How I Wrote It: Tim Minchin on How Steely Dan and Life Lessons Informed the Last Number in 'Groundhog Day'

Tim Minchin
Joan Marcus

Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin turns out witty lyrics with aplomb in Groundhog Day, the new Broadway musical based on the beloved 1993 Bill Murray film. But the Tony-nominated Australian songwriter (and Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the screenplay as well as the musical’s book) felt they needed more than just laughs to tell the story of weatherman Phil Connors, doomed to live Feb. 2 over and over again in Punxsutawney, Pa.

Phil goes through life allegorically over the course of that repeating day, from youthful recklessness to middle-age malaise before finding wisdom, and Minchin — who was also nominated for a Tony in 2013 for Matilda — wanted to convey all of that and more in the show’s final number. Here, he explains how he wrote “Seeing You.”

You describe writing “Seeing You” as a huge challenge. How so?

At its essence, Groundhog Day is an existential journey of an unhappy, judgmental, slightly narcissistic, misogynistic, dissatisfied, aspirational, entitled, privileged male, who has to learn to be the opposite of all those things to find happiness — to learn that learning is important, and that you don’t get to control everything.

What is the final song when the thesis of your musical is, basically, “What’s the meaning of life?” You’re not going to avoid the great cliches, nor should you. Our job as artists is to say universal things in ways that people haven’t yet thought of. Lyrically, my goal is to always have the audience going, "Oh, it is like that, but I hadn’t thought about it like that."

What did you arrive at?

We thought that the conclusion must be incredibly humble, because humbleness is what Phil eventually achieves. It’s a really simple song, but it tries to combine themes of time and weather, of days and a lifetime and of even being an actor in a play.

Phil says in the second verse, “A storm blew in, overwhelmed me sometime late this morning,” by which he’s talking about the phase of depression he went through. But the storm is also connected to his job as a meteorologist: “I‘ve spent a lifetime seeking signs, reading lines/ Trying to forecast the future” talks about his job, and also the theme of how most of us are always aspiring. It also honors the fact that the whole musical has a little shimmering meta undercurrent, which is that this is an actor trapped in a play. So it’s also about what it is to be a theater-maker, reading lines and trying to figure out where your next job is going to come from.  

Near the end of the song, Phil sings, “But I'm here/ And I'm fine/ And I'm seeing you, for the first time.” What is he saying?

“I am able in this moment to be in this moment and to see everyone with fresh eyes.” Some people find that song very emotional, because we all want to be seen for what we really are and we want to be able to see the world in a mindful way. His conclusion is “I know nothing,” and weirdly, it’s a moment of quiet and emotional joy, of peace.

The score encompasses a variety of musical styles — big band, folk, bluegrass, rock. How did you decide on the country-esque sound for “Seeing You”?

We took the styles to suit Phil’s state of mind. I had decided that I wanted to land on Americana, with his journey finally jelling with small-town USA, this thing that in the beginning he says he hates. I wanted it to be this rolling, peaceful Americana song.

How long did it take you to write?

I think it was a two-day number. I knew the song needed to be pretty and simple and have some space in it, and so I just let myself go. It wasn’t an extracting-your-fingernails kind of song.

What were your musical inspirations?

There’s a rolling piano thing that I might have got off Ben Folds, but that goes back to Steely Dan. It’s a funny thing because I’m self-taught, I can’t read music. I’ve sort of learned to be at peace with it, to just let what comes come and not worry too much about how everyone else is writing.

Tony Awards 2017