The Indefatigable Rock Roots of Rocky: The Musical

Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” is the de facto theme song of Rocky‘s six-movie franchise, even if it doesn’t make an appearance until Rocky III. To present Rocky: The Musical without the rallying cry of “Tiger” in some capacity would be unthinkable, though the stage show is based on the plot of the first film. And for Andy Karl, Broadway’s singing, swinging Rocky Balboa, the ties between Rocky, its iconic motivational anthem, and rock ‘n’ roll cut far deeper than a few lines (and a few punches).

“We hit you with the Rocky theme song right at the top [of the show], and fists are flying,” Karl says. “It’s very cinematic that way. I think music has always been an important part in all the movies. If you watch Rocky IV, ‘Hearts on Fire’ and ‘Living in America’ were huge radio hits, and ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was important to the vibe of the movies. The music was so integral to making those films successful. When you hear the Rocky theme, you think of how strong the music plays with these characters. You’re understanding them so much and what they have to fight for at the end.”

It’s a Sunday morning in midtown, and Karl’s wide awake despite the fact he’s about to head into the ring of his eighth show this week at the Winter Garden Theatre. The Tony Awards are fast approaching, and Karl’s performance has earned him a best actor nomination, which means his schedule of training, performing, and promotion has kicked into overdrive. It’s cool, though: He’s clearly not the kind of actor who checks out at the stage door, and he’s spent as much time poring over the score, the movies it inspired, and Sylvester Stallone’s affectations as he has training at the boxing gym.

“There’s something about how Rocky sings in general — the music just sort of gravitated toward this Springsteen–esque idea,” says Karl. “Strong details from the movie are in our show, and that underdog story is translated just as strongly, if not stronger, onstage because some of the characters are able to express [themselves] through song. Everybody wanted to ride this line of the icon, but try to play it gritty and honestly.

“There’s a lot of toughness to it,” he continues. “It’s less like Glee, where they break into song and it’s all cheery and fun. It’s definitely this real, heavy thing, but you can also brush away all that darkness and find good qualities about all these characters.”

The fact that Karl goes directly to Springsteen as a musical touchstone is hardly surprising. For his audition, Karl brought the Boss-reminiscent “On the Dark Side” from the Eddie and the Cruisers soundtrack to the table. The blue-collar grit of Springsteen’s early catalog would likely resonate with the rough, out-to-pasture boxer Karl portrays and the faces of South Philly in Rocky‘s immediate orbit; a Born to Run poster wouldn’t be out of place in Rocky’s ramshackle apartment.

Karl has tried on plenty of accents, backgrounds, and personal struggles on for size in his career, but Rocky’s threadbare gloves seem to be the best fit yet for the Broadway heavyweight. No stranger to this side of Broadway that favors guitars and melodies ripped from a jukebox, Karl’s résumé includes roles in Jersey Boys, 9 to 5, and Tommy, and since most musical theater pros can’t count The Four Seasons, Dolly Parton, and The Who as inspiration for the characters and ballads they bring to life onstage, he navigates the rock-and-theater tightrope with a different perspective. But it was Stallone himself who articulated the heartbeat of the character they share after previews one night, and the advice he gave Karl affected his take on Rocky entirely.

“I’m wide-eyed, taking it all in and trying to understand exactly what he’s saying,” he says of the brief moments he’s spent in Stallone’s company backstage. “His points are well-made. He said that inside of Rocky’s heart, he’s got a song: ‘Smile when your heart is breaking.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I get it!’ Rocky lives this life of ultimate letdowns, but he’s constantly trying to keep a positive, upbeat attitude at the same time. He’s trying to overlook the bad things because bad things happen. Having the strength of character for when something’s offered to you that’s incredible — the chance to fight Apollo Creed, the chance to be with Adrian — he just stands up and he becomes something better than he even thought he was. That, I’m taking to heart, personally, especially with this show.”

That song Stallone speaks of may not exactly follow the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” but the connection forged between the Rocky Balboas of the past and future still springs up from the riffs and refrains of a very rock place.

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