Dec 4, 2019
Rocky, the Broadway musical
The trend of turning big Hollywood movies into Broadway musicals has been going on for decades now, and shows no signs of ending soon. Twenty years after Disney’s Beauty and the Beast musical opened to the disdain of theater purists, Broadway has become just another front in major media corporations’ never-ending battle to capitalize on brand name recognition.
Since the ‘90s, the Great White Way has seen endless movie-to-musical adaptations, some with tongue firmly in cheek and some not, including Saturday Night Fever, Legally Blonde, The Lion King, Big, Xanadu, Heathers, The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Newsies, Ghost, Catch Me If You Can, and of course, Spider-Man.
Placed in that context, the current existence of a straight-faced Broadway musical based on Rocky barely even registers on the “sounds like a bad SNL skit” scale.
Rocky was a huge sleeper hit in 1976, turning its star and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone into a household name, and going on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It garnered nominations in all four acting categories that year (for Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, and Burt Young), and was even up for Best Screenplay, making Stallone only the third person—after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles—to be nominated for acting and writing in the same year. This, suffice to say, would be the last time Stallone would ever be mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin or Welles.
The Rocky musical sticks closely to the first movie’s plot, which everybody knows by now, but in case you need a refresher: Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a down on his luck boxer living in South Philly. His trainer Mickey (Meredith) has all but given up on him. He’s working for a loan shark to make ends meet, but he’s too much of a softie to break the thumbs of the guys who don’t pay up. At the same time, he’s trying hard to woo a shy pet store employee named Adrian (Shire), who’s the sister of his best friend Paulie (Young).
One day, the heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) comes to Philadelphia for a match. The guy he’s supposed to fight suddenly drops out, so Creed looks around for another local fighter to take his place. He quickly settles on Rocky, mostly taken by his nickname of the “Italian Stallion”. This means Rocky has five weeks to train for the biggest fight of his life and a shot at the heavyweight title.
After downing raw eggs, sparring with sides of beef, and triumphantly running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky takes on Apollo Creed and goes 15 rounds. Alas, Creed wins in a split decision, but it doesn’t matter, because Rocky went the distance and won something far more important: the love of Adrian. And from there, things quickly degenerate into cartoonish silliness culminating in Rocky fighting the entire USSR by proxy through Dolph Lundgren’s Aryan killing machine while a Mikhail Gorbachev stand-in looks on. (Eventually, Stallone tried to take the series back to its humble roots, and on his second attempt, he actually succeeded.)
Overall, the first Rocky is an odd choice for the Broadway musical treatment. The most memorable scene is a training montage, after all, and the rest of the film is mostly made up of small, intimate scenes that seem ill-suited to a big stage. And despite the Oscar nomination, there’s nothing all that remarkable about Rocky’s screenplay. It’s a pretty thin, meandering, maudlin plot that really only gets by thanks to Stallone’s easygoing charm and charisma. Take Stallone out of Rocky, and it hardly seems like it would have a reason to exist.
And yet, Rocky the Broadway musical does exist, which I know because I’ve seen it. After opening in (of all places) Hamburg, Germany in 2012, the show moved to Broadway this year, and is currently playing at the Winter Garden Theatre, a lovely venue best known for hosting two of the longest running shows in Broadway history, Cats and Mamma Mia! So far, Rocky has been a hit, scoring four Tony nominations, and bringing out a whole new audience of guys who would otherwise never be caught dead going to see musical theater.
But again, the play sticks closely to the plot of the movie (the second act even starts with the lead actor downing a glass of raw eggs), which unfortunately means it has all the same problems as the movie. It’s still a pretty thin, meandering, maudlin plot, only now, it has songs.
Yes, Rocky has 20 original songs, and almost none of them stick in the memory. In the movie, Rocky proudly tells Adrian that despite the number of punches he’s taken to the face, his nose has never been broken. This sentiment is for some reason expanded into the original number “My Nose Ain’t Broken”, a lackluster tune heard several times throughout the play. There’s also a song called “Raining” that seems to be the show’s shameless attempt at generating a hit single. The rest of the songs are mostly the same kind of inoffensive, generic power ballads you hear in every other musical these days.
And other than the Philly Soul-styled “Patriotic”, sung by Apollo Creed and his associates, there’s no effort whatsoever to make the songs sound like they belong in the 1976 setting of the story.
But it wouldn’t be Rocky without Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now”, which becomes a running motif throughout the play. In addition, the cast performs Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, and anyone even vaguely familiar with the Rocky franchise knows that song wasn’t even in the first movie—it was on the soundtrack of Rocky III. I doubt many in the audience cared, but if they’re mixing and matching soundtracks, why not also include “Living in America”? Or “Burning Heart”? Or the MC Hammer classic “Feel the Power”?
But overall, the songs are not the star of the show. And if we’re being honest, the actual stars of the show are not really the stars of the show, either.
Don’t get me wrong; everyone in the cast does a fine job. Andy Karl (who’s been in several Broadway movie adaptations, including Saturday Night Fever and Legally Blonde) plays Rocky and is able to emulate Stallone’s mannerisms without turning it into a farcical impression. Margo Siebert makes a wonderful Adrian and has a fantastic voice. Terence Archie, who plays Apollo Creed, obviously has loads of talent, but the role doesn’t give him much to work with. Danny Mastrogiorgio does fine as Paulie, though I have to say that casting a tall, thin actor in Burt Young’s role caused a bit of disconnect. Dakin Matthews as Mickey barely made an impression, which is rather odd considering this is the same part that became Burgess Meredith’s most iconic role.
But overall, the entire cast plays second fiddle to the real star of the show: the set.
The musical cost an estimated $16.5 million, and it shows in the lavish, dynamic set design. Enormous columns and stairs and platforms rotate in and out of view, accompanied by spectacular light and sound effects; giant TV screens crisscross the stage showing us different views of the action coming from live cameras; and locations like Rocky’s apartment and Paulie’s apartment slide on and off the stage like boxcars on a train. When Adrian’s pet shop slides into view, it’s amusing to see that the rear wall is made up of fish tanks full of actual, live fish. And during Rocky’s training sequence, big rubber sides of beef descend from the rafters, which may be the first time I’ve witnessed a scene transition get its own round of applause.
But all that is nothing compared to the play’s crowning achievement: a recreation of the final Rocky vs. Apollo match that basically transforms the Winter Garden into the Philadelphia Spectrum.
The set change is a massive undertaking, and utterly insane. All audience members sitting in first ten rows center (dubbed the “golden circle”) are ushered on stage to sit in makeshift bleachers behind the boxing ring. Then the ring itself slides out over the empty seats, while a giant Jumbotron descends from the ceiling. Rocky and Apollo then enter the ring like real boxers, coming down the aisles of the theater to cheers and high-fives from the audience. Commentators sit above the action, ring girls carry cards announcing the current round, and the stage becomes the closest thing you’ll see to an actual boxing match in Manhattan outside of Madison Square Garden.
It really has to be seen to be believed. Not being a huge Broadway fan, I never got a chance to see the helicopter landing in Miss Saigon, or the chandelier crashing down in Phantom of the Opera, but I feel confident in saying the final fight in Rocky blows them both away.
Naturally, whatever remains of the story all but disappears in the machinery. Memorable parts of the fight from the film, like the gruesome “cut me!” moment, or the stirring ending where a nearly-blind Rocky screams for Adrian, are lost in all the light and noise and have none of the impact they have in the movie. And the show eventually gives up all pretense of being a musical (there’s not even a big closing number), but by this point, you won’t really care.
Was the show worth the ticket price? Absolutely (though, if I had been sitting in the “golden circle” seats going for $150 each, I might have been less enthusiastic). Following the astonishing final fight, the whole audience went out into the night punch-drunk and high on adrenaline (and what better time to walk across town for some drunken karaoke?), and the preceding two hours of dull, tepid ballads were completely forgotten.
Before you see Rocky, you have to ask yourself what you want out of your Broadway musical experience: a moving, well-crafted drama? Or something that’s only a few steps removed from the Indiana Jones stunt show at Disneyworld? It stays true to the spirit and tone of the original film, but there will be times when you feel like you’re strapped into a Rocky theme park ride.