Hollywood to Broadway – Groundhog Day

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Groundhog Day (1993)
The Broadway Show:
Groundhog Day, opened on April 17, 2017

As usual, I find myself confessing some deep dark movie sins on this blog and here’s another one to add to the list. Ok…here we go. Promise you’ll still like me after? No turning back now… Until recently, I wasn’t a fan of Groundhog Day.

Are you still there?

Good…thank you for sticking around.

Y’see, I think Groundhog Day was originally sold to 13 year old me as the kind of comedy that would have me rolling in the aisles at Bill Murray’s crazy antics as a cranky weatherman that falls into a vortex of having to repeat the same day in an endless loop. The trouble was, the comedy ran deeper than surface gags and one-liners and there was a sadness to it all that I just didn’t understand at that time. Coming back to it as an adult, I found the film to be a real delight with a dynamic craftsmanship most modern conceptual comedies could only dream of.

As Phil Connors, Murray is in top form as the over-it-all newscaster seemingly slumming it reporting from Philadelphia on whether good ‘ole Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow and foretell six more weeks of winter. Waking up the next day with an eerie sense of déjà vu, Phil eventually realizes he’s stuck re-living the same day over and over and over and over and over again with no way to break the cycle. Along the way he becomes an expert piano player and learns French. Eventually he tests the limits of his “power” and experiments with what life would be like as a jerk or as a nice guy, finally overcoming his mythological torture when he gets things right. Murray had good support from Andie MacDowell who feels like a good straight man to Murray’s particular type of comedy…and who can forget Stephen Tobolowsky’s nebbish Ned? Directed by Murray’s frequent collaborator, the late Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day is one of those near perfect comedic treats that works across multiple age-groups, even if the humor was lost on me as a teen.

 

Unbelievable as it sounds, the one and only Stephen Sondheim was the first composer who showed an interest in bringing Groundhog Day to the stage but by the time the musical premiered at The Old Vic in London last year, the composer was Tim Minchin. Minchin is a well-known Australian comedian that found success back in 2010 with his adaptation of Matilda. Having recently seen Matilda, I knew that Minchin favored tricky lyrics and music that wasn’t always hummable…but that Down Under style of comedy seemed like a great fit with Groundhog Day’s structure and it turns out I was right.

While I literally couldn’t relay a bar of music I heard in Groundhog Day if you paid me $10K, the show was constructed so well and performed so effortlessly that I have to give great credit to the creative time that saw this one through to the finish line. It’s fascinating to me that a show so American would have its successful world premiere in London (it won the Olivier Award for Best Musical) but perhaps producers thought if they could be a hit in the UK then a US run would be a slam dunk. Nominated for 7 Tony Awards, Groundhog Day started performances at the tail end of a solid year of new musicals so it faces an uphill battle on Tony night for most of the categories it’s nominated in. One category up for grabs , though, is Best Actor and while I haven’t seen star Andy Karl’s biggest competition (Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hanson), Karl is downright beloved in the Broadway community and would surely deserve the honor. Coming back from a potentially sidelining injury during previews is sure to garner more goodwill (if not an outright sympathy vote) but what Karl’s doing onstage is pretty exemplary work. Phil is one of those classic musical characters we shouldn’t be rooting for but wind up cheering on and that’s thanks almost entirely to Karl’s genuine performance as a man that turns a corner after reaching multiple dead ends.

Minchin’s music and lyrics blend nicely with Danny Rubin’s faithful adaptation of his screenplay, only making minor adjustments that translate better to the stage. Karl’s co-stars are all solid, though a song for a local babe that opens Act 2 feels extraneous. Kudos also to the director and choreographer for making some enjoyable sleight of hand stage magic to get Karl back to the beginning of his day in increasingly creative ways.

Though it’s housed in the beautiful August Wilson Theater with its quaint (read: too small!) seats, this feels like a show that might work better on tour in Middle America. I’m not sure the entire production with its multiple turntables and high tech LED displays would easily transition to a bus and truck road show and it does need a star performance to anchor the evening…but if it comes to your neck of the woods give it a shot.

Check out my look at Sunset Boulevard!
Check out my look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

 

Hollywood to Broadway – Sunset Boulevard

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Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The Broadway Show:
Sunset Boulevard, opened on February 9, 2017

You don’t get more Hollywood than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Released in 1950, the movie was a scathing bite at the Tinsel Town hand that fed the majority of the people involved. Nowadays there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than patting itself on the back and showering movies about the film industry with plaudits (hello, La La Land!) but back when Sunset Boulevard arrived not many industry people were immediately lining up to sing its praises as an insider’s look into the studio system. Nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, the movie was up against some stiff competition (All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride) and wound up winning just three: Art Direction, Screenplay, and Franz Waxman justly took home gold for his haunting score.

Even if over the years Gloria Swanson’s unhinged fading silent film star would be fodder for parody from the likes of Carol Burnett, the picture remains oddly timely and still a strikingly beautiful film. Filled with unforgettable moments such as Swanson’s creepy crawl toward the screen as it fades to black, it’s an unqualified classic that earns its place as one of Hollywood’s crown jewels of filmmaking. It’s also a pleasure to see legends such as Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton play themselves, further blurring the line between reality and fiction.

I was barely a teenager in 1993 when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard premiered in London. I’m not even going to go into its troubled path behind the scenes involving lawsuits from two divas (Patti LuPone & Faye Dunaway) who were both hired and fired before the show even premiered stateside. When the musical arrived in NYC in 1994 it easily won a host of Tony Awards including, among others, Best Musical, Best Actress for Glenn Close, and another for its gargantuan set designed by John Napier. The sheer size of the production was legendary but made it difficult to recoup its investment so it didn’t wind up being the true smash it could have been. Even a touring production folded quickly due to the constraints of such a behemoth making the move from theater to theater on a weekly basis. Subsequent productions scaled back the proceedings (one even had its actors playing their own instruments…shudder!) but it wasn’t until 2016 when a semi-stage run in London with Close reprising her role that there was talk Broadway might get another trip down Sunset Boulevard.

I’ll admit the chief reason I planned my trip to NYC was for the chance to see Close in the role she will forever be identified with (at least onstage). Seeing Close, um, up close was too good of an opportunity to pass up and add to that a 40 piece orchestra in Broadway’s famed Palace Theatre and the writing was on the wall…I had to see it.

There’s no way to accurately describe the experience of seeing Sunset Boulevard the way I think it was meant to be seen, with its original leading lady and a grand orchestra in a scaled back production smartly restaged by director Lonny Price that may have been smaller set-wise but felt grandly operatic all the same. Removing the lavish set dressings allowed the music (some of it borrowed from Waxman’s original score) and the performances to be the justified stars of the show.

Handsome Brit Michael Xavier sports a spot-on American accent and handily takes on doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis while Swede Fred Johanson is imposing but loyal as Max, Norma’s chauffer – both men sing wonderfully. Price has assembled a well-oiled ensemble including one that plays a ghostly visage of a young Norma Desmond that haunts her elder self throughout the evening.

The show is all about Close, though, and she’s unforgettable. She already made for a thrilling Norma in 1994 (at least on CD) but seeing her take on the same role over 20 years later was revelatory. The voice isn’t always rock solid but these moments of grated fragility only add to the overall sadness of the character. From her first entrance to the goosebump-inducing finale, it’s impossible to look at anyone but Close because she’s always completely ‘in’ the scene even during the very few times where she’s not the focus.

Gloria Swanson and Glenn Close will both be remembered for their interpretations of Norma Desmond, and while Close’s original reading was just adjacent to Swanson’s screen performance in this revival she goes deeper and recreates the role from the ground up. It was everything I wanted and more – well worth the trip!