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The Magic of Reliving “Groundhog Day”


me to my friend J, exact date unknown

I no longer remember why I sent the above text. Perhaps it was the impending closing of the 2011 Godspell revival, or the brief run of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I remember the text, though, because J hasn’t let me forget it. Like any excellent friend, she brings out the screenshot every time I find myself grieving yet another show. 

“The price of love is loss / But still we pay / We love anyway”

“Light,” Next to Normal

Loving theater is uniquely heartbreaking. Imagine telling your favorite film bro (we’ve all let one or two into our hearts) that he can’t watch The Godfather anymore because not enough people are watching The Godfather eight times a week. No more Godfather until it’s been a while and some bored Marvel actor decides he’d like to try playing Brando. Our hypothetical film bro would melt down. 

Let me be clear: I am not saying I am more sophisticated than this somewhat imaginary man. I am trying to describe the weird, inchoate grief I feel when a show I love closes. 

Yes, there are usually future productions. I’ve followed my beloved Next to Normal to local theaters of all sizes, and I happen to believe that it’s almost impossible to stage a bad production of Assassins. But of course, it’s never the same, for better or worse. Sometimes a director reimagines a piece in a way that makes it blaze with new fire; sometimes you watch, baffled, as a new artistic team fumbles a moment that used to make you gasp. 

Every good show is a delicate magic spell. Everything has to come together just so: director, audience, sets, score, actors, lights, musicians. Even the political and social context outside the theater matters. (After 2008, Avenue Q never found an equally satisfying swap for “George Bush!…is only for now.” It tried a myriad of replacements that couldn’t inspire the same visceral audience reaction.)

You might see something similar later, but once a show is over, it’s over. No repeats. 

“If I had known what now I know maybe I / would have taken a moment / maybe looked over my shoulder / maybe shed a tear / Now I’m here.”

“Seeing You,” Groundhog Day

When I fell in love with Groundhog Day in 2020, it felt like I had slipped into a private pocket dimension. (Of course, a lot of 2020 felt like that.) I had enjoyed the show on Broadway in 2017, but it was only in pandemic, stuck in my own “stunning stasis,” that I came to understand it in a new way. 

Even after I wrote 3,000 words on the show in April, the Groundhog Day cast recording was a staple of my pandemic life. I spent many Saturday mornings sitting on my windowsill, staring at the city skyline, and listening to the album start to finish, until the final crescendo of “Seeing You” brought me to tears. In those endless, repetitive, lonely months, I basked in the reassurance that I, too, would see sunshine again someday.

And fortunately, miraculously, time continued. Our ailing planet circled the Sun, and brilliant scientists created effective vaccines, and I got to step out into a world newly gilded with my awareness of what life was like without so many things I’d taken for granted before. 

“All those boxes left unchecked / All the dreams you left neglected / You’d go back and put it right”

“If I Had My Time Again,” Groundhog Day

I took with me the lessons of Groundhog Day: to enjoy wherever I was, to invest in those around me, and to love well those who inspire me to be better. I had spent over a year meditating on how Phil Connors finds peace when he is able to let go of being the sole protagonist. Phil grows when he learns to see everyone else onstage as full characters of their own. 

Like so many of us, I emerged from pandemic socially awkward and uncertain. Groundhog Day was a North Star, reminding me that what matters most in connection is open-hearted effort. Like Phil, I fell in life-changing love with someone who helps me see my own ability to grow. I do not have to live forever as I once was. I am expansive. 

If Groundhog Day had never existed, my life might still look very similar to how it is now. But I think I would feel different inside. The simplicity with which Groundhog Day lays out complicated fundamental truths stays with me. Its melodies – joyous, haunting, absurd, profound – are embedded so deep in me that I feel like if you nicked the right vein, a whole assemblage of instruments and sheet music would stream out of me, as if stolen from the August Wilson Theatre in 2017. 

All of this I say to prepare you for my reaction when, in December 2022, London’s Old Vic Theatre (where Groundhog Day debuted in 2016) announced it would stage the show again in summer 2023, with the same director and the same once-in-a-lifetime (now twice-in-a-lifetime) starring performance from Andy Karl. 

“You can curse / Cast spells or cry / Offer your prayers / To the unfeeling sky / The spring will arrive / When the winter is done / And if it’s not tomorrow / Then tomorrow, or tomorrow”

“There Will Be Sun,” Groundhog Day

I became…obsessed. I wanted to be there so intensely I didn’t talk about it. The words I tried sounded melodramatic. European travel intimidates me for a horde of class-related reasons not relevant here, but suddenly I yearned to go to London, because that is where the Groundhog Day magic spell was happening again. 

And yet for most of the summer, it was out of reach. I appreciated the irony: for me, Groundhog Day would not happen again. Unlike Phil Connors, I found that fact devastating. I watched the reviews and photos roll in. A maelstrom of joy, grief, envy and love roiled in my chest. 

It is a blessing to love anything so much. Dear reader, I hope there are things you love as much as I love Groundhog Day, even though it probably hurts you just as much sometimes, too. 

And then, finally — there will be sun. With days to spare before the end of the production, and with the immense help of others, I came to London in possession of tickets to two separate performances of Groundhog Day. Two more magic spells. My raw, post-pandemic, thoroughly used, well-loved heart. 

When the overture began, the reality that I was there, in the presence of this magic spell, shook my whole body with sobs. I loved this show, I lost it, I loved it even harder, and somehow, it was given to me again.

“Want things I cain’t tell you about—not only things to look at and hold in your hands. Things to happen to you. Things so nice, if they ever did happen to you, your heart’d quit beatin’. You’d fall down dead!”

Laurey, Oklahoma!

Genuinely, my excitement was so intense that I hyperventilated for much of that first performance. I wanted to climb onstage and shove every moment into my eyeballs. I went back two nights later (with an exquisite Oklahoma! palate cleanser in between), savoring every moment.

The creative team seized the chance to find new ways to bring shine to Groundhog Day. In this incarnation, both the sets and cast are just a bit smaller. The stage no longer revolves; instead, simple lighting shifts help transition scenes. A few ensemble tracks have been combined, fostering a greater sense of intimacy with the townspeople of Punxsutawney. You can follow each ensemble member’s arc as Phil becomes more interested in their lives. 

All these changes serve the work so well. Groundhog Day feels even more honed, refined to its essential ingredients. Even background players are compelling to watch, because every moment sings with human connection. (Just one example: I caught Jeff, the waiter at the diner, dancing with a date in the background of “Seeing You,” and mouthing his excitement to Nancy behind his partner’s back.) 

As I left the theater that second time, tears overwhelmed me once more, because I don’t know when or if I’ll get to see this show again. But I was also filled with sheer gratitude.

In theater, as in life, there are no guarantees. All you can do is be thankful you’re here.

“As for that, the rest is just a test of your endurance / You gotta love life / You gotta love life / You gotta love life…”

“Night Will Come,” Groundhog Day

Featured photo: Andy Karl and Tanisha Spring in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic, © Manuel Harlan

Published inCulture

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© Mary Gaulke 2023