Andy Karl: Broadway Champion
Photography by Nathan Johnson
Written by Suzy Evans
It was four days before opening night of Groundhog Day on Broadway, and director Matthew Warchus was giving his cast a pep talk. The turntable had just stopped working during the musical’s car chase scene, and while the company was used to technical difficulties—they performed the first preview at music stands after the set broke—it was a different story when Ben Brantley from The New York Times was in the audience. After the curtain had been held for 15 minutes and some audience members were leaving, the cast was starting to get worried, so Warchus coined the company’s motto.
For the show’s star Andy Karl, who plays the jaded weatherman Phil Connors destined to repeat the same 24 hours of the eponymous day over and over, the saying has become a way of life. After 20 years in the business, Karl knows a thing or two about, well, being a champion and adjusting—and not just because the night after the aforementioned set breakdown, Karl landed wrong during a leapfrog in the show’s penultimate number and tore the ACL in his left knee, leaving him contemplating whether he would even be able to open the show.
Luckily, Karl made it back onstage that night to rapturous applause from his cast and the audience, and has led the show to great success, earning a Drama Desk Award on Sunday night and his third Tony Award nomination.
And on a Thursday evening the week before the Tonys, Karl’s exuberance hides any evidence that he was ever injured. He bounds down the stairs backstage at the August Wilson Theatre to greet me, all smiles as he leads me up to his dressing room. He seems to be full of energy, even though he’s had a full day, including a last-minute rehearsal for a new number for the Tony Awards broadcast. His schedule is full of interviews and press engagements because after all, it’s not enough to do eight shows a week on an injury during Tony season—you also have to sit down with every reporter in town. This is his second interview of the day and he’s got another one after the show. So what hasn’t Karl had a chance to talk about yet?
“I have so much information in my head from everything I’ve dealt with in the past couple weeks,” says Karl. “I feel like I’ve gained some real perspective on life. That’s all just swirling around as I try to basically do the show every night and get audiences going.”
Karl shifts in his chair as he talks, like a kid who just wants to get up and play, and that youthful enthusiasm radiates as he gestures with every response. It hard to imagine Karl as a jaded jerk who hates everyone in Groundhog Day, but his inherent likability makes watching a bitter character become a better person an enjoyable evening at the theater. While he’s not trying to emulate the film’s Bill Murray—the musical is “not about plastering the movie up onstage”—he is taking to heart the show’s message of improving oneself, which feels personal to him.
“I live a Groundhog Day anyway because I’m doing eight shows a week,” Karl jokes, then adds more seriously: “Everybody, in a lot of ways, in some part of their lives, is asking, ‘What am I doing with all of this? Am I just some entertaining monkey? Or am I really grasping on to something that helps people in any way? Or am I being completely selfish by being an actor in New York and all I want to do is get to the next job? So all of those questions are a part of what I deal with and I think with a lot of people deal with in any aspect of life, not just actors. It becomes asking yourself, what are you doing the same day over and over again and how can you change that?”
Karl uses the word journey frequently to describe his experience on Groundhog Day, because the show has so many personal and professional parallels. He originated the role when it opened in the West End in 2015 and won an Olivier Award for his performance, but a lot of struggle and work has gone into Karl becoming the rarity he is today: an actor who has built his name and career primarily on consistent work in theatre.
“My home base is Broadway, and with this show in particular, a lot of things have philosophically emotionally come to a head,” he says. “I feel like all the stuff that I’ve done so far is part of what I’m doing right now. I feel like I’m giving everything I can on the stage now.”
Growing up in Baltimore, Karl initially got interested in theatre in high school after he quit the swim team and a choir teacher suggested he try out for the summer musical. He got in the first year, the next year he had a small part, and the third year, he was playing Jud Fry in Oklahoma! “I got some audience reaction or got a laugh onstage and I was kind of hooked from there,” he remembers.
He auditioned for local dinner theaters in the area, which is where he found “this kooky crazy community of people that embraces you.” “That’s what I think I was missing from my own personal life,” he adds. “I want to be part of something and then I ran into that and I’ve never let it go. It feels the same way now.”
While he’s had showier roles in recent years like Rocky Balboa in Rocky: The Musical and Bruce Grant in On the Twentieth Century, he moved to New York City with $3,000 he’d saved and moved into an apartment “the size of this dressing room” with a friend. He started out working in regional theatre, non-union tours, and then finally made his Broadway debut in Saturday Night Fever and decided to take a risk and stay put in New York and hope the work came his way. (He notes that his first Equity show was the Cats tour, and he can see the Broadway production’s marquee from his dressing room window. “There’s another full circle moment.”)
“Some people move here and they do work right away, and I think that’s cool, but there’s some sort of survival moment where you make a choice for yourself,” he says. “This is what I’m doing. I’m going to stay here and I’m going to risk everything and see what happens.”
Just then, his dresser Keith comes into the dressing room to start prepping pieces for the evening’s show. “I feel like there’s another journey,” Karl says after Keith leaves the room. “Keith was my dresser in Rocky and he’s been with me here and he was on Saturday Night Fever, one of my first Broadway shows, where I met my wife. It’s us all coming together.”
The closet doors in Karl’s dressing room are covered from floor to almost ceiling with photos of the Groundhog Day company, which he calls his “tribute to the show.” While he hasn’t had as much time as he’d like to hang with his cast with his busy awards season schedule, he’s looking forward after the Tonys when he can start giving back to his cast and his community.
“I get inspired by everybody here,” he says. “You could say I’m a lead but it’s really an ensemble show. It takes everybody to make this thing work.”
But the day before, everyone was at Sardi’s, inspired by Karl. At his portrait unveiling, Karl was honored by actors from shows throughout his career, and he remembered why he does what he does.
“It was a really cool reminder of like when I was that kid and seeing it for the first time and how awesome it is to be a part of the legacy of Broadway for years to come. It was definitely a full circle moment that was great, to recall that mindset from back in the day,” he says, then reflects on how the support he’s received over the course of his career have carried him through an exciting and difficult past few weeks.
“I luckily had been a part of this theater community. I luckily found my family when I was doing dinner theater. I was lucky to be a part of whatever this stuff is of telling stories, and it’s just woven itself into the tapestry of my life and I’m grateful for it,” he says. “I know I’ll carry that with me forever.”
So he signed his Sardi’s portrait with the only dedication that made sense: Champions adjust.
Get tickets to Groundhog Day from $50 on TodayTix.
Styled by Michael Fusco, Groomed by Natasha Smee, Shot at Drift Studios. Clothing by David Hart, Helbers, R.M Williams, Incotex Cinque with accessories by Daniel Wellington and shoes by Gola.