum a bar of them if you asked me.

Interestingly, the musical kind of took a philosophical turn in the midst of the comedy. With so few characters, it gives not one but two torch song numbers to minor characters to ponder on identity (Nancy’s song, ‘Playing Nancy’) and the hapless Ned, a widower’s, song ‘Night Will Come’. Really surprising to suddenly spotlight minor characters, but sort of spirals the themes of the musical to a bigger place: What does it mean to live life? To have a life worth living? If you lived the same day over and again, what would you do with it?

Andy Carl was charismatic… and sexy. Barrett Doss, as Rita, was lovely: natural, sexy and sweet – a much more developed love interest character than in many a story.

If you only have time for two or three musicals in NYC, this wouldn’t make my list. I thought it was more interesting for the question of how to make a musical out of strange source material. And yet, it did have a lot of charm. It would be in my second rank of recommendations.

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