Sports are making an impact on Broadway and ROCKY the Musical is no exception. Andy Karl, a veteran Broadway actor, is at the helm of the beast that is rocking the Winter Garden theater in New York City for 8 shows a week. Based on the first movie of the cult “ROCKY” franchise, this show already has audiences on their feet and cheering for the champ. What the audience doesn’t see is that Andy Karl goes beyond the script to make sure that the they are receiving the most accurate portrayal of Balboa their money can get.
“I started out in sports when I was a kid,” Karl begins. “I was a really good swimmer, trophies and medals, I was all-county until I was 12.” Like many of us, Karl had an older sibling he was ‘destined’ to follow. Karl’s brother was one of the best football players in their recent High School history and when Andy became old enough, he was thrust into those “Friday Night Lights.”
“They put me in his position; center, it was a horrible choice. It just didn’t click, I didn’t have the mentality and it took one good hit to the head and I was done.” Karl wasn’t cut out for full contact sports, he left football and so began his love for the stage.
Karl wasn’t a complete stranger to musical theatre, his mother was a church pianist and he was raised with music in his blood. Karl has been around the stage for a while, from touring productions to Broadway shows. This also isn’t his first shot at ‘recreating’ an iconic role. He’s been in Jersey Boys, Legally Blonde and Saturday Night Fever. ROCKY, however, is different. ROCKY is truly the culmination of his life’s work.
“It’s blending athleticism with the theatre element. It’s great for me because I’ve been doing both my whole life.”
Broadway actors are truly athletes. They dance and sing their way through eight shows a week and most of them have to know two or three different parts. That’s not even counting the time before the show opens when they’re rehearsing all day. Prior to Opening night, Broadway shows rehearse from 11 or 12 in the afternoon (with meal breaks), until it’s time for that evenings performance for an audience. The schedule for most actors is taxing, just having to keep the stamina up, as well as making sure your voice is well rested. For Karl, there is a whole separate layer to the puzzle, he has to look like a professional boxer. That meant hiring a trainer.
“I could hardly afford my trainer when I started,” Karl recalls. “I knew I needed a good one because it wasn’t just about getting into shape, I needed to have a certain look.”
Prior to rehearsals, Karl had been working on weight gain and building muscle. What he underestimated was the toll his body would take during the “preview period” of the show.
“It was frightening to see how your body reacts over three to four to five weeks of this process.” Karl adds, “I rehearse all day and go to the show at night, I wanted to have the heavy weight build (around 190) but it’s hard with the loaded cardio you have as an actor.”
Karl combats the excessive cardio by hitting the gym for intense circuit and weight training in the mornings before he goes to rehearsal. His grit and determination to go above and beyond the desired goal is reminiscent of his character’s drive.
The psychology of life and the character is just as important as the physical aspect. Karl advises future ‘Rockys,’ “This role correlates to your personal life. You know, I never thought I would be one of those guys in the gym, screaming in pain, trying to get that last pump, that one extra push. But here I am, I am that guy now. Pushing myself to the limit, past my goals to achieve something, the way Rocky did.”
There’s a fine line in playing iconic roles. You don’t want to just copy someone else, but you also don’t want to stray too far from the character at hand. Luckily for Karl, he’s had some practice at portraying noted characters on stage.
“When I was in Saturday Night Fever, I remember delivering a line exactly how John Travolta did and the audience went crazy. Rocky is the next level for me. We watched him for six movies, he’s almost like a real person we know. It’s like when Ben Kingsley played Gandhi, he lost weight, he had the Indian accent and he became this guy. That’s what I’m doing, I have to attack this role as if he’s a historical figure in life, I have to play this part honestly or it will just be a bad impersonation.”
Sylvester Stallone created an empire when he brought Rocky Balboa to life. Stallone has worked very hard with bringing this musical to life as well. Karl was lucky enough to have the chance to work with Stallone on creating the character in this show.
“He wants so much for me to own the role for myself, you really have got to find those beats that speak to you, that you can connect with. Luckily for me, it’s a great story and it’s quite easy for me to find parts of myself in the character.” Karl remembered, “You know, he said something really great to me the other day. He said ‘Smile though your heart is breaking. That’s Rocky’s song, that’s how he goes about life.’ Then I realized that as a person, Rocky is able to push through all of the bad stuff in his life, because he has this lightness in his heart. That allows him to take this golden opportunity and go the distance. He may lose the fight, but he wins everything.”
Like most sports, putting on a production of this scale is a team effort. For every pitcher, there’s a catcher, for every forward a goalie and in this case for every leading man and equally outstanding female counterpart. Though married in real life to a former co-star, Karl and Margot Seibert have found their chemistry on stage quite easily.
“Orfeh is my real life Adrienne, but Margot and I got along really well from the first audition. I found out that we grew up in the same area, about 20 minutes apart, same theatres at different times, she’s my home girl. I have been in so many shows, but it’s really great to be a part of her first experience.”
‘Captain Andy’ stands at the pinnacle of this show, and although his name is on top, like Jeter and many great Captains, he takes no credit for a solo performance and applauds the team effort. He praised the director Alex Timbers, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Thomas Meehan and of course the Original Rocky, Sylvester Stallone.
“There’s no bad apples here, we’ve all worked together to make something really good. The crew is back there kicking butt and working so hard to make sure that everything is great. We’ve kept the integrity of this story, but we’re not taking this lightly. We’re proud. I am Proud.”
Karl is well on his way to making ROCKY worth every penny, but when asked if he’d be up for a ROCKY the Musical 2, he said “Only if it’s based off of ‘ROCKY 4’ and I get to comeback and run up the Siberian Mountains on stage and scream ‘DRAGO’ when I reach the top.”
-Gary Shackleford, Editor-In-Chief of Game Changer Magazine