The competition at the Tony Awards is fierce every year, but this time promises to be positively brutal: A fight will actually break out onstage.
Sunday's telecast will feature the usual black ties, soaring songs and gentle jokes — and an eye-popping boxing match between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in a regulation-size ring on the Radio City Music Hall stage.
It's part of an attempt to highlight as many Broadway musicals as possible and promises to be a boon to the backers of the show "Rocky," which failed to secure a best musical nomination despite its stunning sets and choreography.
"The adrenaline will be high, but I want it to look really good. I'm not so much nervous as much as I can't wait to get in there and do this for people," said Andy Karl, the Tony-nominated actor who plays Rocky.
Karl will be the focus of the show's brief moment in front of millions. He will initially be part of a workout montage as he dances with eight other Rockys to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." Then Creed, played by Terence Archie, will swagger in from the right aisle with an entourage, and the two boxers will perform the 15th and last round of the climactic, bloody bout. Altogether, they have just 2½ minutes to shine.
"It's going to feel like a train leaving the station," warns Kelly Devine, who choreographed "Rocky" with Steven Hoggett and who earned a Tony nomination. "To get to do it on the Tonys is really very thrilling. And I think what we've put together is also going to make for very exciting television."
Producers of the telecast will hope to build on last year's 7.24 million viewers — the show's largest audience in four years — with Hugh Jackman as host. Fans of former emcee Neil Patrick Harris, take heart: He'll be performing from his hit show "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
Stars slated to help present awards include Bradley Cooper, Kevin Bacon, Clint Eastwood, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Will Ferrell and Liev Schreiber. Some Hollywood royalty who showed up onstage this season like Denzel Washington, Daniel Radcliffe, James Franco and Rachel Weisz didn't win nominations and may skip the show.
A music-heavy lineup has been promised that includes all the best new musical nominees — "Aladdin," ''After Midnight," ''Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" — and some overlooked ones, including "Rocky," ''Bullets Over Broadway," and Idina Menzel's show "If/Then." Three revivals — "Les Miserables," ''Violet" and "Cabaret" — will also be featured. Sting will perform a song from his Broadway-bound musical, "The Last Ship."
"I think all musicals have a really hard time when they say you get 2 minutes and 35 seconds to show people what your show is about and have it be entertaining. It's so hard to pick that moment that encapsulates what your show is about," Devine said. "Sometimes musical numbers can fall a little flat when they're out of context. Sometimes they get swallowed up by that big stage. I think if we do it right, ours will feel really alive and epic."
"Rocky" will get its shot in the first hour of the telecast and be introduced by Samuel L. Jackson. Karl will arrive for the red carpet in a tux and then change into his boxing costume to be part of Jackman's comedic opening number. He will hang around until his explosive few minutes onstage, then wipe off the fake blood and real sweat and change back into a tux.
"The sum of the parts of this show are so incredible," Karl said. "It needs to be seen in order to be believed."
A boxing ring identical to the one used on Broadway was built in just two weeks and it will be turned counterclockwise by four stagehands to give the audience and cameras a 360-degree view. Doing what happens at the Winter Garden theater — moving the actual ring over the first few rows of seats — wasn't feasible, but a riser onstage at Radio City will offer about 100 people the chance to see the action up close, as happens on Broadway.
At a rehearsal Friday at Radio City, the "Rocky" cast and crew practiced matching their choreography and music to the cameras for 1½ hours. It was start-and-stop stuff, since the lighting, projection screens and sound cues are so intricate. The boxing ring slid flawlessly from the back, and the final product promised to be a spectacle to intrigue even non-theater fans.
Between lulls, Karl twirled a jumping rope so fast it whined, and some of the dancers breakdanced. Devine and director Alex Timbers calmly and collaboratively fine-tuned the sequences to better accommodate the stage and Tony needs. When time expired, the team got loud brotherly applause from the cast of "After Midnight," the next group of performers who had arrived to practice.
On Sunday night, Devine will be in the seats for the real event when her show gets its big shot on national television, and she suspects she might be sweating a little, too.
"It is very hard in those moments — much like an opening night — to completely relax," she said. "You're counting in your head, you're watching the feed happen, you're watching the transition. There's so much going on so I'm usually a bit of a nervous wreck."