“I felt every emotion that I could possibly feel in the past four weeks,” Andy Karl tells ET by phone in May, about a week after it was announced he had been nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Phil Connors in the adaptation of Groundhog Day, a musical based on the popular Bill Murray comedy. The actor, who has built a career starring in musical adaptations of iconic films (Saturday Night Fever, The Wedding Singer, Legally Blonde and Rocky), was preparing for the Broadway debut of the production following a successful London run that earned him a Laurence Olivier Award when he inexplicably tore his ACL during a preview performance on April 14, just three days before the show’s official opening.
The dramatic moment -- halting the show as Karl sought medical attention -- happened during the second act. According to The New York Times, the visibly shaken actor eventually returned with a walking stick to finish the show. “Initially when it happens, your leg is swept up from underneath you. And, you know, you can’t stand on your two feet, which is metaphorical but also very physical for me,” he says of the dark hole he was in for those first 15 minutes after being injured. Wearing a large black brace around his left knee, Karl took the stage the following Monday to open the show before taking a few performances off to recover more thoroughly.
Now, the brace-clad actor -- the accessory has very much become a comedic element, as Karl spends several scenes in boxers -- is performing steadily. “I’m still getting the laughs,” he says, hoping to shed the brace as soon as his physical therapist gives him the OK. In the meantime, he’s showing fewer and fewer physical signs of a major injury that would sideline most professional athletes, let alone a stage actor performing eight shows a week.
“Every now and again, I’ll think back to that fateful night before opening where everything sort of felt like it was taken away from me,” Karl says, explaining that he hasn’t sat down to fully deal with the injury. Instead, he’s called upon imagery from Rocky the Musical, in which he played the titular boxer fighting against all odds for a moment of glory. “It's not about how hard you get hit; it's about how hard you get hit and keep moving forward.”
While the show must go on -- and it certainly has in full force, with Karl leading the charge -- the actor does wish that extra attention paid to his injury didn’t overshadow the musical about an arrogant TV weatherman who finds himself repeating the same day in snow-filled Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. “I love the story so much and I want the attention to be paid on the performance,” he says of “a very timely show” about changing perspectives as one man goes on a journey to discover his own humanity within. “There have been little moments of that in my life. There is a little bit of that nasty Phil Connors inside of everybody.”
Yet, at the same time, Karl acknowledges those headlines may be what get people into the seats at the August Wilson Theatre. “If I have to take the pity to get people to come see it, I’ll take it,” the actor says, offering to give even more of himself to keep the show going, which itself is a feat considering the stamina it takes to perform in the show without injury.
Onstage for majority of the show with only a couple of songs allowing him to hide in the wings, Karl says it’s a daily battle to get ready for a show like this. Unlike when he dove headfirst into preparing for Rocky, “working out so hard and being so committed” that everything else, including his wife, Orfeh, fell by the wayside, he’s doing a better job at maintaining a balance. This time around, he says, “I’m making sure I’m spending time with my wife. She’s my foundation of courage.” But as the lead of a major production, no matter how much of a healthy balance Karl wants to maintain, it’s on him to be everybody’s rock.
“It’s not a time to let the stamina go,” Karl says. “It requires more.”