"How do you get audiences to care about a guy who's a dick?" asks Tim Minchin, the man behind the music and lyrics for the new adaptation of Groundhog Day that opened this week on Broadway. "Phil Connors as a character in the film relied so heavily on Bill Murray's bizarre charm, and obviously we don't have that to exploit. So the biggest goal: They shouldn't think about Bill Murray at the end of the show."
Minchin faced this difficult challenge the best way he knew how: surprise the audience with sound. "The overture, it's about 24 bars of fast, chaotic free jazz. So you know what you think this is gonna be, but now you've fucking forgotten all that."
The idea of turning Groundhog Day into a stage musical had been floating around ever since legendary composer Stephen Sondheim – who managed to have a hit with Sweeney Todd, a musical about serial killer who feeds his victims to people – mentioned he wanted to make an adaptation during a 2003 interview. But Danny Rubin, who wrote the original script nearly 25 years ago, was protective of his hit screenplay.
Then there's the bigger problem of making an entertaining production about a day that is repeated over and over (and over and over). It quickly becomes clear how much in Groundhog Day is there to annoy an audience. But Minchin says that's what appealed to him. Although most people know him from his time on Californication, he'd also successfully helped turned Roald Dahl's Matilda into a blockbuster musical thanks to his dark, unusual lyrics and score, and he didn't hesitate when Matilda director Matthew Warchus asked if he wanted to collaborate.
"Groundhog Day feels like such a theatrical idea," Minchin says. "It belongs on stage; it's like a Stoppard or a Beckett. It's high concept: man stuck in a scenario, man stuck on stage doing the same show every night. It's one of the most narcissistic narratives ever: One person the world revolves around in a series of repeats that no one else remembers."
Minchin says he was especially intrigued because, in his own comedy shows, he typically writes "about sex, death and god," and that the show allowed him to explore these in a fresh way. "It's really about 'How do you live life?' or 'What is the process you go through to attain happiness?' Big! But then it's funny and silly," he says. "I thought it was exciting to keep it a romantic comedy whilst actually talking about death and depression and love."
So, naturally, he tackled the most difficult part of the script: the suicides. In the second act, Phil Connors tries to kill himself, repeatedly, and Minchin has crafted the most ingenious number of the entire production, titled "Hope," in which Andy Karl, the handsome actor who plays weatherman Connors (and looks nothing like Murray), sings about the ways he's tried to kill himself, while also continually being "reborn" each day to try again. The choreography involves elaborate illusions in which Karl continually appears in bed after murdering himself (and resulted in the actor injuring himself before the show even opened) and features the entire ensemble in an uncanny collaboration.
"The idea I had was that 'Hope' was about the dogged pursuit of a successful suicide," Minchin says. "So singing a song like that, out of context, could be about 'never giving up hope,' but Phil means, 'Don't give up hope that you'll successfully kill yourself one day.' It's bleak. And I immediately thought it should be a Seattle Nineties rock song. I presented that to Danny and he was like, 'I'm not sure it's that sort of thing.' But after they all heard the demo, I got their assent that it could be that dark. But then it's got to be that beautiful and that sad and funny to balance it out."
Still, all of this Punxsutawney, PA setup could fail if it weren't for the witty way in which it's stitched together by Rubin, Minchin and Warchus. As wacky as Act 1 may be – including a drunken country ditty called "Nobody Cares" that's laugh-out-loud funny on multiple levels – it's nothing compared to the transition into the second act, which begins with Nancy, a character Phil has a one-night stand with during one of the repeated days, sings a haunting, meta-narrative song that includes the line: "I want to be more than just collateral in someone else's battle."
Minchin admits that his own humanist worldview ends up coloring whatever project he's working on. In Matilda, Mrs. Wormwood sings a song called "Loud," in which she explains that if you make a big enough fuss people will listen. "Her song is predicting Trump," he says he now realizes. "The criticism of anti-intellectualism is scary now. Not to mention the fascism of Trunchbull." He sees a similar theme in Groundhog Day.
"Obviously, at this stage in history, we seem to be in an era of peak entitled ignorant white male. But I don't think our story is about that," Minchin says. "Phil can't be a greedy narcissistic psychopath – there are plenty of them running the world now. Phil is not an outlier, he needs to be a bit like us. We understand he's a bit of a dick, but we have to realize we are a bit of a dick sometimes: We judge people; we are always aspiring to get out of where we are; we think if we can move or get this car or this job or raise, get a haircut or lose 10 pounds, then we'll be happy. We need to see that Phil represents us, whilst still being a particular dick. So yes, the world is full of narcissistic dickheads, but more interesting to me, to what extent am I a narcissistic dickhead and what can I learn from it?"
Watch My First Time with Tim Minchin as he explains the first time he bombed and music got him in trouble.