Ordway Director of Education & Producing Associate Kelli Foster Warder sat down with Groundhog Day director Martha Banta to discuss Broadway at the Ordway’s upcoming auditions for her reinvention of the Broadway musical.

Kelli: Martha, you directed the Ordway’s hit production of Mamma Mia! last year. When you were here, what did you find unique about those auditioning for us in the Twin Cities?

Martha: There is a super talented pool of actors. For Mamma Mia!, if I had seen some of these actors audition for me in New York, I would have absolutely cast them in the New York production. And not only are they great, but they already have this amazing sense of community built into their DNA. Often when working on shows around the globe, part of the first job of the director is to create a community amongst your cast. No need in the Twin Cities; actors in the Twin Cities walk in on the first day of rehearsal ready, comfortable, and willing to take risks and play in a safe space.

Kelli: That’s a great observation. I find that Twin Cities casts are so welcoming to new people while still maintaining this communal spirit. When you welcome people into your audition room, what are you looking for in actors?

Martha: I want them to show a connection to the material in their own personal ways. It is great when they come in and surprise me by bringing their own individuality to the table, respond to adjustments and show an understanding of the characters that is unique.

Kelli: Now with Groundhog Day, we know of the iconic Bill Murray movie. How will this production differ from the movie and from the Broadway production (which had musical theatre star Andy Karl)?

Martha: I think people may not have heard of the Broadway musical because it hasn’t toured America yet and the economics of Broadway didn’t help it there. But the show first originated in London and was a huge success, winning the Olivier Award. Since starting work on the Ordway’s production, I’ve actually avoided watching the movie because the musical is brilliant and I want to deal with the text that’s on the page. Of course, the main character, Phil, still wakes up to the radio and begins the show as the cynical weatherman. But the musical beautifully updated the story to the present, focusing on how we as 21st-century human beings treat each other and change each other for better or worse.

Kelli: My next question was going to be “Why this story, why now?” but that’s it, isn’t it?

Martha: Right! Phil comes from a big city who only believes in one way, believing in “my way is the only way to live” and he doesn’t understand or respect the folks in this small town America. So much of this story is about how can we understand and empathize with others and how we can impact and effect each other for the better. The moral of this story really seems to be to not stay trapped in your own opinion; it’s imperative for us to reach out and attempt to understand others.

Kelli: An important conversation is in the Twin Cities theatre scene right now, and across the world really, surrounds diversity, equity, and inclusion. While this is not a show where race and ethnicity is central to the story, as a result of our own creative conversations, what’re your thoughts about how this impacts Groundhog Day?

Martha: While the storyline of Groundhog Day doesn’t specifically discuss diversity, the musical has updated the movie to today’s times. Our world today is more diverse and so I believe the town of Punxsutawney should reflect today’s greater world. We want our town on the stage to look like the world around us, full of folks of different ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes. The more different, diverse, and representative this town is——the better.

Kelli: The show is built mainly around two main characters but there are so many great roles for many different people!

Martha: Exactly. Phil and Rita, of course, are two demanding roles. But because of the nature of this show – revisiting characters in the same moments again and again – it is not the typical ensemble track. We need an entire ensemble of great leads who can create the characters that contrast and impact our story.

Kelli: I love that phrase you just used: “An ensemble of great leads.”

Martha: Every person in this show has great moments. Groundhog Day is brilliant because we get the opportunity to truly build this show around the actors playing this “ensemble of leads”. And the talent exists in the Twin Cities to tackle it.

Kelli: That’s really going to create an amazing show. And we’ll get to watch it from the comfiest theater seats.

Martha: The Ordway has the comfiest seats in America.

Kelli: Truly.