Last Sunday instead of going to church, I took in a play. I accompanied my daughter’s and son-in-law’s family to the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street in New York City to see Groundhog Day: The Musical. It’s the inspired and inspiring Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin rendering of the familiar Bill Murray classic of the same name, without “The Musical” addendum.
Virtually everyone, of course, will recall the Groundhog Day story. It’s about Phil Connors (Andy Karl), the big city TV weatherman sent to small town Punxsutawney PA to cover its famous winter festival. To his great frustration, the jaded and self-centered Connors finds himself condemned to living the same day over and over again till he gets it right.
Obviously, then, it’s a story about personal transformation reminiscent of Murray’s Scrooged. But the musical version of Groundhog Day has the advantage of making its point even more sharply than the Murray film, because the play’s memorable songs provide direct insight into the minds of the story’s characters.
So my choice of theater over church proved to be a good one. The play confronted me with the sort of questions that church should raise for me, but rarely does. Among them:
- What is the nature of time and space?
- Does when and where I live make any difference?
- Does my own life make a difference?
- How do I escape from behavioral patterns that objectify women and seek salvation in sex, alcohol, and the latest fads in natural healing, therapy and religion?
- What is life for anyway?
- Does God fit into any of this?
Surprisingly, the play suggests answers that coincide perfectly with universal spiritual traditions found everywhere. As the play’s book writer, Danny Rubin, points out, I’m not alone in saying that. Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle loves the story.
Take those questions about time and place and the pointless nature of life’s repetitious patterns. The play’s songs make them as inescapable as Connors finds Punxsutawney itself. After all, his very job has caused him to focus on the future and absolutely predictable weather events. That job has given him an identity of sorts. But it’s no more meaningful than that of his namesake, Punxsutawney Phil, a large rodent who comes out each February 2nd to declare with great pomp and circumstance what everyone already knows: “There Will Be Sun,” but there will also be six more weeks of winter.
Again, Phil Connors’ job is like that too. So he’s entirely bored. He’s as stuck in past patterns of thought and living as the two drunks Phil eventually identifies with in the song, “Nobody Cares.”
Phil’s foil in Ground Day is Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss). As the associate producer of his TV spot, she has accompanied Connors to Punxy to cover Groundhog Day festivities. And she’s everything Connors is not. She was French major in college focused on 17th century French poetry. She enthusiastic and lives in the present. She loves Punxy, its simple people, and Groundhog Day itself with its funny hats, balloons, and ice sculptures.
The contrast between Phil and Rita is wonderfully expressed in their rousing duet “If I Had My Time Again.” Phil’s part is focused on the superficial, and he’d do it all over again. Rita would make great changes in her life. Phil has spent his life focused on eating, drinking, sex, violence and money. He’d like to sleep with 90% of the women he meets. He’s stolen $18 million dollars, started 700 fights, and once masturbated seven times in a row. If he could, he’d eat a dozen donuts at a time without knowing why. And he’s spent endless nights contemplating different ways of committing suicide.
Rita, on the other hand, is focused on growth and change. Sure, she’s made mistakes, but she’d like to set them all right. If she could live her young life over, she’d take the road less trodden. She’d fulfill neglected desires, study math, send unsent letters, learn piano, and make more friends. She’d also punch a lot of men.
The reason for the latter is embodied in her relationship with Connors. For two-thirds of the play, he tries to bed Rita using all the ruses familiar to men (and women!). He flatters and even feigns interest in French literature. But Rita resists each time and actually does punch Phil at one point. She’s intent on not being like Nancy, Rita’s own foil.
Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry) is the Punxy girl we meet at the beginning of Act II. She has come to terms with the world shaped by men – men like Phil Connors. Nancy is pretty and, as she confesses, looks good in tight jeans and low-cut tops. But, like Rita, even she wants to be more than a sex object. She wants to be more than the role men expect from women. But she’s given up trying. She says all of that beautifully in her wistful “Playing Nancy.” Listen for yourself.
As it turns out, Rita outlasts Phil. And here’s where his spiritual conversion comes in.
Realizing that the present moment is all that he has, Phil at first concludes that his actions have no consequences; after all there is no future. He’s free to do anything he wants. So he continues doing what he’s always done, only with greater abandon. More sex, drinking, anger, and violence.
Then, however, comes the inevitable. The meaninglessness of it all becomes so clear that suicide makes more sense than ever. So Phil puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Ironically, however, that’s the key. As Buddhists would put it; Connors saves himself by dying before he dies. That’s necessary, he realizes, before he can resurrect – as he himself puts it, “Like you know who.”
His resurrection makes Connors discover his own divinity. He realizes that in fact he is God. The awareness makes him so sensitive to his unity with others that he becomes as familiar with the details of their lives as if they were his own – because they are his own. So he knows what they’re thinking and everything they’ve done with their lives. He perceives it all in God’s eternal Now where everything is happening simultaneously – where there is no past or future. Here’s the way Bill Murray expresses the consequent power in the movie.
In this way, like Dickens’ Scrooge, Connors transforms before our eyes. He exchanges his cynicism for cheerfulness, shares his money generously, changes tires for strangers, takes care of the homeless and dying. He falls in love with Rita’s person, not just her body.
As a result, winter’s bleakness ends for this human Punxsutawney Phil. He’s released from the rodent-like behavioral patterns that previously imprisoned him. He’s finally free to exit Punxy. Ironically, though, he chooses not to. He and Rita decide to remain in the small town he previously despised. They end up on a park bench simply watching the sunrise.
The play’s bottom line?
- Time and space are figments of the imagination.
- Small town life can be every bit as meaningful as in the big city.
- So when and where I live is completely relative.
- My own life can make a difference for others if it is focused on the present rather than the past or future.
- Putting the needs of others first provides exit from self-centered and destructive behavioral patterns.
- That’s what life is for.
- It’s the path to realizing (making real) the divine nature all of us share.
Of course, all of that sounds platitudinous, doesn’t it? A lot of it is what we learned in Sunday School. But Groundhog Day: The Musical makes us realize it’s all true. And it does so far more effectively than most Sunday sermons I’ve heard.
I’m glad I took it in. Church can wait.