Groundhog Day the Musical makes London the Out of Town Tryout
This week it was announced on Broadway that the new Cirque du Soleil show Paramour, which is the international circus troupe's first show created expressly for a Broadway audience, will go back to the drawing board and cancel a number of performances to make “creative changes.” The show, which is playing at the Lyric Theatre, one of the largest houses to fill, received mixed-to-negative reviews when it first opened, although has generally held its own with grosses and brought a different audience to the Broadway market.
Many shows, especially new musicals, have extended preview periods to work out any kinks in the material or production before facing the critical wrath. Whilst preview periods continue to be extended on both sides of the Atlantic with so much at stake for new work, it can often be harder for creative teams to address any issues in time to make sufficient changes that will go on to make the show stronger. Paramour may not be the first show to close mid-run in order to make significant changes -- Andrew Lloyd Webber brought in a new director to re-inject life into Love Never Dies following critical opinion, and Sunset Boulevard closed for a lick of paint and a new song, but with so much at stake preview periods and out-of-town try-outs are still the norm.
In days gone by the out-of-town tryout was vital for new musicals to be fine tuned and in many cases completely overhauled before reaching their official opening night. Almost every composer or collaborator has a trunk of stories to tell about frantic changes made to shows in cities such as Boston or New Haven, often overnight. From songs written at speed to save a show (Sondheim's "Send in The Clowns" or "Comedy Tonight") to new directors taking over altogether and creative team and even cast members being replaced, the out-of-town tryout has historically been a vital part in the development of new work.
Many contemporary composers have spoken how this constant need to refine and change material actually stunts creative development. In an age where everyone's a critic there can simply be too much noise to sift through for collaborators to see the wood for the trees, and extreme caution is advised about who to listen to. Some shows solicit genuine audience feedback in the form of questionnaires, others merely listen to the intermission buzz to gauge a general consensus, but more often than not previews audiences are ignored entirely at the expense of creative team inner squabbles.
New musical Groundhog Day finally opened to critical appraisal this week at the Old Vic Theatre, in what in many ways is an out-of-town tryout prior to a previously announced Broadway run in early 2017. As commercial producer Scott Rudin recently left the production team, exact details of a New York bow are uncertain, but can surely look likely once again thanks to the mostly positive reception. In London audiences were given the chance to be guinea pigs (or groundhogs) in the creation of a new show which itself enjoyed almost six weeks of preview performances before opening night. Reports of the first public performance becoming an open dress rehearsal set the tone for the technical demands of the show, and I can only imagine how relieved the cast and crew feel to finally have the show 'frozen' at least for now in order to settle into the run at the Old Vic.
Having seen the show early on in previews and again post official opening it was interesting to monitor the changes and see how the production has developed. Overall the show seems much tighter, with a more confident set of performances all round, with leading man Andy Karl still carrying much of the weight of the show on his reliable shoulders. Whilst not much has changed structurally in terms of new music or reordering of songs, the character of Phil Connors has been tightened to fit the A Christmas Carol style narrative and provide a necessary emotional change. Sequences have been refined to allow his personal journey to seem clearer and ultimately more convincing, but there seems to be no areas of radical reworking that have helped lift the material or completely alter the nature of the show as a whole.
Unlike the 'golden age' of musicals such as Oklahoma! (which changed its name from Away We Go! during its try-out) mounting a new show at any venue across the world will automatically lead to a critical minefield. Recent Broadway musicals such as The Last Ship and Finding Neverland enjoyed early runs in cities such as Chicago and Boston, giving critics a chance to wade in with their opinion often before New York dates have been finalised. It's often thought that producers prefer a gentle reception out of town to help ease the production into the Broadway market without building too much expectation. What may stand out as a jewel in the crown for the theatre community in Kansas City or Atlanta my not look quite as shiny when set against theatreland's most exclusive capital city, and a warm buzz and softer excitement can often bring with it an easier transition.
Looking at the upcoming Broadway season, most productions have already played around the country in some respect, from new musicals Come From Away and Spongebob SquarePants, to the yet-to-be-announced any day now War Paint. Critical assessment has been filed, opinions have been made and the creative teams have a chance to take this feedback on board before going for gold under Broadway's most intense scrutiny.
Often the financial demands of an out-of-town try-out can hinder a production, and this was recently seen with the new musical Shuffle Along... which recently closed on Broadway after 100 performances. Despite opening to highly favourable reviews and grosses that would have David Merrick smiling from ear to ear, as the show was preparing to lose its star Audra McDonald, the decision was made to close the show rather than let it fizzle out. The musical had 38 preview performances, changing dramatically throughout. Reports of the first week saw performances that were around four hours long as director and book writer George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover hacked through the thicket in order to carve out the best narrative. It was a particularly unique gestation period for a show, but one that proved how useful previews can be when creating new work. Lest we forget the Spiderman Turn Off The Dark saga which saw the show play for six months worth of previews before finally opening to the press, by which time the opening night had changed so many times that most publications broke the embargo and went in to review the show at their leisure. For a full account of the backstage intrigue associated with this particular example, be sure to check out Glen Berger's tell-all book "Song of Spiderman"...
Critical assessment of Groundhog Day has come not only from London publications but also from the US. With all eyes on a Broadway transfer many publications have already filed their opinions, including the money-making view of Ben Brantley of the New York Times, whose words alone have the ability to dictate the future life of a show. Of course reviewers can change their opinions (see Mr Brantley's views on Patti LuPone as Rose in Gypsy), and positive reviews alone won't sell a show as much as positive word of mouth.
In Groundhog Day Phil Connors repeats the same day over and over again until he is able to find a sense of humility and altruism that allows him to break the cycle to go forward with his life. Producers and creative team will be hoping that history does indeed repeat itself with the same level of critical success on Broadway as according to post-opening reports the show still has New York firmly on the horizon. In this case, London has been an extreme out-of-town try-out for a large scale Broadway show, which has the potential to be a commercial hit for the Old Vic across the pond, bringing in a solid revenue stream for the venue, and London audiences have had a taste of what New Haven, Philadelphia and Boston audiences have previously enjoyed.
Groundhog Day continues at the Old Vic Theatre to 17 September 2016.