Danny Rubin Turns the Screenplay for Groundhog Day into a Musical Hit

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Danny Rubin Turns the Screenplay for <i>Groundhog Day</i> into a Musical Hit

Ever feel trapped in some kind of time warp where every day feels repetitive? Welcome to Danny Rubin’s world. Rubin collaborated with director Harold Ramis on the original 1993 script for the cult classic film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

And Rubin has turned that script into the book of the musical version of Groundhog Day, that stars Andy Karl. It opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway on April 17, 2017 after an initial run at the Old Vic Theatre in London. On May 2, Rubin was nominated for a Tony Award for best book, and Groundhog Day as best musical.
The musical focuses on weatherman Phil Connors (played expertly by Andy Karl) who is stuck in the hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pa, where a Groundhog Day ceremony takes place for the media. The day repeats itself, and Connors can’t free himself from the everydayness of a series of recurring events: an alarm waking him up, meeting local residents trapped in the same conversations and wooing his colleague Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss).

Ben Brantley noted in his New York Times review that Groundhog Day on Broadway “re-imagines a much-loved film about instant karma with such fertile and feverish theatrical imagination that you expect it to implode before your eyes. It is Phil’s journey more than his destination that makes ‘Groundhog Day’ such a joy on the road to self-discovery.”
Rubin, who is 60-years-old and resides in Sante Fe, N.M., started out as a biology major at Brown University, before graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in film, television and film. Here’s what Rubin said about what sparked the original script and making the transition to the Broadway stage.

Paste: You and Harold Ramis collaborated on the original film. What sparked the idea?
Rubin: I wrote it as an original screenplay. It was a year after I finished it that it landed on Harold’s desk. I was thinking about immortality. If a person could live long enough, maybe they could grow up. For some people, one life doesn’t seem to be enough. It felt to me like a worthy story experiment, but a cumbersome one to make a movie of it. I realized I could get immortality by having the same day repeated.

Paste: Phil Connors starts out as a very cynical character but changes. How so?
Rubin: I put myself in the position of Phil. What would it be like to be repeating this day? It would go in stages. All he wanted to do was escape and get out. When he realized, he couldn’t, he’d be depressed. But then it gave him a kind of freedom. He realized he could do anything he wanted. After awhile, it gets old and tired. He doesn’t know what to move on to, beyond this hedonistic, self-centered existence and winds up getting so depressed that he has to kill himself. Then he can’t even escape that way. After he completely empties himself, he concluded he must be some kind of a god. And he realized that even if he is a God, it doesn’t change his situation. He still has to deal with the day. At this point, he starts to refill the vessel. His ego is gone, and he now refills it and he learns a language, learns to play the piano and explore culture. And he becomes empathetic and joins the community around him.

Paste: He finally learns something about himself. What exactly was it?
Rubin: Living the same day every day forces him to notice things that he didn’t notice before. Once he got out of his own way and stops it being about himself all the time, he was open to seeing other people. And his relationships change.

Paste: What sparked turning it into a musical?
Rubin: Originally, I thought it was such a strong and original way of telling a story, that it would deserve retelling in a variety of media. I’ve also written songs and loved musical theatre and saw this as an opportunity to try that out. I’d been working on it for several years when I got director Matthew Warchus’ call. Dozens of people had contacted me over the years. This time it was a wonderful confluence of timing, taste and perception. And he suggested composer Tim Minchin and I saw that he had the perfect sensibility.

Paste: Describe the major alterations you had to make to turn a film script into theatre.
Rubin: I had to take into consideration the fact that it was written for film, which included montage, and the magic of the film to reset. I had to also balance out the Rita character and give her more dimension and more to do and had to build the character of other people in the town.

Paste: How did you weave Minchin’s music into the script?
Rubin: I never thought of it as having music interrupted. I see a musical as a story told through song, just like a film is told through images. And so it became how do you build the story through song, and not rely too much on spoken dialogue?

Paste: Ultimately, what is the musical “Groundhog Day” about?
Rubin: Everyone who has seen it comes away with a very different interpretation. One thing I noticed is this notion of sight and blindness. The things that were available to Phil when he was happy and living a great day, were the exact same things available to him on the first day when he felt suspended. We all go through our life with things we see and don’t see. And what we need to have a better day might already be available.