From left, Andy Karl as Rocky, Vince Oddo, choreographer Steven Hoggett, Terence Archie as Apollo Creed in rehearsal for “Rocky”
The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.
But with fists flying and flesh getting pummeled in “Rocky” — now in previews on Broadway — people are talking about Steven Hoggett, the acclaimed choreographer and movement specialist who’s taught the cast how to throw and land punches that don’t KO each other.
“The actors are making contact in the fights,” says Hoggett. “We’ve worked slowly, very slowly, to build up the speed and the intensity of the punches. We’ve put in a lot of hours to see how far we can take the amount of contact. We spend hours practicing so the actors never fear getting hurt.”
Even so, black eyes, blisters and body aches have been a painful reality of this singing-and-slugging saga of big dreams and small-time underdogs drawn from Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 best picture Oscar winner.
Andy Karl, who stars as nobody Rocky Balboa, and Terence Archie, who plays his nemesis Apollo Creed, have rehearsed since mid-December in order to shape up for the rigors of duking it out on stage. Both actors did a developmental workshop of the show a couple years ago.
Before the match with Apollo, Rocky fights Spider Rico. The match with Spider “shows Rocky at his most base and unsophisticated,” says Hoggett. “I think of the first fight as being like London’s grubby East End. The second match is Vegas. We see the development of Rocky.”
And lots of it. The Balboa-Creed fight lasts more than 15 minutes in the musical. “The fights help tell Rocky’s story,” adds Hoggett.
Odds are that story — told on stage by book writer Thomas Meehan and songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens — is a familiar one for fans of the big-screen version that led to five sequels.
Terence Archie, left, and Andy Karl, right, rehearse a fight scene for “Rocky.”
Quick recap: Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer in Philadelphia, gets a shot chance to fight the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, in a bout that is as much about winning for Rocky as it is self-respect.
Rocky is a lover and a fighter. Ringside is his sweetheart, Adrian. Margo Seibert plays the Talia Shire role. Together Rocky and Adrian are “two outsiders, two lost souls” who find each other, Meehan tells The News.
“At the end of the day, ‘Rocky’ is a love story, and he could never have reached the final bell without Adrian,” Stallone said in a video produced by Stage Entertainment.
The role marks the first star turn for Karl. Like the other fighting actors, he signed a danger waiver for the show — standard procedure when an actor is involved in risky actions. That could be a brawl or flying over the stage on wire.
Karl confirms that the fight “scenes are full contact,” and without giving away too much, allows that the boxing gloves used on stage are more forgiving than ones used in a regulation matches. “We’ve been learning the science of fighting,” he says, “and how much pressure we can apply when we hit.”
While they’ve been discovering the nuts-and-bolts science in Hoggett’s fist factory, the cast had their eyes opened to the eloquence of fighting.
“Boxing is its own language,” says Archie, who played a wrestler in the 2010 Off-Broadway production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” “A jab isn’t just a jab. For Apollo, a left-handed jab is about investigating — it’s an antenna. It’s about communicating.”
Hoggett, a Tony nominee for his choreography for the wistful “Once,” speaks the gruff and lyrical language of the ring. Before choreographing another boxing-themed play, “Beautiful Burnout” in Brooklyn in 2011, Hoggett learned to box. He calls fight scenes on stage “beautiful duets.”
Margo Seibert and Andy Karl as Adrian and Rocky in the new musical “Rocky”
The key to making the fights explosive, visceral and authentic is establishing trust through repetition and routine.
“Like any duet, it’s about trust,” Hoggett says. “A ballet dancer trusts her partner to lift her and to be in the right position.” He has instructed Karl and Archie to “act like boxers and to think like dancers. That builds trust, along with drilling the fight scenes over and over.”
Even with drills and repetition, mishaps go down. “Each fight is like a fingerprint — unique,” says Archie. “You must be alert.”
Subtle changes occur each time the actors step into the ring for fights, especially the 15-round showdown with Apollo.
In the show’s pre-Broadway run in Hamburg, Germany, last year, Hoggett got punched in the face by an understudy. Archie, who was in the overseas production, remains unscathed. Karl says he has “never worked so hard and sees things on his body he’s never seen before.”
Not just shredded muscle — but bruises and a shiner thanks to threads on a glove. “I’ve gotten a blood blister that went to a black eye,” he says. “It was a badge of honor.”
You should know
Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in the original “Rocky” from 1976.
“Rocky” is at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway. Tickets are $ 79-$ 143 at (212) 239-6200
HEAVYWEIGHT WHO’S WHO — BALBOA VS. CREED
In this corner: The Murray Hill mauler Andy Karl , 39, from Baltimore
Broadway credits: “Legally Blonde,” “9 to 5” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”
Previous boxing experience: None. “But I’m a natural mover and I’ve been training like a boxer and have pushed myself to the limit.”
Workout: “I’m at Crunch with a trainer every day but Sunday doing weights and circuit training.”
In this corner: Harlem hardbody Terence Archie , 37, from Detroit
Broadway credits: “Ragtime”
Previous boxing experience: None. “I’m not a natural athlete, but I’m concerned with fitness. I put on 25 pounds for ‘Chad Deity.’”
Workout: A boxing trainer had him “sparring, bobbing, weaving and mastering the core principles.”