February 2 is a very important date in the 2023 theatrical calendar. Yes, it’s Groundhog Day! And with the musical inspired by this quirky holiday returning to London’s Old Vic shortly, we’ve got even more reason to celebrate than usual.
Groundhog Day derives from Pennsylvania Dutch superstition (rooted in German tradition) that suggested if a badger came out of it its den on February 2 and cast a shadow, we would be looking at six more weeks of winter.
The earliest recorded mention of Groundhog Day in America came in 1840, and it was proudly championed by the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper in 1886, with an official ceremony held there at Gobbler’s Knob.
Now, around 40,000 people gather in Punxsutawney every year, the numbers boosted hugely by the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. That movie became an Olivier Award-winning stage musical in 2016, and is returning to the theatre where it premiered, the Old Vic, this summer.
Get ready to welcome it home with our guide to all things Groundhog Day, from that original film hit through to its musical rebirth.
Book Groundhog Day tickets on London Theatre.
The Groundhog Day movie
Screenwriter Danny Rubin had the genius idea for Groundhog Day in 1990. Inspired by Anne Rice’s book The Vampire Lestat, he began pondering what you might do if you were immortal and had infinite time. Would it just be boring, or could you grow and change? Rubin pegged the concept to a story idea he’d had previously about a man waking up each morning to find he was repeating the same day endlessly.
Following extensive rewrites, Groundhog Day finally went into development. The plot saw jaded weatherman Phil Connors begrudgingly travel to the small town of Punxsutawney for the annual holiday festivities, along with producer Rita and cameraman Larry. A blizzard traps them all there for the night. The next morning, Phil becomes stuck in a time loop, living out the day over and over again.
After failing to break out of the loop, Phil begins indulging in reckless behaviour, since there are no consequences to his actions. He then attempts to seduce Rita, learning more about her each time, but she rejects him. Depressed, he tries to commit suicide.
Eventually, he uses his time more positively: he helps and saves others, and he learns French and to play the piano. Finally, he falls in love with Rita for real, and, after confessing his feelings to her, he awakes to a new day.
Although it’s impossible now to imagine anyone other than Bill Murray in the role of Phil, initially Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton and Chevy Chase were all in the mix. But Murray’s transformation from wry misanthrope to a genuinely impassioned man turned out to be a masterstroke. Singer Tori Amos was considered for Rita, but ultimately Andie MacDowell’s combination of warmth, tenacity and authenticity made her the perfect foil for Murray.
The movie also features brilliant comic turns from the likes of Chris Elliott as the hapless Larry and Stephen Tobolowsky as obnoxious salesman Ned Ryerson. That combination of laughs and real poignancy — plus the clever concept — made Groundhog Day an immediate hit with audiences when it was released in 1993, and it has only become more popular in the years since. It also won several awards, including a BAFTA for Best Screenplay, and is now considered a classic of the genre and a cultural touchstone.
Groundhog Day on stage
Given the enormous success of Groundhog Day, the studio was keen for a sequel, but Robins ruled that out. And quite right: it would spoil that very specific and perfectly crafted story, which would only be lessened by artificially extending the tale beyond its satisfying finish.
However, that combination of a fiendish fantasy plot line with plenty of interesting thematic interpretations (from religious and philosophical to psychological) and a distinct setting with colourful, engaging characters made Groundhog Day the perfect film to translate into musical theatre. A challenge, for sure, but one worth tackling.
Enter Tim Minchin, the Australian comedian and songwriter who made an incredible debut as a musical theatre composer with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda in 2010. Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s brilliantly anarchic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel went on to win seven Oliviers and five Tony Awards, and has since become a theatrical staple around the world – as well as a Matilda movie-musical, starring Emma Thompson, in 2022.
The crack team behind Matilda reunited for Groundhog Day: Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling, set and costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, orchestrator Chris Nightingale, and sound designer Simon Baker. They were joined by Robins, who wrote the book based on his original screenplay.
Groundhog Day made its world premiere at London’s Old Vic in the summer of 2016, with Broadway star Andy Karl playing Phil, Carlyss Peer as Rita, Eugene McCoy as Larry, Andrew Langtree as Ned, and Georgina Hagan as Nancy. In fact, the opening was slightly delayed due to technical issues with the show’s complex production.
However, reviews were overwhelmingly positive. London Theatre’s five-star rave praised the “wild eclecticism” of Minchin’s “gloriously tuneful score” and the “thrilling staging that inevitably repeats certain scenes a lot but never has you tire of them.” It’s a show, appropriately enough, that you want to relive again and again.
Groundhog Day won the Best New Musical Olivier Award, plus Best Actor for Andy Karl. It transferred to Broadway in 2017, and there are plans for further international productions.
Groundhog Day returns to the Old Vic
First up is the grand return of this triumphant show to the theatre where it all began. This summer, London audiences have another chance to catch Groundhog Day at the Old Vic — or to revisit it if they loved it the first time around.
Karl is reprising his garlanded performance as Phil, with further casting to be announced – watch this space! Lizzi Gee provides new choreography for this much-anticipated revival, and Warchus has spoken of his joy at returning to “one of the happiest creative experiences of [his] life.”
So, whether this is your first exposure to the existential comedy-drama perfection that is Groundhog Day, or if, like Phil (and Karl!), you’re coming back for more, get booking: this musical was a big hit when it premiered and its legend has only grown since.
Photo credit: Groundhog Day at the Old Vic, Groundhog Day film (Photos by Manuel Harlan and courtesy of IMDB respectively)