Rocky Star Andy Karl Trains for the Role of a Lifetime

By Robert Viagas
22 Feb 2014

Karl in rehearsal
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Ahrens said she first saw Karl on a computer screen. "We were preparing to do a reading of the script in April 2011. [Composer] Stephen [Flaherty] and our music director David Holcenberg and I were like Mickey and Judy putting on a show. We cast it from a pool of people we knew. But we didn't know any Rockys. Andy Karl sent us his audition tape and we watched it on this tiny screen. He said, 'Hi. I'm Andy Karl, and I'm going to show you what I can do.' He sang two songs and my shoulders went down about three inches. We could tell right then that he would be just perfect."

At that first reading, there was supposed to be no fighting involved, but Karl and Terence Archie, who plays the champ, had to dramatize the fight in some way. Ahrens recalled, "As the music was playing, Andy and Terence were standing six or eight feet apart and started shadow boxing with each other with no rehearsal or preparation. They just got more and more into it. It was one of the most exciting things I've ever seen. We screamed and yelled and cried. He so embodied the role and brought so much to it."

Rocky had its premiere November 2012 in Hamburg, where the German producers insisted on a German-speaking actor for the title role. But for the Broadway production scheduled to open March 13, the role went back to Karl.

"To play this role you have to live a clean life and go to bed early," Ahrens said. "Andy is unbelievable in his discipline and his commitment to the role. I've never seen anything like it."

Finding His Own Rocky

Born in a suburb of Baltimore, Karl played a little high school football, but he didn't like it. He went to Towson University to study music, with the idea of becoming a teacher, but quit before his finished his degree after a director of a college production of Grease (in which Karl played Zuko), told him he should consider a career as an actor.

He went to New York and was cast in his first professional role, the Cats tour, after auditioning on the stage of the Winter Garden, where he now rules as Rocky. "It's a lucky theatre for me," he said of the stage where the original West Side Story dancers leaped, where Streisand introduced "People" in Funny Girl and where Al Jolson warbled "Swanee."

In between workouts, rehearsals and marathon sessions gulping protein and creatine supplements, Karl works on trying to balance the world's expectation of Rocky with the need to create an original character. "I do talk with a little gravel in my throat," he said, with a hint of Stallone's distinctive Rocky accent. "That's basically to honor the character. Because I think the world looks at Rocky as a character who actually exists. He appeared in six different films and was pretty consistent throughout. So I thought about how actors far greater than I embodied real-life characters. How Ben Kingsley played Gandhi, and how Meryl Streep played the Iron Lady [Margaret Thatcher]. I'm trying to honor that and treat Rocky the same way, even though he's a fictional character."