Despite the similarity of their names, Franz Kafka and Frank Capra presented antithetical images of the US: contrast the optimistic democracy celebrated in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life with the eastern European pessimism of Kafka’s novel Amerika. The brilliance of the 1993 film Groundhog Day was to combine these conflicting visions. In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania – the sort of corny, folksy, small-town community that Capra would have desired for his characters – the protagonist suffers the kind of fate that Kafka might have visited on his. Instead of waking up as an insect, the TV weatherman Phil Connors rises each morning in a rerun of the previous day, when he fulfilled his least-favourite annual assignment: reporting from a ceremony at which a rodent purportedly predicts the length of winter.
As Capra seems more suitable for a song-and-dance adaptation than Kafka, there were fears that the silly aspects of the premise would defeat the sinister implications in the song-and-dance version of Groundhog Day, which received its world premiere at the Old Vic. Yet the dramatist Danny Rubin (who co-wrote the film with its director, Harold Ramis) has provided a theatre script that, with music and words by Tim Minchin (the composer-lyricist of the long-running Matilda), succeeds in keeping the idea of life on a loop both funny and frightening.
Stuck in Punxsutawney by his failure to predict a snowstorm, the Connors of the play (Andy Karl), though younger and more unpleasant than Bill Murray’s screen version, still makes the sexist assumption that the forced sleepover will be an opportunity to seduce his assistant producer, Rita (the Andie MacDowell part, taken here by Carlyss Peer). The film’s standout supporting character – the nerdy former classmate Ned Ryerson – also appears and, more to the point, frequently reappears.
One joy of the film was the way in which it subverted the audience’s relationship with tension and surprise. Having established early on what will always happen next, the film-makers had to find ways of making the predictability unexpected. It was greatly served in this by the rhythmic sensitivity of Ramis and his editor, Pembroke J Herring, who chose perfectly how much repetition and rewriting there should be in each over-again moment. Matthew Warchus’s staging shows an equal judgement of pulse, offering multiple successive versions of some scenes, in which as little as one line is different.
The narrative jeopardy in theatre is still greater: those familiar with the film will anticipate the variations. So, sensibly, bigger changes are made in the later stages. The plot’s cleverness lies in Connors’s shift from his elation that he is in a world without moral consequence – all sex is safe and arrest leaves no criminal record – to his realisation that a stilled existence is a kind of death. The musical’s vision of this hell is darker than the movie’s; it includes a nightmarish dance sequence of a circular world and a ghoulish montage of attempted suicides.
Minchin has cleverly spotted just how many tunes in musicals – “Tomorrow” in Annie, “Maybe This Time” in Cabaret, “One Day More” in Les Misérables – celebrate the future tense, and he has understood the fresh resonance that such numbers get from being sung by characters who are stuck in the present. His painfully ironic variations on the anthem of hope include “One Day” and “If I Had My Time Again”. Reprises can disguise creative laziness but here the return of a theme becomes tense and satisfying. Smart rhymes include those that couple “cupboard” with “L Ron Hubbard”, and “place is” with “stasis”. There has been a long search for British theatre’s new Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber; on the evidence of this and Matilda, Minchin is them.
On a revolving stage, Rob Howell’s set uses switches of perspective that include toy-car chases and houses that fold up and re-form to give a physical sense of the repeated day closing in on Phil. Featuring entertaining walk-ons for the title character, this musical Groundhog Day – sinister, silly, Capra-Kafka – would, in defiance of its story, be a pleasure to see again.
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war