'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Andy Karl ('Groundhog Day')

On the heels of his third Tony nom in four years, the Broadway star reflects on his journey from dinner theater to the Great White Way, where he has starred in movie adaptations ('Saturday Night Fever,' 'Legally Blonde,' 'Rocky' and 'Groundhog Day') and theater phenomena ('Wicked' and 'Jersey Boys') and now is doing eight shows a week with a fully torn ACL.
Eric Ryan Anderson
Andy Karl

"It's hard to even think about it today," says Andy Karl, the star of Broadway's musical version of Groundhog Day, of the full tear of his ACL that he suffered during the second act of a preview performance on April 14, just 72 hours before opening night. As we sit down at New York's Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, the 43-year-old continues, "I had never felt any loss like that in my life. I had three days before we were opening, I had just won the Olivier [in recognition of his work during the show's triumphant run at London's Old Vic before it headed stateside], I heard about good reviews, people were slamming us with such love for the show, my producers were happy, everybody was happy — and just before the show ends, I go down so hard and I realize I've lost everything. All gone." At this point, Karl — who I’ve described as Broadway’s Cary Grant, only buffer and with a great singing voice — chokes up. "That's what I was hurt about most," he explains. "The pain really didn't affect me."

The curtain came down and, Karl recalls, "I just laid on the floor, sobbing in front of the crew and the cast and the production team, because I had lost it all, right at the pinnacle, with a show that was gonna do better than anything I had been involved with before." But, says the man whose Broadway breakthrough was 2014's musical version of Rocky, just 15 minutes later he resolved not to stay down, but to get back up and fight. "I told the EMT guys, 'Here, I'll sign that, go away, I don't want you guys. I'm gonna limp out on stage and I'm gonna do this last number for this audience.' And I sang the song with a cane in one hand." Thanks to a knee brace and an indomitable spirit, Karl missed only six performances over the next two weeks and is now is back to performing in all eight a week. On Tuesday, he landed an astounding third Tony nomination in four years, for best actor in a musical. It could bring him his first win.

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Karl was born and raised working-class near Baltimore. In high school, he gave up athletics in order to pursue the arts, and wound up working in local summer and dinner theater before graduating. He continued to act at Towson University, where an impressed instructor encouraged him to pursue a professional career. Consequently, in 1994, he relocated to the Big Apple and got to work — in additional dinner theater (which helped him get his Equity card), in national tours of shows like Cats (which helped him to get an agent) and in off-Broadway shows (most notably Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night) before landing his first job on Broadway itself, in 2000, as a replacement in Saturday Night Fever. (Six months after joining that production, he married one of his co-stars, the actress Orfeh.)

Over the next few years, Karl continued to make a name for himself off-Broadway (Altar Boys was a triumph) and on. He played a prominent supporting part in 2007's Legally Blonde — namely, a UPS deliveryman who attracted a character played by Orfeh, and legions of theatergoers, with the line "I've got a package" — which caught the eye of director Joe Mantello, who hired him to play a key supporting role in 2009's 9 to 5 and, in 2010, as a replacement in the smash-hit Wicked. Karl, who was hired a year later as a replacement in Jersey Boys, another phenomenon, reflects, "Replacing was actually a great experience for me," noting major differences between his experiences with Wicked ("I never felt like it was mine") and Jersey Boys ("I was able to be free with the character").

Karl stepped away from Jersey Boys for several months in 2012 and 2013 upon being recruited by director Scott Ellis to play a part in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which led to Karl's first awards recognition: a Drama Desk Award nom for best featured actor in a musical. It presaged the far greater acclaim he would receive for his next show, a 2014 musical adaptation of the 1976 boxing film Rocky, which he spent years fighting to get in the first place. Once ensconced in that role atop a $16.5 million production, Karl experienced considerable wear and tear, not least from 25 minutes of choreographed but bruising boxing each performance, but he regarded it as a potentially career-changing project — "I found a fire in me," he says. And his tremendous reviews and first Tony nom, for best actor in a musical, suggested it might be. The show lasted only six months, though — men who like Rocky were reluctant to see a musical and women who like musicals were reluctant to see a show about boxing — leaving Karl disheartened. "I did everything that I could to make that successful," he says.

Just six months later, though, Karl was back beating the boards again in a revival of the 1978 musical On the Twentieth Century, which got better reviews than anything he's ever been a part of, playing the part of a buffoonish movie star (originated by Kevin Kline en route to a Tony) opposite Kristin Chenoweth. When director Matthew Warchus attended the show and saw Karl's deftness at physical comedy and his ability to navigate a character who audiences shouldn't like but still do, he knew he had found his star for Groundhog Day. "Groundhog Day is just as physical as Rocky was," reveals Karl, who is offstage for only three minutes of the entire show. Never was this clearer than on April 14, when, as part of a choreographed stunt, he jumped over another actor and landed badly. "I went down hard," he emphasizes. After that night's bows, he and Orfeh rushed to the hospital, where they learned the extent of his injury. He was despondent, but she made it clear to him that, after all of his hard work, he was not going to miss his opening night. As he puts it, "It became a decision of, 'This is either gonna define you or this is gonna crush you,' and I chose for it to define me in that way where, I'm gonna get up."