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Broadway, where every day is Groundhog Day

Musical theatre is rebooting film classics for the stage and finding favour with audiences, writes Rob Long
Several Broadway productions take Hollywood films and remake them for the stage, including School of Rock. Timmy Blupe / AP
Several Broadway productions take Hollywood films and remake them for the stage, including School of Rock. Timmy Blupe / AP

One of the biggest hits on Broadway right now is Groundhog Day, which is the musical comedy theatre version of the movie by the same name. Groundhog Day, the film, opened in 1993 and stars Bill Murray as a glib and cynical television weather reporter who is compelled to relive the same day over and over again. Groundhog Day, the musical, is pretty much the same thing, except with music and a lot of people dancing around onstage.

And that’s not a criticism, though until I saw the musical theatre version I was awfully content with the motion picture Groundhog Day and couldn’t really imagine it needed tunes. But I was wrong: the musical is dazzling and hilarious and deeply moving. It doesn’t star Bill Murray, of course, but it manages to take a beloved (to me, anyway) movie and spin it into a different medium.

Just down the road from the theatre where Groundhog Day is currently playing to sold-out houses, a visitor to New York can enjoy School of Rock, which is a musical theatre version of the Jack Black picture of the same name. I wasn’t a huge fan of the original film – it was funny, I guess, but it doesn’t have the cleverness or the poignancy of Groundhog Day – so I haven’t seen the stage version. Friends of mine tell me it’s “very faithful” to the original, which I find insufficiently encouraging to spend $150 (Dh550) for a ticket.

And in any case, Broadway offers plenty of other choices. I can see the musical stage version of Disney’s Aladdin or Disney’s The Lion King – both long-running smash hits based on animated feature films. Or, if I prefer something slightly quirkier and French – and who doesn’t? – I can buy a seat at the Walter Kerr Theatre and see the live musical version of Amelie, the 2001 fantastical romantic comedy film about a mischievous Parisienne who meddles winsomely in the lives of strangers.

Or I can just wait until next year, when the musical version of Disney’s Frozen opens.

All of these musical productions are, as the say on Broadway, “packing them in”. If they’re all as witty and well-acted as Groundhog Day – and I’m not much of a musical theatre aficionado, so that’s the only one I’ve seen – then theatregoers and visitors to New York City have an almost can’t-lose proposition in front of them: throw a dart at the Broadway listings, buy a ticket to whatever show the dart chooses, and you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy yourself.

You’re also almost guaranteed to see the musical theatre version of a film you’ve probably already seen, and in the case of the Disney musicals, if you have children, seen many, many times, and heard many more times coming from iPads and television screens wherever bored children are gathered. There’s something slightly disconcerting about all of this re-purposing and adapting, from the screen to the stage. Great plays and musicals used to take risks – in subject matter, musical form, racy dialogue – and the movies would come stumbling afterward, trying to create a more broadly-appealing, slightly sanitised big screen adaptation. These days, alas, audiences pay extravagant prices to see Broadway musicals that recreate as closely as possible the plot, characters and dialogue from the cinema original. The trick is no longer to surprise ticket buyers or catch them off guard. Broadway, unfortunately, seems fixated on delivering exactly what you expect, only slightly louder and with music and dancing.

The most astonishing moments of Groundhog Day – which was, I must admit, a thoroughly terrific experience – were spent watching how the company re-created some of my favourite scenes from the original picture.

Which is, again, not exactly a fair criticism, as a friend of mine who is connected with the current production of Groundhog Day made clear to me when I rather tediously (his words) made that point over dinner. In the first place, he informed me, it was unforgivably rude to accept free tickets to a Broadway show and then, at dinner later with one of its supporters, start mouthing off a lot of nonsense about “originality” and “the end of Broadway”.

I pointed out that I fully intended to pay for his dinner – which I hadn’t, up until that moment, but how was he to know? And then he countered by asking me to list, if I could, all of the works of poetry, drama, literature and history that came directly from the Trojan War. Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil ... and then I lost count. But I understood his basic point. No one who heard The Odyssey, millennia ago, didn’t know already how the story went. No one wondered if in this particular Odyssey, the hero Odysseus doesn’t get home. No one, in other words, who sat back after dinner to hear The Odyssey wanted to be surprised.

“Wait,” I said, not wanting to give in. “Are you comparing Groundhog Day to The Odyssey?”

My friend shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Wait 3,000 years and see if it lasts.”

“And what about School of Rock?” I asked.

On that we agreed: probably not going to last 3,000 years. I remained unconvinced of his basic point, but agreed to buy dinner anyway because friends with free Broadway tickets are friends worth keeping.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles

On Twitter: @rcbl

Updated: April 21, 2017 04:00 AM



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