Now and Again

‘Groundhog Day’ Fights to Wake From Its Broadway Nightmare

Its star Andy Karl made headlines when he was injured. He returned to perform at opening night on Monday limping, wearing a knee support, to the roaring appreciation of the audience.

Joan Marcus

Groundhog Day on Broadway is having something of a Groundhog Day. This is not the first time that a musical on Broadway has become known more for all the song-and dance around it than the song-and-dance within it. Witness the injuries, technical snafus, and backstage drama that plagued Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark in 2010: a show where audiences went to see what could possibly go wrong during a performance.

On Friday night, this reporter was there when the star of Groundhog Day, the Olivier Award-winning and Tony-nominated performer Andy Karl, suffered a nasty injury onstage; and this after a set of preview performances marred by hitches around a technically-complex sequence involving a life-size model car and puppeteers commandeering toy-size cars.

This is not an exact stage replica of the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray—sadly missing is the scene when weatherman Phil Connors kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, determined to kill them both. But we are never left in any doubt that Phil has reached the end of his tether having to live out the same day over and over again in a small Pennsylvania town, haunted by the specter of the squirrel-like creature who mocks him at every turn.

Karl already won the Best Actor in a Musical award at the Olivier Awards in London—the U.K. equivalent of the Tonys—where the show itself won Best New Musical; its New York transfer should have capped these impressive laurels. But it has become an altogether more fraught run.

On Saturday, the show’s matinee was canceled, while on Saturday night Karl’s stand-in, Andrew Call, stood in for him. Then on Monday, at a special opening night performance scheduled to begin at 5.59pm—Groundhog Day for Connors begins at 5:59 a.m. every morning—Karl returned to the stage to perform the show, and so this reporter went to see him do it all over again. (Even covering Groundhog Day has become a “meta” exercise.)

The question was whether the injury, which Karl has said was a “tweak” to his knee—but which looked dreadfully painful as he bravely carried on performing on Friday night—was finally healed. Can Groundhog Day the musical escape its Groundhog Day curse?

Karl has torn his ACL, he revealed in an Instagram post before curtain-up on Monday. The high celebrity quotient and theatre power players present on Monday (Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Bloomberg among them) meant the opening night show began around twenty minutes late. When Karl appeared, the roar was pretty darn loud and he was limping, but it didn’t initially look too painful. One sensed off stage there were many ice packs and a lot of Advil.

Right from the start, Karl’s Phil is very different from Murray’s. He’s still the big-city weatherman dreading having to go to Punxsutawney to cover the annual groundhog festival. It is here, on February 2nd, a groundhog called Phil is said to predict the start of spring. If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, there will be another six weeks of winter weather; if he does not, then spring will come early.

Murray has an in-built comic mordancy to him which makes Groundhog Day the movie such a joy. He is almost a walking eye-roll. He had it in Ghostbusters, where it provided a bracing corrective to the broader comedy and action of that movie.

Karl does not have that same laconic impatience and archness. Instead, he’s smarmy, scowling, snappy, and sarcastic about having to do the gig, and having to be around these annoying smalltown people.

He is also—as a large Broadway stage demands in such circumstances—a bawdier comic performer than Murray, and this is an intensely kinetic stage version, as you might expect as it is overseen by the production team behind Matilda: The Musical (directed by Matthew Warchus, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, scenic and costume design by Rob Howell, choreography by Peter Darling, and illusions by Paul Kieve).

Technically, the show is a lot more stimulating to watch—with its set of jostling and upside-down houses to convey an upside-down kind place—than its far too dragged-out and circular story.

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Warchus’s directing challenge is to have the same day repeat itself, and yet advance the performance. Just as in the movie, there are quick cuts as we see the same situation played out on consecutive occasions. Phil’s multiple suicides (which always result in him waking up again as if nothing happened) are turned into visual gag-lines, just as in the film, and are a great testament to Kieve’s skills: we see Phil kill himself on one part of the stage, only to appear a split-second later on another. (The lady next to me gripped my arm and asked, “How did they do that?”)

The excellent Barrett Doss as Rita Hanson, Phil’s put-upon producer, makes more of a thankless role than Andie MacDowell bought to it. She’s thorny, funny, challenging, and more than Phil’s match when it comes to not taking his nonsense. Warchus briskly evokes the continually doomed-to-failure attempts Phil makes to seduce Rita, which end with a range of slaps and dismissals due to his crassness.

The songs, wittily scored and composed, can also be curious, especially “Playing Nancy,” sung by Nancy—the attractive woman in town Phil uses the glitch in time to have sex with—and which interrogates the supposed indignities of being a sexy woman. It’s better to be leered at than be ignored, Nancy sings. Really? Really? She is as used by the musical as she is by all the men who have demeaned her.

The problem with Groundhog Day remains Phil, who is so relentlessly unpleasant you don’t really care to spend a lot of musical time with him. You also don’t care that he must live this endless day over and over again: the curse seems more than appropriate. You don’t root for the romance between him and Rita either, because she can do so much better. The staging rather than the story is the anchor for the evening here.

Karl’s performing courage on Monday added inestimably to his performance overall. How will he do this eight performances a week? As Monday’s performance continued, his limp became more pronounced. The lady next to me noted how much pain he seemed to be in. Can he carry on like this without doing real injury, I wondered. That’s the question—for Tony nominations and beyond.

Through Monday’s performance Karl gingerly negotiated the more physically demanding moments, and you winced for him when he had to kneel or drop and get up from the ground.

Phil’s escape from Groundhog Day is to acknowledge love, and become a halfway decent human being—a Christmas Carol relocated to Pennsylvania. Phil is only saved, and time can only move on again, when he becomes less of a jerk.

This embracing of convention which Groundhog Day ultimately proposes is wrapped in a familiar redemption story. Yet the best things about Groundhog Day the musical are when the strangeness of the town, and Phil’s extreme, snarled responses to it, are left on full, jangling boil. The musical is less convincing when it muffles itself to niceness; and it meanders far too lackadaisically to a conclusion.

But at its center is Karl, a newly-minted Broadway hero, bravely performing through his pain. The question is, can he do this without hurting himself further, and should the producers let him: human costs versus performing costs.

Karl fist-pumped the air, and the audience roared, at the end of the opening night show. He deserved the applause, and one can only marvel at his bravura determination, but one also hopes that Karl has calmer heads advising him about the best thing to do for his long-term health. The drama for Groundhog Day may be far from over.

Groundhog Day is at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, NYC. Book tickets here.