I have subbed on around 30 shows in 23 years on Broadway, and none of them can quite compare to what was required on the Broadway production of Groundhog Day.
The regular drummer was Howard Joines, who has been playing on Broadway since the 80’s and is also a Musical Coordinator. I was very fortunate to get the call from him and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have worked for Howie and with the Musical Director, David Holcenberg, and the great group of musicians, actors, and crew at the show.
The unique part of Groundhog Day was that the drummer had to play on stage, in a groundhog costume, wearing a giant groundhog head. Since I could barely see out of the head, it was impossible to read a chart (and there wasn’t a music stand), so it had to be memorized.
Howie told me at the time that I would be one of only five drummers in the world to don the groundhog outfit!
The book was comprised of drum set, some percussion, a Roland SPD-S, in the pit, and a second drum set on stage.
Before I began learning the show in full, I got the music and a recording for the song "Philanthropy" that had to be memorized for the onstage performance. The song was about five minutes long and had a slightly complicated form so I wanted to tackle that first. In order to practice at home, I measured the spacing and angles of the drums and cymbals of the onstage kit and replicated it in my studio. After editing the part and getting it under my hands, I had to get out of the music, so I practiced that song in sections with my eyes closed. Eventually I put it all together, practicing with the recording and also with only a click, humming the tune to myself.
This was the rare occasion when a sub has a put-in rehearsal. In the theatre we rehearsed leaving the pit, putting on the wireless pack and in-ear monitors, then going up to the stage to get into the groundhog costume. The mix was pre set, but it was important to set the level of the in-ears before getting into the costume, otherwise you couldn’t access the volume control. There was plenty of time to get up to the stage, but you couldn’t linger because the dressers who helped get me into the outfit had other actors to deal with.
The costume consisted of a furry pair of spats to cover my shoes, the suit itself to cover my body, and the giant groundhog head which had a device that would fit your head like a batting helmet. Since there couldn’t be actual “paws”, the arms covered the hands and were held in place by small elastic straps around the first digit of each finger, closest to the palm. This allowed freedom to hold the sticks with either grip and to play easily, if one can do that wearing a groundhog suit!
Once in the costume, I made my way to the kit which was stage right, hidden behind scenery, and I waited for my entrance cue. The drums were mounted on a riser that the stagehands pushed into position and locked into the stage automation. When the song started, the riser moved downstage center into a spotlight and I began playing with a two bar drum solo.
"Philanthropy" is an uptempo swing number that goes through variations as the character of Phil Connors discovers the positive side of not being a selfish jerk. As the song progressed, the drum platform moved around the stage, passing downstage close to the audience. This was a good time to stare out into the crowd and kind of mug it up a bit.
At the end of the song the riser went off stage left where a stagehand helped get me off of the platform. Now I had to move quickly in order to get out of the costume, drop off the wireless pack, and get back into the pit in about two minutes for the next song.
It was an exhilarating experience, not something that we are asked to do frequently. To be on stage and be such an integral part of the action gives me a greater appreciation of the inner workings of a show.
Again and again and again...
Joe Mowatt has been a freelance drummer and percussionist in the New York City area for over 25 years. Born in New Jersey and raised in Ohio and Rhode Island, he attended the University of Rhode Island and earned his Bachelor of Music Degree in Performance and Education. Joe’s career has spanned from a local hire for orchestras, touring shows, acts in Providence, RI, to International Tours, Broadway shows, and concerts in the New York metropolitan area. Joe and his wife Lynne Shankel are proud English Bulldog rescuers!
Joe's Broadway credits are, Allegiance, Cry-Baby, All Shook Up, Jackie Mason's Laughing Room Only, and You're a Good Man Charlie Brown.