Danny Rubin on Writing ‘Groundhog Day’ for the Stage, Sans Bill Murray

Between 'Amelie,' and 'Anastasia,' 'Waitress' and 'School of Rock,' there’s been a recent glut of musicals on Broadway adapted from well-loved films. While taking your story from a movie that already exists, especially one with a pre-existing fan base may seem like a shortcut, it presents unique challenges for the people trying to bring it to stage: how can you change the tone of the movie enough so that the musical feels fresh (and the songs seem natural) but not so much that you lose whatever made the film a classic? How do you surprise the audience while still giving them their favorite moments?

Danny Rubin (right) with Tim Minchin Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty

Between Amelie, and Anastasia, Waitress and School of Rock, there’s been a recent glut of musicals on Broadway adapted from well-loved films. While taking your story from a movie that already exists, especially one with a pre-existing fan base may seem like a shortcut, it presents unique challenges for the people trying to bring it to stage: how can you change the tone of the movie enough so that the musical feels fresh (and the songs seem natural) but not so much that you lose whatever made the film a classic? How do you surprise the audience while still giving them their favorite moments?

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For Danny Rubin that challenge was a personal one: he was challenged with writing the book for the movie he wrote over two decades ago, a film so beloved and well-known its become his calling card: Groundhog Day.

To hear it described, the premise of Groundhog Day seems ripe for the stage: a self-centered man trapped in the hell of reliving the same day over and over again, an existential nightmare. But the adaptation from Harold Ramis, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell took on a slightly fairytale quality: you wouldn’t be incorrect to characterize it as a romantic comedy.

And so Rubin took on the task, along with songwriter Tim Minchin of expanding the universe of the movie: recapturing its tongue-in-cheek tone but adding new depth, particularly by pointing the camera, occasionally, towards the residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania whereas Bill Murray’s charisma accounted for most of the movie’s screen time. The musical gives a full ballad to Nancy, the blonde woman whose movie counterpart was mere eye-candy, and Rita pokes fun at the damsel in distress trope with the song “One Day.” Even Ned Ryerson (Ned? Ned Ryerson!) gets a little more shading to his character. The result is heartwarming and complicated, with a dark and slightly dissonant score that will force you to listen on YouTube again and again, long after you’ve left the theater.

After a run in London with eight Olivier award nominations, Groundhog Day the musical came to Broadway, opening March 9 at the August Wilson Theater. We talked to Danny Rubin about his most famous film’s legacy, and the journey of seeing it put on stage.

Observer: So I heard you were actually pre-med in college before you decided to become a writer. 

Danny Rubin: My intention was always a broad education. I wanted to get educated. I felt like I was an idiot from the southern school system; I just wanted to join everybody else, catch up. So that was my intent and it turned out biology had fewer distribution requirements than other things, so I just took everything that I had heard of: psychology and economics and history, and writing, and other things I didn’t get in high school. and then at some point I made a determination: my dad’s a doctor, and I was into the science thing and then I just sort of thought it was a decent option and then at one point I was just thinking back to a movie my dad and I had gone to see, might have been called The Interns, and it was set in a medical school, and the first year residents put on a sketch comedy show that makes fun of their teachers at the end of the year and I realize at the end that my interest in being a doctor was so I can be in that show. I wanted to be part of the comedy review.

So how did you go from there to writing screenplays?

I had applied for work in educational media—I kind of thought I wanted some variation on working in the media, working in film or something, where the idea was for me to learn something and then reinterpret it for somebody else, I thought that was a process that felt simpatico. I wound up becoming interested in an internship at WTTW in Chicago, and it was one of those things where a lot of the interns actually got hired at the end of the year, I thought it was a good path for me. And there were 500 applicants for 2 spots, and I came in third. And the producers called me in, and they say, “Don’t feel bad about it. We thought you were overqualified, and actually, your application was so well-written, you should just be a writer.” And I didn’t really have any other choices, because I was so determined to  get that internship that I went, “Okay.”

And I printed up business cards that said I was a writer, I started talking to people about getting work in industrial writing in Chicago, and I did, and all of a sudden I was a writer, and I thought, Gee, I guess if I’m a writer I should get better at this. And I wrote a one-act play just to try it out and applied to a one-act plays festival competition at the Practical Theater Company and I got in and they produced my thing and they invited me to join the company afterward and things led to things.

How did Groundhog Day get produced?

I had already written another screenplay and sold it, so all of a sudden my existence in Chicago was behind me and it was time to move forward, so I said, “Great. I’m a screenwriter now, that’s what I’m doing.” And so I moved to Los Angeles, and my agent said you need to write something else quickly because everybody has already read the first one. It was called, Hear No Evil—it got made as Hear No Evil, when I wrote it it was called Silencer, it was about bad guys chasing a deaf woman. That’s what it was. And so I was looking for something I could write quickly and brainstorm I came up with the Groundhog Day thing and I wrote it really quickly and got it out there, and then that script got me other writing jobs—I got two writing jobs before anything else happened, and then `it eventually landed on the desk of Harold Ramis who said, “I can make this,” and that’s what happened.

What was the biggest change between your original draft and the film that got made? 

The biggest change is that it started in the middle. I begin with him already in the repetition, already knowing what the radio was going to say when he woke up, and knowing what Mrs. Lancaster was going to say, and slugging Ned Ryerson—and at that point we didn’t know who he was or why he slugged him he just did that through the entire movie until the very end he sort of goes, “Wow, it’s like a war that’s been going on so long you don’t even know why you’ve been fighting it.” So he stops and asks him, and tries to remember who he was, and as soon as he does he slugs him again. Oh right, this guy. It was my way of saying no matter how developed you are, there are some people who are just obnoxious, and Phil is still human after all. Harold felt like it was time to turn a corner and so he created some closure on that idea. I also had a voiceover, which was necessary to guide the audience. Once we began earlier and told the story in a more linear way from the beginning, that didn’t become necessary and we took it out.

Were there things from the movie that you sought out to change in the musical? Mistakes to fix?

I kind of saw it in a general way, as a second chance, just to have the final arbiter of taste be me. So the jokes were mine and the level of humor was mine, but other than that, I wasn’t trying to fix anything, I loved the movie and I was happy just to find a way to adapt it to the stage as a way of revisiting it, and for me personally, revisiting it twenty years later. I knew it was great material, and it had obviously sunk its talons into the general public, and so I wanted to acknowledge that and move it another step deeper, another step forward, and making it a musical was a good way to do  that because when you sing, you can sing deeper emotions and get at more profound thoughts.

Curtain call after the Broadway premiere of “Groundhog Day” Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The Phil in the musical isn’t really similar to Bill Murray—he’s like a difference genre of asshole. 

Had to do that. Well, didn’t have to, it was a choice. The question on the table was how do you adapt Bill Murray, and the first answer is you can’t because Bill Murray is his character in that film is a very laconic, terse commentator on the world and that’s not somebody who breaks into song. And so we needed to amp up the assholery a little bit.

On the other hand, it was also possible—I considered so many things, and among them, okay, what if we did keep that character? Then what would happen is he would be the only one who’s not singing, and in a way that’s sort of seductive too; everybody else around him is celebrating and singing and being part of this day and he doesn’t join in—he’s separate, he’s too cynical for that, he’s better than that. And in a way, that makes a very stark contrast for everyone to be setting up music for him to be not picking up and he just talks his way through, until he does achieve some level of truth and warmth and openness that allows him to sing, which would have been very emotionally satisfying but a musical with your leading man not singing all the way through might not appeal to everybody, and so we decided to go for something that also worked that maybe was a stronger choice.

We did a lot of work at the beginning to make sure nobody confused this with the movie. From the very start, we were trying to establish Andy Karl and his personality, and establish this was not the movie. It began differently and it felt different, and one minute into it, you’re not even thinking about Bill Murray, you’re just accepting this on its own terms.

How did you know Tim Minchin would be right for the project?

As soon as [director Matthew Warchus] called me and said “I think you’d like Tim Minchin, I think he’ll be good for the project,” and I looked him up. I didn’t know anything about Tim Minchin, and watched his YouTube videos, of which there are many, and fell in love with him immediately. I mean, who wouldn’t? But he has many of the sensibilities that I wanted for the musical and many that I already have. His songs were very funny but they were also truthful and warm in a way that was deceptively simple, and tuneful and yet not cloying—they were still original—which is a trick. His wordsmithery was unbelievably sharp, and he could land a joke perfectly in a musical place, and I’m a songwriter and I appreciate the ability to do that. And just in general, he seemed like a genuine person who was being honest with himself and with the world, and yet able to interpret it in this delightful and entertaining way, which again, is my territory. I think he does it better, but it’s my territory. And then when I saw Matilda, I was convinced these guys could do a musical that didn’t feel like a traditional razzamatazz Broadway musical and yet still brought you in and did everything musical theater should do. And so I was just delighted by the opportunity to work with these guys.

The musical includes some really nice feminist moments, particularly the song “Playing Nancy.” Was that something you were conscious of trying to achieve? 

None of the characters other than Phil felt like they had much to do in the movie, which was fine, the movie was great, but I always felt like the Rita character needed a third dimension, and I wanted the other characters in the town to come forward as much as we could bring them. So when Phil turns a corner and it stops being all about Phil, for the audience it also stops being all about Phil—we get our lesson and realize, oh, we’ve on;y been focused on his ego as well and there are other people in this town, and they also have points of view. and in some ways, I was reflecting what I learned from 20 years of having people watch the movie and tell me their reactions to it, this phenomenon of being stuck in a situation is not unique to Phil, and I wanted to bring that out. So it was really in Tim’s hands. We had talked about these things and we shared his values, but when Tim wrote the Rita song, “One Day,” it was, to the degree that Harold Ramis interpreted the story as a fairytale and Andy McDowell played the fairytale princess, what Tim did was take a modern-day Rita and in a way have her reflect on the idea of a fairytale and what that means to be a contemporary woman today and their relationship to that fairytale which still persists in our culture. so that was the general intent of going after her character.

Going after Nancy—it was a joined idea that Tim and I had for wanting to be a little bit meta. We wanted the show to reach a little bit deeper into the audience than just be on the stage, and this was Tim’s attempt at that, which he accomplished really well. He created a song for a character who was not one of the major characters to show that she had a point of view, and she did it in the way that it was ambiguous whether she was singing about being an actress playing the role of Nancy or being a person, Nancy, who plays a character based on the way she looks based on the way we all play a character in society. And we wound up putting it at the beginning of the second act because it was that perfect crux between are we watching an actor playing a part or are we watching the person in the role. It also became subversive, because we’re part of the accelerated story of Phil’s descent and that’s what we’re paying attention to and this kind of slaps us in the face and says, Wake up, there are other people in this town, there are other things going on, be prepared for a second act that takes you there.

What did you like about Andy Karl [the actor playing Phil]?

Every-fucking-thing. Andy played every bit of the role brilliantly, he was able to do the asshole Phil who we love to hate, someone who is despicable and yet magnetic, and that’s something that Bill Murray was able to do and we needed our Phil to be able to do that. And then he has to go to a level of sincerity and truth and openness that we really believe. A lot of actors can’t pull that off—they can play sincere but you feel they’re playing it. Andy is able to do it. WE didn’t realize at the time, physical stamina is important too—he’s moving almost constantly, he’s singing almost everywhere, he’s on the stage almost all the time. It’s a very demanding role. And in the end, honestly a very nice guy. Not ego-driven, very generous to the cast members, he’ll work twice as hard as everybody else, and because he did the show in London he knew the show in ways the New York cast didn’t, and he was able to bring them along. He’s just been great in every way.

Has becoming so well-known for a single film been something of a blessing and a curse?

Yeah, like you said, both of those things. I appreciated it, always, I always thought it was the best possible project I could be identified with, if you’re only identified with one thing, it’s better for it not to be Porky’s 4. And so I’ve always thought it was an opportunity for me. Doors open because of Groundhog Day. People feel so much joy for it. I can meet with anybody, business-wise, because of it, they’ll listen to me. I’ve been invited to meet people and to speak and to travel as a result. And so while it’s been very frustrating that I’ve been writing a lot of projects that I’ve felt were at least as good, they sit on my shelf or they get bought and sit on somebody else’s shelf and don’t get made and that’s a frustration, but I balance that against all the people who are struggling just to get in the door or who have never had this satisfaction, and I can’t fault any of this. It’s been a very nice ride.

Danny Rubin on Writing ‘Groundhog Day’ for the Stage, Sans Bill Murray