A down-to-earth guy from a working-class city is determined to succeed in a tough business. Punching above his weight, he beats the odds and makes it into the ring, cheered on by a crowd that includes a woman who shares his modest roots and encourages his big dreams.
That's not just the scenario of the wildly popular 1976 film "Rocky." It also works as the art-imitating-art story line for the two Baltimore-area actors starring in the new musical version of "Rocky" that opens this week on Broadway.
The guy playing the title character is Baltimore-born Andy Karl, who knows a thing or two about a working-class background and building the stamina needed to compete in the spotlight. Much the same applies to Howard County native Margo Seibert, who portrays Rocky's girlfriend, Adrian.
"The underdog story of 'Rocky' is very true for Andy and myself," says Seibert, 29. "It speaks to us. Neither of us was formally trained. We worked our way up. It was a whole long process for the both of us, and I think that's part of who we are."
Each actor, armed with theater credits from this area, moved to if-you-can-make-it-there New York — Karl 20 years ago, Seibert in 2010 — hoping to find success. "Rocky" represents a major milestone for them: the first lead role for Karl on Broadway, the Broadway debut for Seibert.
The $16.5 million musical looks like it could be a contender, given the talent onstage and the pedigree of the creative team.
Sylvester Stallone, who originated the role of Rocky Balboa, is the producer; he also collaborated on the book with Thomas Meehan, whose Tony Awards include one for "Hairspray." The score is by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), who won a Tony for their work on "Ragtime."
There's has been a hot spotlight on the show since its first preview performance Feb. 13, when Stallone got into the ring during the curtain calls — Karl dropped to the floor and bowed to the uber-Rocky. The already enthusiastic audience went into overdrive. (Video can be found on the Internet.)
"You never heard an audience lose their minds like they've been doing at previews," says Karl, 39. "It's like you're at Madison Square Garden."
Tackling the role of the scrappy boxer has been a goal of Karl's since he heard about the musical in 2011. He lost out when the show ended up having its first staging in Germany (in German), but was ready when he learned about a New York production.
To prepare, he headed to the gym for boxing training (fight scenes in the musical involve some real body blows). The Rocky-like focus paid off.
"Just being offered the chance to do the role put this I'm-not-going-to-quit-no-matter-what idea in my head," Karl says. "I want to live up to that spirit, no matter how much my neck aches or back aches."
In addition to getting physically primed to head down the "Rocky" road, Karl has been drawing on some of his past to fuel his portrayal of a minor boxer in Philadelphia.
"Baltimore is a great working-class city, too," the actor says. "It has it all — gritty, nice, suburbs. I come from a working-class family. My mother was a teacher; my dad was a handyman who refinished kitchens and appliances. I try to take all of this into the character of Rocky. I'm not down-and-out and poor as he was, but I feel I know something about him."
When Karl met co-star Seibert, he discovered they had a lot in common. For one thing, right after they were hired for "Rocky," they each got a good-luck call from the same woman in Columbia — Toby Orenstein, founder of Toby's Dinner Theatre.
"In the big wide would of theater, to find two actors who played here who have both ended up as leads on Broadway is pretty exciting," Orenstein says. "They're both humble and hardworking. I wish them real success. They deserve it."
Seibert, who was born in Olney and raised in rural Glenelg ("We lived on 7 acres and I used to mow all of that on a tractor"), made her Toby's debut as the Mistress in "Evita" when she was 16
"I had been an ice cream scooper and a hostess there first," the actress says, adding with a laugh: "I really worked my way up."
Orenstein had no doubt about Seibert's potential.
"I knew she was something special," Orenstein says. "She was going to be a star."
The dynamo behind Toby's Dinner Theatre formed a similarly favorable impression of Karl.
"Andy passed through here as a young man," she says. "He auditioned and got into 'Shenandoah' and then the male lead in 'Meet Me in St. Louis.' And I still remember him in 'The Reluctant Dragon' with his big dragon outfit."
Karl, who grew up in Timonium and several other neighborhoods in and around Baltimore, did not set out to be an actor. He had his eye on another goal post.
"My brother was a great football player at Towson High School, so, naturally, everyone figured Andy Karl would be a good center when I started there," he says. "I lasted two seasons. I got knocked down so hard I decided: That's it. I'm done. Now I'm getting knocked in the head again, and I like it."
The long road to being pummeled nightly in "Rocky" started back when Karl was a teen.
"They did summer musicals at Towson High School, and I got the part of General Bullmoose in 'Li'l Abner,'" Karl said. "I got my first onstage laugh from an audience, and it was because of something I said and the way I said it. It was like some sort of drug that I had to have in my life all the time."
When he got to New York, Karl was booked for several national touring productions, including "Cats," which played the Lyric Opera House in 1998. Broadway gigs followed. Among his pre-"Rocky" credits are supporting roles in "Legally Blonde: The Musical" and "Wicked," as well as playing the shifty Tommy DeVito in "Jersey Boys."
While Karl was getting established in New York, the younger Seibert followed a path from Toby's to American University in Washington, where she earned a degree in — international relations?
"I was always thinking: Would I be able to make a living as an actress?" Seibert says. "My family loved me but didn't have the money to say, 'Do anything you want.' Is there another plan? I love language, travel and culture, so I figured: OK, it's international relations. It all kind of made sense."
But Seibert, whose cellphone still has a local area code ("I'm staying totally committed; 410 is it for me," she says with a laugh), found time to perform with the university's theater company.
"I would go to class during the day and appear in 'Cabaret' at night," she says. "I was able to do it all."
Seibert quickly came to the attention of regional theaters, including Folger, Signature and Olney.
"I just needed the confidence that I could pay the rent and feed myself," she says. "I do feel strange sometime that I never formally trained. But in D.C., I got to work with people I really respect. I did a lot of watching and asked a lot of questions."
When she decided to head for New York, Seibert appeared in cabaret, participated in workshops and, last year, created the title role in the off-Broadway musical "Tamar of the River."
"I love the opportunity to bring a character to life for an audience," Seibert says. "That really lights my fire. So the coolest thing for me about 'Rocky' is being on Broadway creating a new character in a new musical."
Seibert did not arrive at the first audition for the role of Adrian with an encyclopedic knowledge of the original "Rocky" film.
"When I was growing up in rural Maryland and feeding my grandfather's cattle, nobody was watching 'Rocky,' " she says. "Before the audition, I had only watched some clips. I didn't want the movie to affect what I was doing. But after being called back nine times for the role, they said, 'If you haven't watched the film, you should.' Got it. No problem."
Karl was "Rocky"-savvy when he started.
"I remember being in a friend's basement watching cable and seeing Rocky and Ivan Drago go at it in 'Rocky 4,' " he says. "I've since watched the first film a million times. What I love about the story is that it is so intimate — a guy finding his dignity and facing the challenge of his life."
Although a fair amount of skepticism greeted the news that Stallone was trying to launch a musical version of "Rocky," Karl and his co-star find the concept convincing and effective.
"This score has so many awesome elements," Seibert says. "There are gritty rock songs, folk, funk, a little bit of disco. The songs I sing further our understanding of who Adrian is; they're a journey. The music never gets in the way."
Karl picked up some musical advice from the original Rocky. Stallone told the actor that if Rocky had a song going through his head, it would be one of Charlie Chaplin's, the one that says you should just "smile, though your heart is breaking."
"I thought that was a really beautiful way to describe Rocky," Karl says.
He's aware that audiences will expect something of Stallone onstage in the musical.
"I don't look like him," says Karl, who has Polish roots yet has frequently been cast for Italian roles. "But I'm taking everything I can from him in the movie so people won't be mystified by some actor trying to do something different."
Doing eight performances a week, with all the jumping rope and boxing that it entails, suits Karl just fine.
"I am fulfilled beyond belief," he says. "I want to enjoy it as long as I can."
Seibert finds the experience just as satisfying. And she is getting plenty of encouragement from folks back in Maryland. Her aunt organized a bus trip for 50 people to attend a preview, including the actress' elementary school counselor and third- and fifth-grade teachers.
"And she's got another 75 people from Howard County coming up," Seibert says. "These are the people who used to say, 'See you on Broadway.' I never really believed it. Now they say, 'We knew, we love you.' It's really overwhelming."
Adds Karl: "I can't wait for the opening. And I'm ready for Baltimore to come up and see it."
If you go
"Rocky" is playing at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, New York. Tickets are $59 to $143 (premium seats higher). Call 212-239-6200 or go to telecharge.com.