Taking a Punch and Hoping for a Hit ; in Broadway 'Rocky,' Stage Veteran Must Sing and Dance as Well as Fight

By Lyall, Sarah | International New York Times, February 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Taking a Punch and Hoping for a Hit ; in Broadway 'Rocky,' Stage Veteran Must Sing and Dance as Well as Fight


Lyall, Sarah, International New York Times


Andy Karl, 39, is playing the persistent and much-battered boxer in a Broadway incarnation of the story.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Massive sides of fake beef were being suspended from hooks onstage as workers zigzagged purposefully through the controlled chaos that was the Winter Garden Theater the other day. Somewhere in the middle of it all, taking a minute before a group stretch-and- limber session, was the man whose character's name was already on the marquee outside and whose left eye was still black and blue from a poorly timed encounter with another actor's glove a week or two earlier.

This was Andy Karl, who at 39, after years in understudy roles and supporting roles and ensemble roles and replacement roles in long-running shows, is opening on Broadway as a lead in a new musical for the first time in his career. The show is "Rocky" -- the Italian Stallion, you may remember, likes to train by pounding beef - - and he is playing Rocky.

It is not as if he has sprung from nowhere, or as if his talents have been overlooked all this time. Mr. Karl has been around. He has played Rum Tum Tugger in a touring version of "Cats." He has replaced other actors in "Wicked," "Saturday Night Fever" and, twice, "Jersey Boys," playing the brash Tommy DeVito. In between, he twirled a mustache as the vaguely sinister Neville Landless in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

"Rocky" is different: a $16.5 million production that requires a tough-but-tender leading man who not only sings, dances and acts but also boxes, most gruelingly in the sustained 20-minute bout at the musical's climax. Mr. Karl, who begins the show being demolished in a fight and ends it in a bloody mess after that final encounter with Apollo Creed, is in virtually every scene. And to the extent that the enterprise requires a certain suspension of skepticism (really? a musical of "Rocky?"), it also requires that Mr. Karl take possession of a classic role in a classic story that will always be indelibly associated with Sylvester Stallone. Mr. Stallone wrote and starred in the original 1976 movie (and its sequels), conceived the musical and is one of its producers.

For those who know Mr. Karl only as a musical-comedy performer, "this show's going to be incredibly surprising to people," said Alex Timbers, the director of "Rocky." "Andy has a roughness to him, a strength, but he's also got a tenderness, a stillness. That's the quality people haven't seen before."

"Rocky," which opens on March 13, has had a long gestation period, possibly because the idea seemed preposterous at first. But it won over skeptics -- including the composing team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty ("Ragtime") and the book writer Thomas Meehan ("Annie") -- partly thanks to the emphasis it places on the romance between Rocky and Adrian, the damaged woman who believes in him. (The less-known but exceptionally sweet-voiced Margo Seibert got that role.)

Mr. Karl was in at the beginning -- he played the lead in early workshops in 2011 -- but in 2012, when the musical had its premiere (oddly enough) in Germany, with the whole show in German, another actor won the part. That made sense, because, among other things, Mr. Karl does not speak German. (Posters for the show in Germany and in New York feature a soulfully banged-up model, not either actor.) But it meant that his early connection to the production was lost, and he realized that a part he passionately wanted was not his for the taking.

"The role was very close to my heart, and there was so much I had invested in it," he said. "I got depressed. I had to let it go."

You get the feeling that he does not get depressed readily. In conversation, and on a day of rehearsal in which the cast was running through the entire musical for the first time, he proved to be easygoing, engaging, funny, playful, thoughtful, an actor others gravitate toward -- and not just because he is the star. …

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