How Andy Karl Tore His ACL and Opened a Broadway Show in 72 Hours

When he was performing Groundhog Day on the West End, Andy Karl would get up every morning around 9 a.m. He liked sleeping in. He didn’t have to be at the theater until later that night, unless there was a matinee (he hates matinees). He got his caffeine fix first thing, went to the gym, ate breakfast at Pret A Manger, and then went to Marks & Spencer to stock up on prepackaged meals. He’d spend the afternoon exploring London, doing touristy things before getting to the theater, where he would always arrive an hour-and-a-half early. His dressing room was right off the stage, one that legends like Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen once used. He would start his prep by doing vocal warmups, and then think about the things that irritated him (like matinees) while he did hair and makeup so that he could get into character as the cynical weatherman Phil Connors. He’d do this every day, sometimes twice a day, during the two-month run of the musical. It was comfortable; it was routine. It was his Groundhog Day.

If everything had gone according to plan, the move to Broadway should have been more of the same, but during a preview performance just three days before opening night, Karl tore his ACL while performing the late-in-the-show number “Philanthropy” where his character runs around the stage, making everyone else’s day better. After crawling off stage in tears, Karl came out to perform the show’s final number, “Seeing You,” with a walking stick in hand, before heading to the hospital. Perhaps even more astonishing: Karl still performed on opening night, 72 hours later. The show, as they say, must go on.

It’s not the first time Karl gritted his way through a performance. When he was a sophomore in high school, he was set to play Jud Fry in a production of Oklahoma! but he broke his left pinky toe (yes, same leg). He performed with a cast that he painted black and decided Jud would have a limp. More recently, Karl played the lead in the musical adaptation of Rocky and would get bruised and battered on the regular. Sometimes his co-star Terence Archie would hit him so hard that he would black out for a split second onstage. Still, performing on a torn ACL presented a new challenge: Karl would have to relearn the choreography, which involved spinning platforms and magic tricks, so that he wouldn’t pop his knee out.

We spoke with Karl to get a detailed account of the four days, from the day of the injury to opening night. Here’s Andy Karl’s diary:

Friday, April 14

I woke up at 9 a.m, because I have dogs, so I had to walk and feed them, and I get a green-tea latte at a Starbucks. I hit the gym around 11. After, I eat a very simple, light lunch of sushi — because if you pack up on too much food before a show, you’ll end up regretting it during the first 15 minutes because it’s all just turning around. I never eat heavy before a show.

After that, because of what’s happening with previews, there are a lot of questions to be answered via email to my publicist and agent: “What’s the next thing you need to do? What’s going to happen on the Tonys? What are you wearing?” I’m answering phone calls like, Is the suit ready? Who’s coming? I invited everybody from Law & Order: SVU for opening night, including Mariska Hargitay, Peter Gallagher and his daughter, and Raúl Esparza. Most of them were saying yes, so I was just making sure all the plans were set. Every minute of my day is focused around opening the show. For anybody about to open in three days, that’s what it’s about.

Around 5:30 p.m., I take the subway to go to the theater. I was offered a car for the show, which is fantastic, but I don’t like sitting in traffic. I’m very impatient: Why am I on the West Side Highway when I could be on the subway and spend 15 minutes or less of my life there? I take the 2/3 to the 1 train to get to 50th, and then get out and walk two blocks to the theater. Very easy and simple. I don’t like being late to things. It bugs me. I love being prepped, especially during this time, when it’s imperative to be ahead of the game. Being behind puts me in a grumpy mood. But everything was going swimmingly.

I do makeup and hair. I feel like Phil has to be weatherman-ready, but he just got out of bed so there has to be a little scruff. It’s things like that that really put you into the mindset of who this character is. I also like to throw on sunglasses and listen to Stray Cats at this point just to get into the pompous idea and the general ownership of like, This shit? There’s a mindset of starting the show off in a way that’s looking at the world as a place I’ve got to get out of, and putting myself in that mindset is very important. If I’m not there and I wake up for the first time in the show just repeating what I’ve done, I’m not honoring the material or myself as an actor. I watch clips of Jason Bateman in Bad Words, or assess the things I don’t like in life: Matinees are horrible! They’re an evil thing! There’s stuff that annoys me about what I do, and it’s just par for the course for work. Everybody gets annoyed at something.

I have a dresser, Keith — whom I’ve had for years (I met him at Saturday Night Fever, where I met my wife 16 years ago) — who helps me in the show. We’d always stayed in contact, and now he’s on this show, so we know each other very well. He’s coming in and out, bringing costume pieces and making sure everything is set that way. I guess we’re OCD, but that’s a good thing to be when you’re doing Broadway.

Photo: Alex Welsh/Vulture

I feel good about the show being ready, I feel good about my prep time, I feel good about where my headspace is for the show. I feel I’ve made so many right choices about this show, and there’s still stuff to learn. I feel like I’m still learning within the show, because it’s an esoteric idea of asking yourself how you are living every day of your life over and over, and how do you do that but still live in the now? It’s really interesting to prep yourself to try to stay ahead of everything, but you can never really predict the future. You can do as much as you can to push things to what you want them to be, but you obviously can’t predict them.

It’s a packed house full of people that have been really supportive of the show and people that I know will love the journey. Mark Linn-Baker, a friend of mine whom I’ve worked with, is there, but I think he’s the only person I know.

Before the show, we were all gathered backstage. The director, Matthew Warchus ,was in London at the time, so he was on Facetime, and he gave this speech that when you’re in this setting, “Champions adjust.” Whatever problems we have, we adjust to them. That’s what champions do. “Champions adjust” became this thing we were saying all night long. I wonder if the universe was looking at that before anything else happened.

Intermission happens. I’m sweating but I’m having a great time. I get back in, ready to do this great number, “Hope,” where I’m singing at the top of my lungs. Magic is happening onstage, everyone is loving it, and we get four rounds of applause in one song because it’s really great. It’s part of Phil’s evolution as a human being, and his last big quest for that is the number “Philanthropy,” where he’s running around saving everyone’s day: changing tires, catching cats falling out of trees, delivering babies. We used to have another bit where he gave toilet paper to somebody who had dropped it out of a bathroom, but we cut that. We just couldn’t get the toilet paper to roll right, so it became an expensive set piece we needed to cut.

In one of the last quests to save somebody falling from a ladder, I run across the stage for maybe the 12th time at full speed, leapfrogging over somebody to catch someone falling when the injury happens. I land on the leapfrog and my ACL tears and I go down hard. I think there’s a ladder that was coming for my face that I blocked with my forearms, so it could have been a lot worse. There’s an immediate shock: Something bad has just happened that’s going to affect everything. Everything’s over. My feet went out from under me, and I know this is bad.

I can’t walk on that leg, and I can feel the muscles didn’t know how to respond. So I crawl my way offstage, and I can tell people didn’t know what’s going on like, “What happened, Andy? You okay?” I’m going, “No, no,” and the crying and the sobbing immediately start, because I feel like it is all over. I just did that in front of 1300 people, and we were so close to getting this thing where it needs to be for opening night. It was the quick elimination of everything I’ve been preparing for. I felt really good, and it seemed to be completely knocked aside — which is a terrible, horrible thing to experience. It’s the darkest emotion to feel all at once. I’m cursing the universe, “Why now? Why this? What has the world got against me to take me to this place and then take it all away?” People around me are saying, “It’s gonna be okay,” and I’m saying, “It’s not gonna be okay! It’s all done!”

Ellen, the assistant choreographer for the show, is holding my head and calming me down. I wasn’t expecting that from her, and I told her so. I could hear her in my head amongst all the commotion of my own brain. I could hear her telling me it was gonna be okay, you’ll be alright, try standing and getting up. David Lober, our stage manager, has called for a doctor in the house. I don’t know if it was a pediatrician who came backstage, but I like making that joke.

The emergency guys show up within a ten-minute period, and they came backstage. As soon as I see them, I realize what was left of the show: “Seeing You,” which is one of the profound moments in the show, but it’s also a very personal song for me — a moment for me to be me and talk about how the world around us is really beautiful and you can see it for the first time. As soon as I see the emergency guys I’m like, “I don’t want to go yet.” I send them away. My leg was wrapped up and I couldn’t really walk on it.

Stage management asked me, “Are you sure?” many times. Some people said it wasn’t a good idea, but I wasn’t having any of that. I knew my plan. My plan was to get onstage and say good-bye to the crowd. That sucked. That was the worst feeling ever because it was a feeling of saying good-bye to the show. I thought it was my last performance. I can’t walk on this thing at all. This show is too physically demanding not to be able to walk. There was anger about it, but also, Cheers everyone! This is my last song and I might as well get out there and do it.

It was just a matter of finishing out the rest of the show, which was difficult. I limped through it but it was also completely beautiful because of what the show is. The audience was totally with it and cheered me on when I got back onstage. So many of the lines had different meanings now. There’s one line where Buster says, “Phil, don’t go anywhere!” and I said, “I’m not going anywhere!” The audience laughed at that. One of the lines of “Seeing You” is, “But I’m here and I’m fine,” and when I said it, the audience laughed because it was true! “I’m fine! I got this!” I was singing directly to the audience and I could tell they were giving back as much as I was giving. It was one of those odd theater moments, and it turned into a hugely beautiful moment. All those times I’ve talked about trying to find the jerk I’ve been searching for, and hating matinees and all that, I really understood what it’s like to perform in front of a live audience and see what they give back, because they give back everything. It was the worst day and the best day all in 15 minutes, which is Phil’s journey as well: He lives his worst day to his most gratifying, best day.

Keith spoke to my wife, Orfeh. I think she found out via Twitter, so she was kind of pissed about that. Social media works so quickly now, and once my name pings up on her phone, she immediately got worried and got on with Keith, who said, “It’s his leg. We don’t know what’s up.” I called her immediately after the show because I was heading for the hospital right after. My company manager, Kate Egan, got me into a car so she rode with me, and we figured out which hospital we were going to that was close to my house. I got into a wheelchair, and it had a high bar that knocked a clock off the wall, almost hitting my head. In Phil’s journey, time’s looping around itself, and there are clocks falling. Then there’s a sign that says “Philanthropy!” I saw those two things and said, “This is hilarious. I have to look at life like it’s funny right now.” But I was in a dark place. I had said good-bye, and I was pondering, “Well, I’d better get my real-estate license.”

I got x-rays, and we learn that there’s no broken bones, so I had to go back the next day to get an MRI. They asked if I wanted a taxi and I was like, “No, I’m close enough to home. It’s only 6 blocks. I’m going to walk it home with the crutches.” I don’t know why, I just didn’t want to be in a fucking cab.

At the apartment I started drinking. We only had Prosecco in the house, and I’m not really good with the bubbly sweet stuff, but I didn’t care. So I drank most of the large bottle of Prosecco, and I think my wife had a stray Xanax somewhere in her purse that her mother gave her. I was like, “Give it to me! I don’t care!” I’m just staring at walls, and I can feel my eyes are still swollen from crying. I’m trying to figure out what the next step is. Luckily, the process of thinking about what’s going to happen the next day — the MRI, physical therapy, the diagnosis — are goals to meet.

Saturday, April 15

I woke up at 6 a.m., still in the haze of sadness and bleakness and a Prosecco hangover, but I don’t care. Bring on the hangovers. Nothing can be worse than the leg going under. My MRI is at 9 a.m., and it’s really uncomfortable because you have to straighten the leg out completely, which my leg didn’t want to do. ACL tears apparently make the leg want to sit into a comfortable bent position all the time, and straightening it is one of the hard parts. That was probably the most painful part, but they were very quick, and got me in and out in 20 minutes. My doctor looks at it and says it’s an acute tear of my ACL. As long as I kept it in a stable position and try not to do anything too difficult, I couldn’t hurt anything anymore. All I can think is: What’s the next step? How soon can it be fixed? I don’t know if he knew. He didn’t have a timeframe. The next thing he had to do was get me into physical therapy. I went from the MRI to try to get a brace from a pharmacy that was open. The brace was a very low-grade, over-the-counter brace for ACL tearing, which is just a wrap with two pieces of metal on each side.

Photo: Alex Welsh /Vulture

I got PT right away because I still wasn’t sure if I was getting back onstage. The physical therapist looks at it. He does acupuncture; he does as much as he can to straighten it and also massage the hamstring and the calf that had been pulled. To straighten my leg was tremendously difficult. I spent two hours in there, seeing what kind of motion I could do. I was able to put a little pressure on the leg to walk that day, but I was still limping tremendously. My wife kept telling me that I was going to go onstage, “On Monday, we’re gonna do it!” They’re all on a mission to see if this can actually happen before Monday night.

I went home and had some more to drink. I’m not an alcoholic, but it’s too much to deal with on an open brain, because then I’ll start to think, and thinking was my enemy. Thinking will send you into the dark hole. But I had little goals to pick up on, to go to this thing, get this brace, go to PT.

Sunday, April 16

I wake up pretty early, maybe 7 a.m., because I’m on such a mission and such a high of adrenaline. I see the physical therapist for another couple hours and we did more things to get the knee, the actual quad, to engage, which is part of the problem. The muscles disengage with an injury like that. They don’t want to respond, because they want to heal, so you have to trick them. They put electrodes on my muscles to get them to respond, and they started responding. Everything started working. It’s just that they were very weak.

Monday, April 17

I was up at 7 a.m. because I had to be at the theater at 9:30 a.m. since the entire cast had to come in at 10 a.m.. I was asking a lot from people based on the fact that I was the problem. I do not like being in that position, and it’s hard for me to talk about this whole injury thing because I’m not that type of person. I’m like, “I’m fine! It’s gonna be fine!” But I wasn’t fine, and there was too much going on and too much at stake. So I needed everybody to help. As an actor, coming into New York, you forge your own way, but at the end of it, you realize you’re the accumulation of all the people around you. That was proven on so many levels in these 72 hours.

I wrote down a list of things I needed to know if I could do on opening night. There are things in the show that require climbing, bending down, escaping, and getting dressed. We had seven hours to figure out if I could do this or not. I’m up onstage and I’m sweating a lot because I’m using a lot of mental and physical readjustments just to stay upright, so I was losing a lot of water and trying to drink a lot of Gatorade at the same time. It’s really, physically hard to try and do all that before a show, which was going to be one of the most physical I’ve ever done.

I couldn’t put any pressure on the pivot sides of my leg, I could only walk in one straight line, so anytime I had to turn I would always step, turn, and walk. It was a little Frankenstein-ish, but it was one way I could get through it. Every minute of those seven hours I was working on something to see if I could do it, stepping down off a piece of scenery, going through doors. The one time I tweaked the knee hardest was when I threw a snowball. I turned to throw it and I immediately went down. My co-star, Barrett Doss, was like, “How are you going to do this?” I’m like, “I got it!” So I figured out a way to throw it without turning.

I went to PT around 3 p.m. in between rehearsing, and I had an hour to ice my knee before the show and get back into the groove of prepping before the show. I sat in my dressing room eating and resting, thinking about what the next couple hours of my life are going to be. How do you act above that? The brace is there, it’s unavoidable, but how can I tell this story the best way I can? I’m guessing I have to be more of a jerk in the beginning of the show.

One of the first things I do in the show is wake up in bed and answer the phone. I knew there would be applause at the top just because I think everyone knew the story and was trying to be really empathetic to me, and give me a whole bunch of love at the top of the show. So I woke up a little bit earlier than I normally do, but I was being a jerk. There was laughter, but I was like, “Take it down.” I was breaking the fourth wall at the top of the show. I wanted that. I wanted people to feel like, “Oh, we love him so much, why is he being such a dick?” Because it’s part of the story! This is where I want you to be. I want you to know he’s a real dick. And I had plenty to be angry and aggressive about as far as headspace.

There were two times where my leg tricked out on me, but I just had to keep my wits. It’s a psychotic episode. There’s no stability, nothing there, but you have to remain as calm and as forceful to the story as possible. It’s a manic way to be thinking. I was getting dressed putting on a shoe and it pulled inside. I was trying to avoid those moments to give the audience any recognition I’m in pain. I don’t want that concern, especially when you’re performing. You don’t want somebody to think about something else. I’ve never felt anything with that much pressure on yourself to co-ordinate everything.

At the end, it was beyond a standing ovation. It was like everyone cheering on The Karate Kid after doing the final kick and winning the match. It was just a huge amount of applause and screams — all things human beings love to hear when you’ve made an accomplishment. People want to cheer you on, and it’s gratifying in that way.

I screamed “Champions!” and the cast was like “Adjust!” It was a huge group effort: for the audience, for everyone around me, for me. I was not alone on this planet, I was destined to be in this position to show that it can be done. There was definitely weeping, although this time it wasn’t tears of darkness, it was tears of accomplishment — “thank you” and “hello,” as opposed to good-bye. Within 72 hours, it was a full Groundhog Day journey.

I got back home at maybe 1 a.m. in the morning. That’s okay for me, but it had been a full 16 hours on my feet after a terrible injury, so I was exhausted. I slept pretty hard that night.

How Groundhog Day’s Andy Karl Performed on a Torn ACL