I rarely win games of chance. Lotteries are not my friends. Raffles laugh in my face. Despite that, I love chance, serendipity, four-leaf clover type moments. Those things that you never expect to happen; and perhaps didn't even know you wanted.
As I say often, I LOVE going to shows during previews (the performances before official Opening Night, and a period during which the show is generally being fine-tuned). I especially love going to a show during previews, and then going back after it's ‟frozen” (generally, no more changes). It's absolutely fascinating to experience a show as it grows up :). Songs may come and go, scenes get modified, performers evolve their roles.
Groundhog Day, the new musical based on the 1993 Bill Murray film, started previews last night. Sort of. To my elfish surprise, I won, actually, WON, two tickets to the first preview! They dedicated the first performance to filling the house with winners of tickets and some social media folks, and the producers were there as well. It was set to be a grand night for fans. Spoiler alert: it was. GRAND.
The composer of Groundhog Day is musician, actor, lyricist, Tim Minchin, of Matilda The Musical fame (for which he won the Olivier Award and was Tony-nominated), and that prompted my friends and I to grab tickets to see the show in London last September. A very good decision; we loved it.
Fast forward 6 months, cross the Atlantic, and it's the first Broadway preview. The show starts, and I settle in, remembering how strongly the opening number pulled me in, and how the staging, using a turntable, so appropriately represents the turning of the clock. And then it happened. A critical failure of the set effectively stopped all 5 turntables from their appointed rounds (blame me for that pun). Punksutawny Phil was not having a good day.
From the angle we were seated, we could see a little unsteadiness the first time the all-important set piece of Phil Connors' Punksutawny guest house bedroom slide onto the stage, and stage hands were briefly visible as they adjusted the structure. It was not obtrusive, and most of the audience likely didn't see it. But about 15 minutes into the first act, the house lights went up, and the actors were asked to leave the stage.
A very calm announcement of a technical issue was made, and the house lights were again dimmed. We chatted amongst ourselves in the darkened house, and after a bit, a scrim lowered to cover the stage. Clearly, this was not going to be a quick fix. Having seen the show before, I was pretty sure that an inoperable turntable would doom the performance (no spoilers as to why :)), but it never occurred to me that they wouldn't get it working. My friend and show companion, Laura Heywood (@BroadwayGirlNYC, check her out on Twitter, and AOL's Build Series interviews!), commented that, if they couldn't get it fixed, they should continue the show in concert form at least. Smart woman. More about that in a minute.
Meanwhile, another announcement; this time from director Matthew Warchus himself (the crowd cheered just hearing his voice and knowing he was in the room). Matthew explained the fluke nature of what had happened, and that they were continuing to try to fix the issue, but they'd never had this particular problem. It might take some time, he said, enough time for the show to buy every single person in the audience a free drink! Cheers rose and, not surprisingly, a mad rush for the bars ensued. It was a most convivial crowd; I think we were all enjoying being part of the unexpected. The producers mingled, and the merchandise stand definitely benefited (despite a lack of a plush Punksutawny Phil! What's up with that??). After about 30 minutes, we were summoned back to our seats, and Matthew Warchus, Andy Karl (who plays Phil Connors) and producer Trevor Albert came on stage to tell us that the show could not continue [and, by the way, bad news just seems not so bad when delivered in a British accent]...BUT, we would all be given complimentary tickets to another preview performance of our choice! That really wasn't the best part. Free drink-good. Free ticket-good. A continuation of the show that night in concert form?-pricelessly great. They would do the rest of Act I with as much dialogue as possible, and then go through the main 5 songs in Act II. Yep, Laura called it!
The audience was, judging from the cheers, thrilled. And for good reason. We all knew this was unprecedented, and a chance to see a completely unique version of the show. When the scrim rose, all the various seating that could be corralled from the set was now filled with the cast in two rows that filled the stage side to side. They started from the point they'd left off in Act 1, with both dialogue, miming of action, and songs. It was truly amazing to watch this show come to life in a one-of-a-kind incarnation; it seemed spontaneous, joyful, and somehow fully itself. One of my favorite parts was the reaction of the cast members as they watched each other's performances. At one point, some of the second row stood up, or craned their necks and leaned over to see what was getting such a laugh from the audience. Andy Karl gave a fantastic performance; sublime physical comedy and his heart on his sleeve. Thc close of Act I got a standing ovation, and Act II featured Matthew Warchus coming on stage to set the context for the various songs. Not to be forgotten is the incredible job done by the sound and light crews, who spun on a dime to adapt to a show with virtually no set and no props. Truly amazing.
Last night was filled with all of the things I adore about live theater. Every single time a show is performed is different, not just the ones where the stars don't align, because the infinite combination of cast, audience, happenstance, weather, et al, make a new soup each time. As Phil Connors learned, no day is exactly the same, because you are not exactly the same. Do not ever underestimate your contribution to the show you're seeing as you sit in that theater. Every single cast member at the stage door was overwhelmed by the audience reaction, and willingness to take the ride with them. They talked about facing the unexpected, the pride in the proof that the show and story can stand alone, the joy at seeing their fellow cast members' performances (that they would not normally get the chance to experience), and the gratitude to the audience. I wouldn't have changed a thing.
Punksutawny...it's a helluva town. And it's got an awesome groundhog (musical).
Thanks to every single show person (cast, creative, producers, theater bartenders, marketing team) last night who kept smiling, kept calm and gave us a Broadway night to remember.
UPDATE: Andy Karl shared his thoughts on the evening here, and more details on the evening are in this Playbill article.
Here are some pics to capture the moments: