Andy Karl talks bringing the time-travel tale from Punxsutawney to Broadway

By Devan Coggan
April 18, 2017 at 11:00 AM EDT
Joan Marcus

For a show about reliving the same day over and over again, Andy Karl’s Groundhog Day experience has been anything but monotonous.

The two-time Tony nominee stars in the musical adaptation of the beloved 1993 rom-com, playing self-absorbed weatherman Phil Connors (the role originated by Bill Murray). Karl starred in the original London production of the show, earning rave reviews and winning the Olivier Award for best actor in a musical, and now, he’s bringing Punxsutawney to Broadway for the first time.

Groundhog Day officially opened on Monday, but the path to opening night has been marked by a series of eventful preview performances: In March, the show’s first preview was interrupted by technical difficulties with the rotating stage. As a result, Karl and the cast performed the rest of the show concert-style, without staging or choreography. Then on Friday, just days before opening night, Karl injured his leg on stage during the second act, stopping the performance for 15 minutes before returning to close out the show (with the help of a cane).

A Saturday matinee was canceled while Karl saw a doctor, and his understudy Andrew Call went on later that night, but Karl returned in time for Monday’s opening performance (he told fans in an Instagram post that he tore his ACL). Ahead of opening night and before his injury, EW caught up with Karl to talk about tapping into his inner grouchy weatherman.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With roles in Rocky and Legally Blonde, you’re no stranger to musical adaptations of beloved films. But what was it like to tackle Groundhog Day specifically?
ANDY KARL: To be perfectly honest, when I first heard they were doing it, I actually thought I was wrong for it. I thought, “I’m not Bill Murray!” But after I read the script and I saw this journey that this character takes from basically being a jerk to being an enlightened human being at the end of the show, I had to play this role. There was nothing that was going to stop me from playing this role. It is about that sort of epic human journey and the ideas that we value as we live on this earth, the idea that we’re not alone, and the people around you are affecting your life every day. We need to break out of that cycle and be able to look through other people’s eyes and see things like a sunrise for the first time and realize how beautiful and how blessed we all are.

In the show, Phil is such a fascinating character because he has to be selfish enough that you dislike him at first, but he also can’t be so awful that you can’t forgive him or grow to like him. How did you walk that line between obnoxiousness and charm?
It’s funny, when the people that know me come and see the show, they’re like, “It’s so you! I see everything that you’re doing! You do that when people aren’t watching!” But it’s really great to find that part of the character. Which, I’m not really a jerk. People may argue that point, but I don’t find myself to be an asshole. [Laughs] But I had to find who that guy was within me. I remember specifically finding him in those days where I’ve been on a show and a Wednesday matinee, and you really don’t want to do it, but you’ve got to do it. So you’re like, oh, that’s that guy. He just does not want to be in this place and sing these songs and see these people, and he wants to get home. [Laughs] So it was personally very easy for me to tap into that once I found it — but you’ve still got to put on a smile!

For fans of the movie, the show reintroduces these familiar beats and characters, but it also opens up this entirely new, rich world of Punxsutawney. How much were you thinking about the movie? Were you thinking about Bill Murray’s performance at all?
I think I thought about it for a few days when I was reading it. Even before we got into rehearsal, I was like, “How does he do this?” But once we actually put it up on its feet, it immediately became, well, how would I do this? Bill Murray is his own thing, and I love him. I just think he is one of the greatest comedians and actors out there, and he’s still putting out great material. St. Vincent is a great movie. It’s got a lot of heart, and it’s that same sort of Scrooge story that’s within this. He does those characters very well, and I couldn’t possibly go near the efforts that he does. So I had to find my own way about it. And it’s working! It worked as soon as I started rehearsing it. I really try to dig in and find a lot of the humor, but also the meaning behind the humor, to make it not just slapstick and two-dimensional. It’s gotta be three-dimensional, and it’s gotta have a lot of heart, because you have to earn that at the end of the show. I think that whoever plays Phil Connors from now on, they have to take it personally. You’ve got to dig deep sometimes.

Was there any preparation that went into specifically playing a weatherman? Did you do any sort of research or anything to tap into that?
I watched a lot of YouTube! [Laughs] I mostly like watching the weatherman fails on YouTube. Like a bug flies down their throat when they’re trying to do the forecast or something. So that’s all the stuff that I watched. But I think there’s a cheesy weatherman inside of me that just naturally came out. You find things out about yourself with every show, and that’s one of them!

I also wanted to ask you about the now-infamous first preview, where the rotating stage broke and you guys did the rest of the show concert-style. What was going through your head when that first happened?
Look, every show on Broadway will break down during previews. There will be no show that does not break in some way. Rocky, I swear we stopped the show so many times while I was doing it. Legally Blonde, we stopped the show. 9 to 5, we stopped the show. So I wasn’t fazed by that in particular. The only thing that was weird was that it never happened in London, not once, which was crazy. But we had to stop the show 15 minutes into the first preview, and I was like, “Aw man, this sucks.” And [director Matthew Warchus] just said, “Well, let’s do a concert version,” and I was like, “YES.” I believe this material can stand on its own, so let’s do it.

They basically brought out a bunch of chairs and we performed the material just standing there, with a little bit of movement on our parts, just making up stuff. And the audience were giving us just as much as we were giving them, and it turned into this rock concert way of celebrating Groundhog Day because s— happens in life, and you deal with it, and you make it work. It couldn’t have been more poignant than having that happen and being able to let the material sing like that. People just went nuts. I went nuts! I had such a good time. And that’s what theater is made of: We put on a show, and people loved it.

I wouldn’t take it back. I honestly wouldn’t. I don’t want it to happen again. [Laughs] But I wouldn’t take that night back for anything.