Rookie of the Year

Phil Connors Sees His Shadow

A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture, politics, music, videogames, travel, fatherhood and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed mercilessly while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect and sobriety. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #90. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Groundhog Day might be my favorite film ever. It was a no-brainer for me to see Groundhog Day The Musical on Broadway before everyone else and, sure enough, I scored tickets to the first preview performance on March 16.

The movie is just about as perfect as a movie can be. The first preview performance of the musical was the exact opposite – an epic disaster.

An epic, glorious disaster.

I should have seen the mess coming a mile away. First, in what admittedly was a bit of an impulse buy, I dropped two bills on the tickets, many months in advance, despite knowing nothing about the show and for the most part loathing musicals. But as the day of the preview approached, I got a strange email, the kind you could live a thousand lifetimes and never get from Ticketmaster:

Your tickets are still valid and your seats reserved, the email read, but they’re now free.

I’m still not 100% sure why a show I was willing to pay for gave me a refund, but it seems to have something to do with a last-minute ticket giveaway promotion. Perhaps they were afraid I’d find out the dude next to me got in for free and throw a fit. I might have, of course, but they didn’t know that.

Your tickets are still valid and your seats reserved, the email read, but they’re now free.

At any rate, The Wife of the Year and I made our way into the August Wilson Theatre amid a festive atmosphere. Clearly we were surrounded by the world’s most avid fans of the movie; some had come in costume.

We took a couple photos and then our seats. The show began. It was funny – a raunchier version of the film, with minor changes that didn’t deviate very much from the original. It added little value to the movie’s legacy, but didn’t make a mockery of it, either. I had stopped for a drink on the way, which helped. We both laughed. Spirits were high.

And then:

“Actors, please leave the stage,” came a disembodied voice over the PA.

The curtain closed. The crowd cheered. We were informed of technical difficulties and were asked for our patience. No biggie; this is what previews are for, after all, and seeing anything that breaks the fourth wall is, in some ways, the point of being there. After some time passed, though, we were told the issues still hadn’t been resolved . . . so we were invited into the lobby for a complimentary drink.

We raced for the bar.

At this point, my review of Groundhog Day The Musical was a solid five stars.

Eventually, we were asked to return to our seats, which we did with a couple sippy-cup glasses of Malbec. The house lights went dark, but instead of the curtain rising, the director came out on stage with the lead actors – and a microphone.

“This isn’t a good sign,” The Wife of the Year whispered.

And it wasn’t.

And, also, it was.

 The rotating stage – central to the frenetic switching of sets, key to the pacing of the show – had stopped working

Turns out, the rotating stage – central to the frenetic switching of sets, key to the pacing of the show – had stopped working, despite four previous issue-free run-throughs. No one could figure out why. Apparently, the producers of the previously London-based show were making frantic phone calls to the Netherlands seeking answers, but . . . nothing.

So a new plan was hatched: They’d finish the first act of the play, with all the regular live music and lighting from the full show, but with the actors sitting in chairs – a souped-up table reading.

It couldn’t have gone much better. The format led to a number of hijinks. Actors playing two parts were sometimes hilariously in the wrong costume. Missing props, like the famed alarm clock, were mimed and, on one occasion, described on the fly, mid-song. And the staging and dancing became improvised jokes on top of the written ones. The drunk, delirious, up-for-anything crowd ate it up.

And so did we.

By the time the first act ended, to a standing ovation, it was already getting late for a school night. So the second act was truncated – the cast sang a couple of the key songs and performed the final scene, with the missing plot points inserted into the gaps thanks to an apologetic but clutch narration by the director.

And then Groundhog Day The Musical, preview night one, ended. The director told a joke or two, then offered us all another set of tickets to come to a future preview. Free tickets to replace free tickets.

And, on the way out, we were handed GDTM tote bags and “First Preview Performance” buttons.

The director told a joke or two, then offered us all another set of tickets to come to a future preview. Free tickets to replace free tickets.

Is the musical any good? Well, we skipped through a lot of it, but the story is so well-worn it didn’t matter much. We laughed out loud at some of the old jokes and some of the new ones, too, but a few ideas just didn’t quite land. A theme song for Ned Ryerson’s insurance company? That was good. Giving Nancy Taylor a solo? While it might seem subversively funny in theory, in practice it took itself a bit too seriously. We left the theater happy, but not planning to rush back for the full performance once they got the stage fixed.

Still, that wasn’t really the takeaway. We went to the show hoping to at least not hate it, to enjoy some nostalgia and maybe, just maybe, have a little fun.

As it turned out, we saw live theater at its best and worst, all wrapped into one uniquely satisfying package.

We wouldn’t want to be stuck in that theater again – repeating the same chaos over and over and over – but for one bizarre evening at least, Groundhog Day The Musical was a total blast.

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Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.

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