Last year, a theatrical adaptation of Groundhog Day opened at The Old Vic on London’s West End. The production was critically-acclaimed as can be, earning various “best” nominations from the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the Critics Circle Theatre Awards, and the Laurence Olivier Awards. Fortunately for New Yorkers, a Broadway production of Groundhog Day begins previews at the August Wilson Theatre on Mar. 16; the show opens Apr. 17.
The team behind the Groundhog Day musical is very impressive, even by Broadway standards. Director Matthew Warchus was nominated for “Best Director” at the 2014 British Independent Film Awards for his work on Pride, also succeeding Kevin Spacey as the new Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre London that year. Choreographer Peter Darling worked on Billy Elliot The Musical and Matilda The Musical. Designer Rob Howell won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for Ghost The Musical and an Olivier Award for his work on Matilda The Musical in 2012. Composer Tim Minchin is another award-winning member of the Matilda team, although you may recognize him as Atticus Fetch from the show Californication. Andy Karl — who plays the Bill Murray-helmed “Phil Connors” role — received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his work in Rocky The Musical. And those are just a few of the cast and crew members that have received major honors.
Downtown had the pleasure of chatting with Groundhog Day actor John Sanders, who will play the lovable Ned Ryerson role, as originated by Stephen Tobolowsky. John is another former Matilda cast member, beyond spending time on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher. Prior to moving to New York, he was a veteran of the Chicago theater scene. Beyond his work with Groundhog Day, John can be seen in the upcoming Netflix series Iron Fist.
Do you remember the first time you saw Groundhog Day? Was it in the theater?
John Sanders: Groundhog Day was one of my favorite movies when I was younger. I don’t remember my first viewing, I’m pretty sure it was on VHS. I’ve always loved the combination of comedy and mind-bending metaphysics in this story.
Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?
John Sanders: I love watching Bill Murray stuff pastries into his face while contemplating whether he’s a god. Who wouldn’t want to be able to eat like that with no consequences?
Aside from it being a musical, are there any major differences between the movie and the play? Or will fans of the movie be pleased either way?
John Sanders: Fans of the film will not be disappointed. First of all, we have the same writer as the movie, the brilliant Danny Rubin. He’s brought so many of the iconic lines and moments that fans of the movie will love to see and hear. But telling the story as a musical opens up a lot of new possibilities. We never attempt to explain the same-day phenomenon, but we do get to hear so much more about what’s inside these characters’ heads and hearts. And I must say my character Ned has some really surprising depth that isn’t in the film, and that’s really fun to play and to sing about.
Had you worked with any of the Groundhog Day cast before being cast in this production?
John Sanders: I have. A number of actors from my time at Matilda are here, at least five or six of us from that production. And most of the creative team from Matilda are the ones behind Groundhog Day. And of course there are the dozens of backstage crew who I’ve worked with before, and many that I’m getting to know now. I’m a California boy who worked in the Chicago theater scene for 11 years, so I sometimes have to pinch myself that I get to be part of this Broadway community.
Do you have a theory on the time loop duration of Groundhog Day? I’ve heard that it’s 10 years, and I’ve read Harold Ramis say that it was 10,000 years.
John Sanders: I think it must be longer than 10 years, since Phil changes so profoundly. It’s like we get to witness someone live an entire alternate lifetime and come out the other end a changed man. Sort of like, dare I say it, that episode of Star Trek when Patrick Stewart lives a whole life on this other planet in the space of 20 minutes. Did I just up the dork factor in here? Yes, yes I did. But I also think 10,000 years seems a little long — Phil would just be comatose and insane at the end of that, like Leo DiCaprio near the end of Inception.
Have you ever encountered Stephen Tobolowsky?
John Sanders: Only through his work, which I love. But he certainly seems like a fascinating and well-rounded guy. My first encounter with him was watching him as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day. Since then I’ve loved him in Californication, Silicon Valley, and his Tobolowsky Files podcast. He also has a fantastic episode on The Nerdist, which I highly recommend.
Although you have worked in television and have appeared on film, what is it that draws you to theater?
John Sanders: My parents were great and took me to theatre in San Francisco when I was young. I remember being blown away by the original touring production of Les Miserables. We also saw a version of this farce called Charley’s Aunt at ATC back in the 80’s, and I remember marveling at the lead actor’s skill and physical precision. He seemed to be juggling eight things at once and walking the line between control and chaos. He had us all on the edge of our seats, and I just remember thinking I wanna do that! I wanna have an audience in the palm of my hand like that! Camera acting can be very fulfilling, but there’s nothing like performing live.
Is Broadway what inspired you to move to New York?
John Sanders: Actually, it was luck that got me here. I was a working actor in Chicago back in 2012, with a gig lined up down in Indianapolis and no plans whatsoever to move to New York. Then the casting director Jim Carnahan made a trip through Chicago looking for new people, and I wound up getting cast in the Broadway premiere of Peter and the Starcatcher. They called me up and asked if I could be at rehearsal in New York in 10 days! I had to drop everything, look for a place to live, and try to find the rehearsal hall. It was a shock to the system, but I’m so happy here now.
What was the first acting credit you ever landed that made you feel like this was a career, not just working for a little bit?
John Sanders: Well, I had always been a pretty good student, but I purposefully didn’t develop a backup plan for my acting career. I knew that if I had one, that’s what I’d end up doing since starting out in this business is so difficult. So I guess I always knew I was in it for the long haul. But the impostor syndrome started to subside when I joined the union and started paying my bills as an actor, though that didn’t happen until my early 30’s.
Groundhog Day aside, do you have any projects coming up? Appearances?
John Sanders: You may be able to see a little of me in the upcoming Netflix Marvel series Iron Fist. Other than that, I’m consumed with living the same day over and over again for now!
When not busy with acting, how do you like to spend your free time?
John Sanders: My favorite thing in the world is skiing, and I just spent a week in Aspen with my dad and a few old friends before rehearsals started. I love travelling and can’t wait to hit somewhere tropical soon.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
What about go-to lunch spots near your theater?
John Sanders: I’m a pretty utilitarian eater when I’m working, so when I want something tasty and healthy I usually head to Dig Inn on 8th & 52nd. But if I wanna relax there’s always a burrito at Blockheads. Can’t wait till the weather changes and we can all bask in that courtyard again!
Finally, John, any last words for the kids?
John Sanders: Art done well is like science. And science done well is like art. And farts are always funny.