Andy Karl knows what you’re thinking. He had the same reservations before agreeing to play Rocky Balboa. How do you turn that film—“Yo Adrian!” and Art Museum steps and all—into a Broadway musical? Stick to the script. “He loses at the end, but his loss is his win,” says Karl, sipping water at a dim midtown Manhattan hotel bar. “He goes the distance; he’s found love. Love is a huge part of what musicals are about. When you think of it, Rocky is all about finding love, finding dignity.” The fights? Merely bookends of the show. But, he adds, “They’re spectacular.”
Broad shoulders and chiseled arms aside, the 39-year-old actor doesn’t bear much resemblance to Sylvester Stallone. (“I’m six-foot-two and Polish,” Karl laughs.) But on Broadway, he has proven adept at taking on iconic roles (and Italians), as star turns in the musicals Saturday Night Fever and Jersey Boys attest. “Rocky Balboa is real to people,” he says. “I take on the voice, the mannerisms. But it’s not like I’m doing a bad impression.”
Broadway’s Rocky, written by Tony winners Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Thomas Meehan (along with Sly) and opening in previews this month, hews closely to the plot of the first film. (And yes, there will be a training montage, and that South Philly shout-out to the girlfriend, and the Rocky theme and “Eye of the Tiger.”) As for the songs, many add insight into the characters. In “Fight From the Heart,” the boxer questions whether he’s worthy of sharing the ring with Apollo Creed and asks his idol, Rocky Marciano, for guidance; “Raining” provides a show-stopping moment for the timid Adrian, shedding light on her life before Rocky walked into her pet store.
Stallone, who helped cast Karl in the role, has spoken about the “natural humility” the actor brings to the stage: “Tough guys are a dime a dozen; a sensitive tough guy, pretty rare.” That humility is evident when Karl talks about his love of Philadelphia, where he has performed often and which he visits regularly. “All I want is a free slice of pizza from Lorenzo’s on South Street and my picture at Geno’s,” he says. “Then I’ll have made it.”