Although a solid show with many strengths, Tim Minchin and Matthew Warchus' second musical fails to deliver on the dazzlingly high standards set up by their innovative 2011 debut, Matilda.
For me, the problem with adapting a film into a musical is that the two are essentially mutually exclusive forms, with very little overlap. In film, the focus is on the minutiae of human behaviour, the little ticks and quirks that endear us to our protagonist. In musical theatre, the focus is necessarily on broad dramatic gestures; we have not the close-up vantage point of film to study facial expressions, so the characterisation has to come through in another way, namely – as in the case of opera – through the relationship between music and text. It’s a problem that Groundhog Day, the new musical from Tim Minchin, suffers from, an issue exacerbated by the fact the film is reliant on the curmudgeonly charm and droll delivery of it’s central actor, Bill Murray – without whom the film would not have become the classic that it irrefutably has.
It looked like it was going to be brilliant. An astoundingly talented composer (Tim Minchin); a maverick stage director (Matthew Warchus); an innovative stage designer (Rob Howell); and the very same writer who penned the screenplay of the original (Danny Rubin). What could possibly go wrong? Central protagonist Phil Connors (played here by Andy Karl) – in being made into an all-singing, all-dancing American anti-hero – has lost the cantankerous wit and reluctance which endeared us to him in the first place. His bumbling attempts to romance Rita Hanson (and his Machiavellian manipulation of the repeating time-frame to exploit her feelings), whilst cheekily roguish in the film, are bordering on sexual assault in the musical, with him resorting to aggressive groping after his whispered nothings ultimately fail to woo her. There is just no subtlety to his character, which is not Andy Karl’s fault, who has done a fine job with what he was given. It’s just bad writing from Danny Rubin; a man who – along with director Harold Ramis – gave us a wonderfully nuanced script the first time around, but has sadly proven inept at rehashing the piece for the stage.
I realise that I’m painting it as pretty dire, which it most certainly is not. A story whose core theme is that of repetition; Groundhog Day is a veritable gift for any composer worth his salt, which Minchin most certainly is. Giving endless opportunity for theme and variation work, Minchin has written an intelligent score that hits the balance between repetition and variation perfectly. Gradually morphing each time round, the music never gets boring. Supported by a brilliant stage design from Rob Howell, who deservedly won an Olivier for his work on Matilda, the music is complemented by an ever-changing set that consistently astounds the eye with its multifarious tricks. Director Matthew Warchus has also done a stellar job of reigning in the chaos and molding it into an easily digestible whole. The only issue is the writing, which is what ultimately detracted from my enjoyment of the spectacle and left a slightly bitter aftertaste.
If you are a hardcore fan of musicals, and are willing to ignore a little thing like unsuitably adapted subject matter, go and see it. You won’t be disappointed. If, like me, you’re a fan of the film and wish for it to remain on it’s rosy pedestal in your mind for all time, then perhaps give this one a miss.
Groundhog Day has finished its initial summer run at the Old Vic, but will reopen next April in the West End.