BWW Interview: GROUNDHOG DAY's John Sanders Is Happy to Repeat Himself, Repeat Himself
John Sanders is grateful to be playing the nebbishy Ned Ryerson, high school classmate of TV weatherman Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, the musical starring Andy Karl about second and third and fourth chances.
"I love singing the little jingle," Sanders said of the trappings of his character's life insurance gig. "'You gotta love life ... insurance' is so much fun." The 1993 movie, starring Bill Murray, "is so beloved by so many people, and the character is so iconic," he said. People are excited to see Ned Ryerson. "The other day there was a little boy in the front row, saying 'bing, bing, bing' along with the jingle, and he was clearly born 20 years after the movie was made," Sanders said. "He really loves that movie!
"He couldn't wait for the 'bing,'" he said with a laugh. "Ned is so proud of this commercial and the idea that anyone might have seen the commercial or heard it. He's such a ridiculous and funny dude."
GROUNDHOG DAY previewed with some nail-biting moments. During one show, the revolving floor, central to the frenetic, sleight-of-hand dance numbers, stopped moving. Technicians couldn't fix the problem. But rather than cancel the rest of the show, director Matthew Warchus sent the cast back on stage to sing a concert version. They sang the songs from the rest of Act One and song selections from the second act.
"We didn't have any technical problems until the previews," Sanders recalled. "We were all devastated when the floor stopped. But when the decision was made by Matt to continue, the audience was thrilled.
"It was like they were getting a DVD extra of the show with the original Broadway cast. How cool is that?" Then an even bigger disaster hit right before the show opened. Karl landed awkwardly during a dance number and tore the ACL in his left knee. He managed to finish the show using a cane, but the setback brought more angst to the production.
"Over the weeks this was resolved-Karl returned to the show wearing a knee brace-and he came back in this amazing story of resilience," Sanders said. "His ironman studliness is incredible, and he performs on a torn ACL! He did rehab and has been back ever since."
Ryerson garners sympathy as the show unfolds and more information about his life is revealed. The milquetoast character reveals a depth that replaces the superficial understanding of the role. Sanders has refined his portrayal with the benefit of Warchus' astute observations. "Matthew can do so much with 10 words to an actor when he gives notes," Sanders said. "He's a brilliant, sensitive intellect. The decision he made for us to do a concert version of the show that night was amazing. The audience was with us the whole way.
"When we were going through this adversity, Matthew video-chatted with us and said a line that he's known to like and favor widely: 'Champions adjust.' That became the rallying cry for us, and we've been able to overcome those stumbling blocks which could have been fatal to the show.
"Instead," he said, "we were able to emerge with a beautiful telling of an amazing story and the community embraced us."
Sanders believes Ryerson's kindness is his strongest trait. "His resilience and determination to remain positive are wonderful," he said. "You got to love life is not only the slogan for the insurance ads, it's also his guiding principle. He lives life in the face of personal tragedy, a Midwestern trait. My family has Midwestern roots and it's a great way to look at life."
Sanders comes to New York by way of Chicago, where he played more dramatic roles. "I worked there 11 years and that's what I was known for-New York hucksters and salesmen. Ned is an annoying, in-your-face kind of guy who you write off the moment you're around him," Sanders said. "But in the second act we see another side of this guy."
Audience reaction has been positive, and the show was nominated for seven Tony awards. "These audiences are taken for quite a ride, and by the end the reaction is off-the-charts stunning. I'm just blown away by the curtain call," he said. "My dad said when he was working for Hewlett Packard and left at the end of the day he didn't have 1,200 people stand up and applaud," Sanders said with a laugh. "So I keep everything in perspective."
Sanders learned to love theater when he was in high school, a private Jesuit school in Sacramento, Calif. "They funded the theater program fully, and it was there I met my first professional theater family," he recalled. "I learned how to build art and learn the value of exploring deep questions and bringing audiences along on our quest.
"I had such deep experiences doing theater in high school I knew that was what I wanted to do. One thing I learned from the priests was to treat my life's work as my calling, and no matter what happens I would give everything I had to this art form even though there's no job security in this profession," he said.
Sanders isn't superstitious, but he has a routine he follows before a show. "Maybe the most unique thing I do is shave before a show. I have an amazing dressing room roommate, Bill Parry, and we love to talk about all kinds of things before a show. The best routine for me is to find someone to talk to," he said.
GROUNDHOG DAY has something for everyone, Sanders reflected. "If you want madcap fun filled with visual spectacle, we've got that," he said. "If you want existential exploration of life fully lived, we've got that, too. I've talked to people who love this show as much as they do the movie, or more.
"To know that we've done the show justice," he said, "and maybe claim to have added a brick and built on it a little, is all we could ask for."
GROUNDHOG DAY has a book by Danny Rubin and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Lighting design is by Hugh Vanstone, sound design by Simon Baker, illusions by Paul Kieve, music direction by David Holcenberg and video design by Andrzej Goulding. It's playing at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street.