When a technical glitch brought the first Broadway preview of Groundhog Day to a halt, the director, producers, stage managers, stars, and crew came together to ensure the show would go on—as the adage says it must.
Like all production stage managers, Groundhog Day’s David Lober has witnessed his share of theatrical hiccups. Last night at the August Wilson Theatre was not the first time—and likely will not be the last—he had to make the decision to stop the show. “Sometimes things happen and we don’t stop the show and the audience never knows,” he says. “Other times, the audience is in on it.”
The audience was certainly in on it March 16 when director Matthew Warchus—after a 20-minute pause (and a round of drinks for the crowd)—took the stage to announce that the new musical would not be performed as the staged production the company had rehearsed, but as a concert presentation.
“There's this expectation already that things are in a working mode,” says star Andy Karl of the nature of preview performances. “When something like this happens, it's juicy for an audience.”
Twenty minutes into a nearly flawless first act, an assistant stage manager noted that one of the production's five turntables—which had shown no signs of malfunctioning in the London run or during Broadway tech rehearsals—had stopped working.
“The first thing we do whenever we stop a show is think about safety first,” says Lober. Had the performers continued with the show with the improper set pieces, it would have created confusion and potential hazards. He goes on: “I couldn’t believe we had to stop, but I knew it was the right decision. We couldn’t continue with the set the way it was.”
Meanwhile, the cast was on hold for further instruction as the crew attempted to troubleshoot. “It was a good chunk of time while we were waiting to figure out what was going to happen, and the gas ran out of our tanks,” admits Karl.
It was Warchus’ idea to continue the first act and a selection of numbers from the second as a concert; after he consulted with the producers, performers, and crew, the show was back on—sans set pieces save for a few chairs.
“All my energy came back, and I was so excited to do the show,” says Karl. "We had to refuel. It turned out to be more energy than I've ever used before … You’ve never heard a more excited audience.”
The preview performance was a testament to the nature of live theatre and its ability to bring people together as they turn a challenge into an opportunity.
“The point of Groundhog Day's story is that you can't separate yourself from the world. The world enriches you; the people around you enrich you,” explains Karl. “We had a moment last night where everybody across all boards—crew, stage management, lighting designers—it was truly a group effort on everybody's part.”
“Even the audience. It felt like they were giving us something as well.”
Groundhog Day, featuring a score by Tim Minchin and a book by Danny Rubin, opens officially April 17.