Feb. 2 is Groundhog Day — time for the annual viewing of the Bill Murray classic film. It’s worth doing for the good of the soul since “Groundhog Day” is a spiritual classic, too. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle loves the story.
I was reminded of that one Sunday last summer, when instead of going to church, I accompanied my daughter’s and son-in-law’s family to the August Wilson Theatre in New York City to see “Groundhog Day: The Musical.”
The story is 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” had the advantage of making its point even more sharply than the film, because the play’s memorable songs provide direct access into the minds of the story’s characters, Phil and Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss).
The contrast between the two was wonderfully expressed in their rousing duet “If I Had My Time Again.” Phil’s part focused on the superficial, and he’d do it all over again — like the play’s two drunks in Nobody Cares. Rita, however, would make great changes in her life. 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 seduce Rita using all the familiar ruses. He flatters and even feigns interest in French literature. But Rita resists each time and actually does punch Phil at one point.
Eventually however, they come together. And here’s where his spiritual conversion comes in.
It happens when the meaninglessness of it all becomes so clear to Phil that suicide seems the only way out. So Phil puts a gun to his head. 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.
In this way, like Charles 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.
Of course, all of that sounds platitudinous, doesn’t it? A lot of it is what we learned in Sunday school. But the musical made me realize again that it’s all true. And it did so far more effectively than most Sunday sermons I’ve heard.
I’m glad I took it in. Church can wait.
Reach Mike Rivage-Seul, retired Berea College professor and former priest, at Mike_Rivage-Seul @berea.edu.