Intelligence is not exactly the first quality you look for in a musical. Of course there have been a few intelligent examples of the genre – mostly by Stephen Sondheim, and I’ll concede that there are a few intelligent, or at least witty instances of musical theatre from Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Kurt Weill and the Gershwin brothers. Even Lord Lloyd Webber has exhibited intelligence in the form (e.g., Aspects of Love).
But when Matilda the Musical grabbed our attention at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010, we had to acknowledge that Tim Minchin had ploughed new ground. Despite the nastiness and triviality of the Roald Dahl original (and I find both these features in most of Dahl’s work), Minchin created a musical about children and to some degree for children, which appealed to the adult intellect.
In converting the 1993 film, Groundhog Day into a musical for the Old Vic, Minchin has gone at least one better. The book, by Danny Rubin, who wrote the film’s screenplay, is the story of American TV-network weatherman, Phil Connors, who goes with a two-person crew to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the positively Dickensian January 2nd ritual of Groundhog Day, a rite that has been observed since 1886 and is, of course, a cultural translation of Candlemas – the Christian festival, the Feast of the Redemption, that marks the 40th day following the birth of Jesus, which is itself descended from the Jewish ceremony with biblical origins, of the redemption of the first-born son, in which the parents symbolically buy back their infant from the Priest, as the first-born son was traditionally given to the service of the Temple. It’s all complicated by the pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia, which the Romans celebrated in February (cf. Februa and the rites of spring, celebrated 13-15 February, and yes, St Valentine’s Day is involved, too). All of them (except the Jewish ritual, which can happen at any time of year) have in common a concern about the weather. If the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, the rural population is in trouble, as there will be at least six more weeks of winter; if he doesn’t, you can expect an early spring with its longer growing season for better crops and better survival conditions for livestock.
In Groundhog Day, the arrogant, cynical, sex-addict weatherman, Phil, is condemned – for no reason we know – to repeat his unwelcome assignment to cover the groundhog sacrament every day – forever. Every night he goes to bed in his B&B, and every morning he awakes to exactly the same cycle of radio alarm/wake-up telephone call, landlady’s remark about the weather and lousy coffee. He’s trapped in the cycle of karma and rebirth, saṃsāra, one of the basic concepts of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. He is the only person who knows that, for him, tomorrow is always today, Groundhog Day, over and over till the end of time, unless he changes his karma. He can’t even kill himself, but discovers – à la Dorothy Parker: “Guns aren’t lawful;/ Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/ You might as well live” and endures daily resurrection. In the course of his unending cycle, Phil discovers how to effect small changes to the routine – Samuel Beckett’s “fail better” next time. But this is still a musical, and by learning very gradually how to win the affection of his TV producer (the very good Carlyss Peer, who stands out from a uniformly excellent cast), Phil alters his karma, gets the girl – and better weather.
Sounds more suitable for an opera than a musical, doesn’t it? The tunes are, well, less memorable than Madama Butterfly or, come to that, West Side Story. But Minchin, who wrote the music and lyrics, collaborating with Rubin and the artistic director of the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus, have taken this conceptually difficult subject, and made it into one of the wittiest, most thoroughly entertaining evenings I’ve experienced in the theatre. And they’ve done it without pretentiousness or portentousness. It must have been an uncertain enterprise, as the repetition so necessary to the story risks boring the audience. After all, it’s essential to show, not simply tell about the tedium of the same thing happening again and again, which means embracing the danger of boring the audience. In the cinema, this is done via editing, mostly using jump-cuts.
But they have found a way of making us look forward to seeing yet another morning in bed with Phil and his “pointless erection,” played by Andy Karl, who is convincing as the annoyingly over-sophisticated, randy, selfish weather forecaster, and can sing and dance as well as he acts. As the evening goes on there’s even the added pleasure of some conjuring tricks as we see Phil stand on one part of the stage, only to pop up, a nanosecond later in his distant bed. The jump-cut theatrical equivalent here is hurling the population of Punxsutawney around on travelators and the revolves. It’s ingenious, as the near-perpetual motion makes everything flow as smoothly as the river of time itself, and after a bit you begin to look forward to the looped reappearance of Phil’s lonely bed. It has the satisfying pattern of a musical theme and variations.
Of course this Old Vic première is really the try-out for the West End and Broadway, but this is a show that deserves the huge success it’s certain to have. Some of the lyrics are a touch adult for under-12s, but the philosophical underpinnings are a bit grown-up as well. I’m too old to be qualified to say whether any of Minchin’s songs will figure on anyone’s playlist, but the clever, amusing lyrics are wonderfully done, with his engaging trick of suggesting end-rhymes where they don’t exist, and whole sentences crowded into four or eight bars of music.
It will go to its destined larger stage having proved the worth of some superb advanced stagecraft: the relatively small Old Vic stage makes the most inventive use I’ve ever seen of revolves, and the sensational choreography by Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, makes the most of it, with breathtaking precision. Rob Howell’s sets and costumes are amazing – he’s managed to find some glitz in small town Punxsutawney, not least in the marching band’s uniforms – and the sets, with their frequently upside-down skyline, allow the most alarming aerial view of a puppetry car chase. Brilliant.