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Looking Back on Groundhog Day

By Jordan Levinson

Is it a squirrel? Is it a beaver? (Kinda both, but not quite either!)

That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers, Thursday, February 2 is Groundhog Day! Though it is not considered a federal holiday, many Americans turn their attention to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where its famed groundhog, Phil, will either see his shadow or not at sunrise. If so, that means six more weeks of winter, and if not, spring may just be around the corner. 

The last pre-COVID Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania

Punxsutawney gained immense popularity when the town’s annual Groundhog Day celebrations were captured in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. The story of an arrogant TV weatherman (also named Phil) forced to relive the same day over and over until he learns to better himself, it has become one of the most successful comedy films ever, with several quotes now entrenched in the American pop culture lexicon. 

Crowd perspective of Gobbler’s Knob — the site of the Groundhog Day ceremony

As early as 2003, there were initial talks of potentially adapting Groundhog Day for the stage — Stephen Sondheim was interested at first but ultimately decided to back out, stating that “it could not be improved.” The year 2014 linked a new trio to a potential musical version: composer-lyricist Tim Minchin, librettist Danny Rubin (who also wrote the film’s screenplay, and had been working on a musical version for years at that point), and director Matthew Warchus. Minchin and Warchus were reunited after their Matilda became a smash hit in London and New York.

Bill Murray as Phil Connors in the 1993 film “Groundhog Day”

Groundhog Day, The Musical was officially confirmed in 2015. It was announced it would play London’s Old Vic Theatre in the summer of 2016, during Warchus’s debut season as their artistic director. Andy Karl led the company as Phil. Opening night was on August 16, 2016; reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The musical received two 2017 Olivier Awards, including best new musical.

Andy Karl and Carlyss Peer as Connors and Rita Hanson in the 2016 Old Vic production of Groundhog Day

It was announced in September 2016 that Groundhog Day would transfer to Broadway, succeeding the long-running Jersey Boys at the August Wilson Theatre. Karl would reprise his role and find himself surrounded by an all-new cast. 

Karl and Barrett Doss as Connors and Hanson in the 2017 Broadway production of Groundhog Day

First preview was set for March 16, 2017, but 15 minutes in that evening, there was a problem with the revolving stage (a crucial part of the show’s set design) and the show had to be continued as a “concert version” for the rest of the performance. 

The musical made unfortunate headlines when Karl tore his ACL mid-performance just three days before Groundhog Day’s scheduled opening night, but despite his injury, he would return for the official opening on April 17, 2017, receiving raves once again, along with the show itself. “A star is born (and born and born),” Ben Brantley of The New York Times praised, “Karl is so outrageously inventive in ringing changes on the same old, same old, that you can’t wait for another (almost identical) day to dawn.”  

Groundhog Day was nominated for seven 2017 Tonys, including best musical. However, in what proved to be an extremely stacked 2016-17 Broadway season for new musicals — a climate that also included Dear Evan Hansen, Come from Away, and Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 — it walked away empty-handed. As it also competed against family fare like Anastasia and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as star-studded revivals of Hello, Dolly! and Sunset Boulevard, ticket sales began gradually slipping after the Tony ceremony, and a September 17, 2017 closing date was announced in mid-August. Groundhog Day shuttered after 31 previews and just 176 regular performances.

A Broadway cast recording was released during the show’s opening week. It shows Minchin taking the form of a fine musical chameleon, utilizing countless styles to make up his score. Highlights include the yearning group ballad “There Will Be Sun” (in which the Punxsutawnians pine for spring to arrive), the rollicking hillbilly anthem “Nobody Cares” (in which Phil goes drunk-driving with two other drunkards stuck in a rut, upon realizing they all have no future), the tap-happy delight “Philanthropy” (where Phil performs random acts of good for various townspeople), and the gorgeous finale “Seeing You” (where Phil shares a tender moment at a bachelor auction with the associate producer he has gotten to know very well across many Groundhog Days, yet it feels like he has just met her for the first time).

The musical served as a launchpad for many of its Broadway cast members. Karl led Pretty Woman a year later and was most recently seen in the revival of Into the Woods. Barrett Doss, who played Rita Hanson (the associate producer) is one of the leads on the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Station 19.” Andrew Call — Karl’s understudy — is the current Orin Scrivello in Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors.

As for the ensemble, Taylor Iman Jones is the current Catherine Parr in SIX. Gerard Canonico was in Be More Chill and recently played Dick Roswell in Almost Famous. Rheaume Crenshaw can soon be seen in Shucked, and Vishal Vaidya will appear in a forthcoming revival of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Raymond J. Lee will soon feature in Once Upon a One More Time, as Heather Ayers (recently seen in Off-Broadway’s Between the Lines) tours the country as the adult women in Mean Girls.

It was announced in early December 2022 that Groundhog Day would return to the Old Vic in the summer of 2023, with Karl once again reprising his role and Warchus’s staging still intact. Opening night is set for June 8, and tickets are on sale now. 

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Stage-to-Screen Best Picture Nominees

By Jordan Levinson

On Tuesday, the nominees will be announced for the 95th annual Academy Awards. There have been many Best Picture nominees and winners throughout Oscar history that have been based on plays and musicals; this article will shine a light on some of them:

During the Academy’s early history, around 8-12 films were nominated for Best Picture every year, and plays proved to be popular source material. In fact, there was at least one nominee most every year in the 1930s and early 1940s that used recent plays as its basis. When there were only three Best Picture nominees for the very first Oscars in 1927/28, two of them — 7th Heaven and The Racket — were play adaptations from earlier in the decade. The first Best Picture winner that started as a work of theatre was 1931/32’s Grand Hotel. Based on a 1930 drama by screenplay writer William A. Drake, it remains to this day the only Best Picture winner to not be nominated in any other category. 

Grand Hotel

Other notable nominees during this era were based on dramas, like 1932/33 winner Cavalcade (based on Noël Coward’s historical play), 1936 nominee Dodsworth, 1939 nominee Dark Victory, and 1940 nominee Our Town (which currently has a Broadway revival in development, on track for the 2023-24 season). Early comedies were also popular fare, like 1938 winner You Can’t Take It with You, 1940 nominee and rom com The Philadelphia Story, and 1932/33 nominee She Done Him Wrong, starring Mae West and Cary Grant. The first musical adaptation to garner a Best Picture nomination was 1934’s Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers charmer The Gay Divorcee

The Gay Divorcee

As the 1940s rolled on, Lillian Hellman got some Oscar love, with 1941 and 1943 nominees The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine having been based on her plays. 1943 was also the last time until 2010 that there would be more than 5 nominees for Best Picture; the winner that year happened to be the classic Casablanca, based on the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Because of this new nomination limit, that created a lesser chance that play-based material could be up for Best Picture. 1948 and 1949 drama nominees Johnny Belinda and The Heiress were among the only non-Shakespearean works to be up for top honors. 

A Streetcar Named Desire

The 1950s were Tennessee Williams’s time to shine in filmland, with his A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof all receiving top-honor nods. That decade was also a good time be a drama, as works like Witness for the Prosecution, Picnic, and The Diary of Anne Frank were well-represented in their respective awards years. 

West Side Story (1961)

The next decade proved to be a golden age for the movie musical. West Side Story, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Funny Girl, and Hello, Dolly! were all based on smash-hit Broadway tuners; three of them won Best Picture. The ‘60s also saw a renewed interest in historical works, like 1964’s nominated Becket and ’66 victor A Man for All Seasons. The year 1968 was the first time since 1955 that at least 3 out of 5 of the Best Picture nominees were originally seen on stage. 

Cabaret

Though the early 1970s saw a couple more successful nominated musicals — Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof — aside from them, theatre was starting to be represented less and less (and likewise, novels, disaster movies, and thrillers much more) in the running for Best Picture, a trend that continues today. 

Amadeus

The dramedy Driving Miss Daisy and the Mozart bio-drama Amadeus won Best Picture in the 1980s, with another bio-drama and family drama — The Elephant Man and On Golden Pond — getting nominations. By the time the ‘90s came, theatre representation was vastly nonexistent amongst Best Picture nominees, with 1992’s A Few Good Men serving as the sole nod of the decade. 

Chicago

However, with what the 21st century has showed us so far, there is much optimism for the future of theatre-based films at the Oscars. 2003 saw Rob Marshall’s Chicago become the first musical to win Best Picture in 35 years, with War Horse, Les Misérables, Fences, The Father, and the acclaimed West Side Story remake all getting nominated in the 2010s and 2020s thus far. 

This year’s nominations will be announced at 8:30 AM ET and will be available via global livestream on Oscar.com and on their social media platforms, as well as a Good Morning America / ABC News Live telecast from the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills at the same time. Tune in — you don’t want to miss it.