When amateur boxer Rocky Balboa was plucked from the gritty streets of Philadelphia to fight champion Apollo Creed in Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning 1976 film Rocky, Apollo was expected to knock the underdog down with his first few punches.
As any red-blooded American knows, Rocky defied everyone’s expectations and went an astounding 15 rounds in the ring, with Creed barely winning in a split decision. On March 13, Rocky the musical will open on Broadway, and Andy Karl will step into the role Stallone made famous. Turning this tough guy, sports hero into a singing and dancing star of the stage is a feat not unlike Rocky’s first professional fight. There are many skeptics who are expecting him to get knocked down, but as Rocky did in that first big match and throughout the following five films in the franchise, the veteran Broadway actor will not go down without a fight.
“The entire experience, from the first audition to rehearsal to performance, has come with these little trepidations in the back of my mind,” said Karl on a break from a tech rehearsal at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater. “How do I become Rocky? Do I imitate Stallone’s indelible performance? Am I going to be able to look like a fighter? But, like Rocky, I’m facing each of those challenges head on, without fear of consequence.”
Audiences should put their faith in Karl. He has been training for this leading role his entire life. His first time stepping on a Broadway stage was in 1998 at the Winter Garden, oddly enough, when he auditioned for the role of Rum Tum Tugger in the last touring production of Cats. After performing around the country for almost two years, he quit the company when he was passed up for the role on Broadway—but he showed those Cats casting executives what they missed when he made his Broadway debut in 2000, as Joey, in the stage version of Saturday Night Fever. It was there that he met his wife Orfeh, who was starring as Tony’s betrayed childhood friend Annette.
“It was a whirlwind romance that has made her my better half for 13 years,” gushed Karl. Since then, Karl has bounced around from regional theaters to touring companies to Off-Broadway, where he originated a role in the hit musical Altar Boyz. For the last seven years, he’s been a regular presence on Broadway, with roles in Wicked, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, Legally Blonde, and Jersey Boys. Last year, he was nominated for a Drama Desk award for playing the outlandish Neville Landless in the acclaimed revival of the musical comedy The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Karl has been involved with Rocky, performing in readings and stagings of the musical—which mostly draws from the first film—with a book by Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray, Young Frankenstein) and music by the songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns (Ragtime)—since 2011, although another American actor, Drew Sarich, starred in the show’s debut in Hamburg, Germany, in 2012. It was not guaranteed that Karl would have the role when it came back to Broadway, but the Baltimore native knew he was meant to play Rocky from the very first audition.
“Sometimes you get to audition for a character that just clicks with you,” said Karl. “I came in with the right attitude, and I tried not to make things too polished. I’m still pretty loose in the character to this day, because if I play Rocky too slick, it comes off as self-aware and staged, and I knew I never wanted to portray him like that.”
Stallone didn’t sit in on initial auditions, but he watched the candidates on video. The first time Karl performed live in front of him was at the first staged read-through of the musical. “It was a really interesting day when I had to sing and act Rocky five feet in front of Stallone. It took a second for me to get out of my head that I was playing Rocky in front of Rocky.”
Stallone was impressed. The actor, writer, director, and producer has said that Karl, “has what it takes—There’s no arrogance. There’s a natural humility about him, and that’s what is important. No matter how threatening he may look, you’re going to like him—it just comes through. And that’s not so easy to find. Tough guys are a dime a dozen; a sensitive tough guy, pretty rare.”
There definitely are some epic fight scenes, but at the center of Rocky is the beautiful love story between the boxer and a quiet girl named Adrian (played by Talia Shire on film and newcomer Margo Seibert on Broadway) who works at the neighborhood pet shop. “To have Sylvester Stallone describe me in such a positive way is pretty astounding. That’s one for the scrapbooks,” said Karl, adding, “And, yes, Rocky really has humility. It’s one of the characteristics that makes him tick. It’s because his heart is so big—big enough to find love and dignity against all odds. You have to be humble to see those things in life. I suppose that’s what Sylvester Stallone saw naturally in me.”
Karl has experience bringing beloved film characters to the Broadway stage. He played the aforementioned Italian tough guy in Saturday Night Fever, and in Legally Blonde, he starred as the hunky delivery man (opposite Orfeh) who stirs up Elle’s favorite beauty salon. “With movies, it’s informative to watch an actor play the role, so you can understand the story through someone else’s eyes, but there’s also a fine line, because you have to find your own way without damaging the story or relying on what’s already been done. It’s a double-edged sword, but one I’ve been challenged with several times. I always opt to bring something new to the role.”
Karl embraces the challenge, but never has he played such an iconic film role on stage. Scenes from the film have become part of America’s cultural lexicon. The boxer’s raw egg breakfast of champions, the fist pump at the top of the outdoor staircase at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the meat locker training sessions have been lovingly spoofed on TV shows like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons. The film’s theme song, Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now (which audiences will hear during the Broadway version) has been used as the soundtrack for everything from presidential campaigns to Target commercials. With six Rocky films released over a 30-year period, entire generations have grown up with the story of the small-time boxer in a dead-end job, who becomes a famous world champion fighter and gets the girl. “You’d seriously have to be missing a soul if you didn’t love at least one of them,” said Karl, whose first experience with Rocky was watching Rocky IV when Rocky fights the Russian boxer Ivan Drago to avenge his friend and former competitor Apollo Creed’s death. “I remember sitting in the basement of my friend’s house with a big TV and an early version of a cable box watching Apollo Creed’s death and a vengeful Rocky climbing the Siberian mountains and lifting rocks while Hearts on Fire plays. The six Rocky films have left a permanent mark on my life and have made Rocky as alive as any real-life hero. So, in that sense I examine the nuances that make up Rocky and try to balance incorporating them with playing the truth and humanity the role deserves. I promise not to do a bad impersonation, but I will honor the institution that makes this heavyweight underdog so beloved.”
How will audiences react when the “Italian Stallion” starts to sing and dance? What kind of music could be successful in the theater while keeping the authenticity of Rocky’s world? Karl says Ahrens and Flaherty’s mix of rock, blues, and funk fits Rocky like, well, a glove. “There is not one note or lyric that I sing as Rocky that I can’t connect to in the role,” said Karl. “If you go back and watch the first Rocky film, there are so many close-up moments when the characters are feeling strong emotions but don’t speak them because they can’t be easily described in dialogue. That’s where songs can elevate the story. Every character has something they desire or are fighting for in this story and music is the best way to express those big ‘wants’ in life.”
It also helps that it was Stallone’s idea to bring the film, which he wrote when he was a fairly unknown actor in 1976, to Broadway. He was the one who first approached Meehan to help him adapt the screenplay for the stage, and they have assembled a great team led by Alex Timbers, the young, innovative director of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, to make sure the gritty spirit of Rocky stays intact. The creative team, along with the cast, has had the benefit of having Stallone on hand for advice. “I’ve talked to him on a few occasions about specifics of the character,” said Karl. “But the greatest thing is to watch him as he goes from being Sly Stallone to Rocky. Many people don’t think there is a difference between the two, but if you saw how his eyes change and his mannerisms become affected, you’d see the transformation. It put me at ease, because I realized that he is a great actor finding the part like I am.”
Stallone has even passed on some of his boxing moves to Karl, which the actor says he’ll do his best to incorporate into the fight scenes designed by Once choreographer Steven Hoggett in which Karl and Terence Archie, who plays Apollo, throw real punches. “When we rehearse the fights, it’s like a pugilistic ballet,” said Karl. “Rocky takes a lot of punches. Getting hit in the head is part of my job.”
Karl said he realizes that being cast in the title role requires a mammoth amount of work and responsibility. “I’m going to face the challenges and keep getting up and pushing through. I’m loving every minute,” he said.
With each punch, Karl gets closer and closer to opening on Broadway, the moment when all eyes will be on him—and he’s ready to step into the ring.