Rocky Star Andy Karl Trains for the Role of a Lifetime
By Robert Viagas
Andy Karl talks with Playbill.com about preparing — mentally and physically — to open the musical Rocky on Broadway.
It's 7 AM, and Andy Karl, who plays the title character of Broadway's Rocky, is already at the gym. The wiry, dark-haired man with absurd grace isn't exactly punching a side of beef — yet — but he is slinging kettle bells, performing military presses with 60-pound dumbbells and lifting upwards of 225 pounds.
Karl's long day of punching and being punched has just begun.
By 10 AM he'll be on his way to the Winter Garden Theatre where he is playing the iconic boxer Rocky Balboa in the musical — yes, musical — based on the Oscar-winning fight film "Rocky."
Sporting a real-life black eye earned during a rehearsal, Karl said, "This show is the most physical I've ever done, as far as what an actor has to go through emotionally, mentally and physically. I'm trying to stand up to the challenge of creating a character while punches are being thrown in my face. And some of them make contact."
Though he describes his natural physique as "more of a swimmer than a boxer," Karl has played studmuffin roles since he took over as the Elvis-inspired Rum Tum Tugger in a national tour of Cats in the 1990s. He's been a Broadway pinup since 2007 when he wowed the ladies playing the shorts-clad UPS hunk in Legally Blonde. Since then, he has played a variety of roles, including a stint as the charming Fiyero in Wicked, hot-tempered Tommy DeVito in the long-running Jersey Boys and earned a Drama Desk nomination playing the fiery Ceylonese murder suspect Neville Landless in the starry 2011 revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
When the offer to do Rocky came along, "I sorta laughed. I think everyone has that reaction to Rocky being a musical. It's like, 'Are you kidding me? Really? What are you thinking?'"
But then he watched the original 1976 film about a struggling second-rate boxer who gets his one shot at a title when he's drafted to take on the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, in an exhibition match. "I thought, oh, I get it. It actually is great for putting music in because there are so many moments when emotions are going on without their being spoken. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote beautiful songs for those moments. The first song I heard was 'My Nose Ain't Broken.' There are so many things that have gone wrong in Rocky's life, the one thing he holds on to is the fact that his nose was never broken. It's so right, so character-driven. It immediately felt right to me."
Creating the Show
The idea for musicalizing the story began with the film's original screenwriter and star Sylvester Stallone, who teamed with librettist Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray). After auditioning a variety of Hollywood and pop songwriters to do the score, Meehan suggested the veteran theatrical team of Ahrens and Flaherty, Tony-winners for Ragtime, whose dozen other scores include Seussical, Once on This Island, Lucky Stiff and A Man of No Importance.
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."
Yes, Karl will punch the beef. Yes, he will run up the big flight of stairs. And, yes, he will be drinking a glass of raw eggs. Or "maybe" on that last one.
"I'm trying not just to do a bad impression of Stallone. I'm trying to find my own pattern. I have to find the truth of the character. I have to use my own humor."
Ahrens said "Andy embodies the role without imitating Stallone. The sprit of the role is there — the vulnerability, the loneliness, the darkness, the humor — but we forget Stallone and fall in love all over again with Rocky."
The Daily Workout
In charge of Rocky's workout is U.K. fight director Stephen Hoggett, who directed an award-winning production of Beautiful Burnout, Bryony Lavery's play about a Scottish boxing gym. "I learned that boxing is like a language," Hoggett said. "There's a hundred and one schools on how to box successfully — the way you use your fists, the way you hold your shoulders — and 101 ways to throw a jab."
He drew inspiration from Joyce Carole Oates's classic book, "On Boxing," saying, "It is beautiful and spectacular writing. Right at the beginning she talks about how people say they 'play golf' or 'play baseball.' But nobody says they 'play boxing.' It is sport at its most pure and most extreme. I love that insight."
That's why he sent Karl to a trainer to work on body conditioning and why he has the entire company start each rehearsal with a warmup, leading to an intensive workout consisting of yoga, followed by strength-building exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, squat-thrusts, medicine ball workouts and running.
"I have to remind these guys that they have to look like boxers for the show, but they aren't. Boxers train and train for one night, and then they can rest for months. In this show, the boxers have to be ready to perform every night. They have to train like boxers and like dancers. They need stamina and flexibility."
How is it working out? In the interest of journalism this writer checked the bicep on Rocky's iconic southpaw. It can be reported that "Rocky" is a good name for him. He'll need that muscle tone. The show's creators are seeking to make Rocky a adrenaline-spiking experience for the audience as well.
The show will be remembered for its climactic 16-minute fight sequence — 15 rounds of choreographed rock 'em, sock 'em battle between Rocky and Apollo Creed, played literally in the middle of the audience. That's right: At the climax of Act II the entire front center section of the audience is asked to leave their seats and relocate to the stage. The seats come out and the front orchestra becomes the boxing ring, placing the onlookers just a few feet from where Karl will get walloped, mashed, clobbered and pummeled eight times a week.
"It's audacious," Hoggett said. "That's why everyone gets behind it."
How Lucky Am I?
The role has affected Karl's home life as well. He is married to Orfeh, the single-named singer-actress-songwriter who earned a Tony nomination for playing the title character's BFF (and Karl's onstage sweetheart) in Legally Blonde. At first, Karl said, she didn't want Karl to take the role because she was worried that he would get hurt. But he finally convinced her that every precaution was being taken to keep him from going the injury-plagued route of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark
But then, Orfeh said, "When he came home one day with a black eye he got at rehearsal, he tried to hide it from me at first. 'What aren't you showing me?' He said 'Um... um...' so of course that made me think something horrible happened to him on the subway. Then he turns around and he's got a shiner like some makeup artist spent an hour on him. I lost my mind. That black eye took three and a half weeks to go away."
But, in the end, Orfeh said, the pluses of being married to Rocky Balboa far outweigh the occasional bruise. "We're both now health nuts and physical fanatics. We eat really well, which is really good for us. Also, he looks amazing. He's as beefy-cakey as he's ever been. I'm a very visual person and I can tell you it's quite lovely. He was a ten to begin with; now he's a twelve. How lucky am I?"
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