Tim Minchin, the multiple Tony-nominated composer most recently known for his work on Groundhog Day, has had a career in musical comedy that’s hinged on his incisive lyrical wit, which often dances around themes of skepticism and exploring what means to be a morally good person. It’s a comedic philosophy perfectly suited for Groundhog Day and the show’s cynical newsman protagonist Phil Connors (played by Andy Karl), and Minchin’s canny adaptation of the classic 1993 movie’s themes into the stage show’s score is a large reason the 2017 Olivier Award winner for Best New Musical also received seven Tony nominations this season.
On this week’s episode of Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, Minchin breaks down his creative process for “Stuck,” a song in which Connors seeks professional help in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, after he experiences the same day for the third time. And for this very special Tonys week edition of Good One, your host Jesse Fox brought into the studio his two most cherished musical resources: a dirty, hilariously oversize Casio keyboard, and me, Justin D. Wright, the composer of Good One’s theme. Using that filthy keyboard, Minchin plays us through the theoretical and comedic nitty-gritty of “Stuck,” while also discussing the idea of Groundhog Day as a humanist text, musical metaphors for an enema, and how he crafts jokes out of both musical and lyrical language. Plus, we got him to scat.
Justin D. Wright: Some audience members seeing the musical might expect a sort of homage to the film. Was there a way you tried to wipe away that expectation? Did you even care?
Tim Minchin: The discussion came up, but it lasted about five seconds — about whether “I Got You Babe” would come on the radio. I was like, “Nope, next question.” Every note in this musical is a piece in a puzzle and it is related to a whole lot of other things. Phil Connors’s states of mind match certain musical styles: the joyous, anarchic hedonism of “No One Cares” is fast bluegrass, his suicide song is sort of Linkin Park-y grunge, and he eventually lands in Americana when he comes to peace with his time and place. It has pastiche, but through all that is very strict harmonic restrictions, so it’s all one piece. But we said we need people to forget about the movie in the first five minutes. Obviously, they’ll be like, “Oh, that’s the alarm clock going off!” But it starts with free jazz chaos. It’s designed to scramble expectations.
Jesse David Fox: What is the distinction between a classic musical’s use of theme and what you were trying to do?
What I understood is that it is a classic musical. The fact that the action repeats didn’t change my approach to composition. The breakthrough was going, “Oh, hold on, musical repetition is normal in musicals.” So if we’re trying to say to the audience, “Oh, it’s weird that this world is repeating,” a musical repetition is not going to help us without dissonance. What helps us is a repetition of action and dialogue, while what he’s singing changes. So there’s a lot of repetition, but you’re meant to get to the end of the first repeated three days feeling like, Get me the fuck out of here. Especially because the town’s music is deliberately annoyingly musical theater.
Fox: Which brings us to “Stuck.” Story-wise and music-wise, what is happening at that moment?
“Stuck” used to be called “Experts,” and it didn’t make it into the musical until the last workshop. The idea was: What you would do if you woke up three days in a row to find the world repeating? You’d seek some fucking help. And if you’re in a small town, what would that help be?
So, I had two ideas. One, that it would be a series of quack sort of things. Not just naturopaths and healers, but also a pharmacologist who overprescribes and various religious people, which small towns tend to have a few of. The other idea was that it should suspend. It’s arranged as a sort of bossa nova and orchestrated with Casio keyboard sounds — so, basically, you’re stuck in an elevator listening to this tune and it’s quite gentle, but it just hovers, hovers, hovers. It never gets to the one chord. People in the audience who aren’t musicians wouldn’t ever notice, but they feel it.
Fox: Let’s talk about rhymes. Musical comedy as you do it, in a popular sense, demands more surprise than a classic rhyme would offer.
Yeah, you don’t want to see it coming too much. But also, rhyme should never get in the way of intent. Every song in Groundhog Day works to forward the story in a chronological, narrative sense, to illuminate the state of mind of the person singing it and comment on the world. So, “Nobody Cares” is talking about how disenfranchised people feeling powerless have anarchic tendencies, so you have Donald Trump. And “Stuck” is about the notion that people who have disorders or chronic pain that can’t be cured by conventional medicine fall victim to people who say “quantum.” You want the language to be joyous and fun to listen to, and at no point does the having fun with the words compete with the comedy or the story intent.
Fox: In the film, there’s a scene where Phil goes to a medical doctor and then he goes to a psychologist, but it’s played more straight. Would you say your take is a little more Beckett-y, in terms of the search for meaning that never comes?
If we talk about Groundhog Day as a humanistic text — we only have one life and there’s no punishment or reward afterwards — then the wisdom is, just be kind because that will make you happy and the people around you happy. The whole conclusion of this musical is not a grand bumper sticker, it’s just the Proustian, “The journey is not to find new places, but to see things with new eyes,” or whatever that quote is. Although I didn’t try and impose my worldview on this musical, of course, I come to this musical with all my stuff. And so the doctors and naturopaths and healers and religious leaders in “Stuck” say, “I don’t even know if I believe what I’m saying / This guy is clearly nuts, but he is desperate and he is paying.” That’s pretty cynical.
But they also say, “Though there are things that I just don’t know / It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give giving an answer a go.” That line is the interesting point. We explore the parameters of our knowledge, of what we know of the world we observe, the universe we’re stuck in, and Phil has to figure that out. Science says that when we don’t know something, we should examine it. Nonscientific or superstitious modes of belief say, “We don’t know, so let’s make it up.”
Now, you can be cynical about that and look at the places where that’s damaging, but there’s no doubt that humankind has benefited from shared, fictional narratives. That said, I believe very passionately that shared fictional narratives in people’s health is bad, which is why I’m critical of it. You can’t just vaguely read the word “quantum” and say, “Oh, homeopathy works and quantum …” The people studying quantum physics don’t think it works like this, so don’t just steal it and use it for your thing.
I don’t know why I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about it. I guess I’m a doctor’s son.
Fox: It’s interesting, because that “something something, quantum quantum” line was one I was going to ask about.
It’s my favorite line.
Fox: These people are blindly going through their existence, but that’s kind of what we have to do. The nonanswer is the answer.
Yeah, it functions in the musical as a comic relief, and we need to understand why Phil stops seeking help. And I’m doing a little satire about the shit that people who have incurable problems start getting in their inbox. So there’s that, the activism side of the song.
But the interesting thing about that line is that even people who study quantum physics only have a tentative grasp on it. If you really dig down into what we are doing here and how we exist, the answer is “something, something, quantum, quantum.”