Rocky Balboa, the Italian stallion and well-known underdog, has gone nose to nose with some pretty outsized obstacles in his decades (1976-2006) — "master of disaster" Carl Weathers, Mr. T., Dolph Lundgren and Antonio Tarver, to say nothing of retirement, bankruptcy and old age — and now he's squaring off against The Real heavyweights — theatre critics in all their assorted sizes, shapes and sensibilities.
The Rocky that arrived March 13 at the Winter Garden is, in case you're still counting, No. 7 in the series — a $16.5 million musical version of the first chapter, a scruffy little boxing movie which was brought in, for a measly million, in 28 days.
Sylvester Stallone wrote his own ticket to stardom — a small-time southpaw fighter from the South Side of Philly who is tapped for a shot at the World Championship by the current title-holder, Apollo Creed, who, in a moment of patriotic largess, decides to mark America's Bicentennial by giving The Little Man a chance at his title. Said another way, it is a David and Goliath yarn, sprinkled with old-fashioned Capra corn.
This was eminently playable, of course, but screenwriter Stallone insisted no one would play it but him, and eventually the Hollywood kingpins kowtowed. The result won three Oscars, including the one for Best Picture of 1976. All Stallone got out of it was a couple of nominations for acting and screenwriting, and — oh, yes — a career. What Rocky Balboa was really fighting for was self-respect — an easily understood human need. The pounding and pulverizing it takes for him to get it is a visceral, emotional, identifiable experience for audiences. He has gone five other rounds of film with this, and the series has earned $1,126,271.447 and a world of respect.
The question becomes: Can that singularly cinematic experience be approximated on stage? Considerable theatrical acumen and art have been marshaled for this task by director Alex Timbers, movement specialist Steven Hoggett and choreographer Kelly Devine to extend the conventional boundaries of theatre. Although opinions will vary, it's hard to get an argument from the primal force of their last 20 minutes.
The theatre's Golden Circle — the first eight rows, AA-F, in the center section — are replaced by the boxing ring Rocky has been using on stage, and the patrons in those seats are escorted to seats on stage to watch The Big Fight from that vantage point.
Creed and Balboa then have it out in an epic battle, which accelerates when the champ is knocked to the canvass for the first time in his career by the punk fighter that he picked. As staged rather brilliantly by Hoggett, it's a realistic battle, betrayed only by the overhanging Busby Berkeley shots that show swings that clearly miss their mark.
Stallone surrounded himself smartly with Oscar-nominated work from people in Rocky's camp — his manager Mickey, his wallflower girlfriend Adrian and her loutish brother, Paulie. Dakin Matthews, Margo Seibert and Danny Mastrogiorgio play the roles originated onscreen by Burgess Meredith, Talia Shire and Burt Young. In the ring, of course, are Andy Karl and Terence Archie as the musical's Rocky and Apollo.
After the show, another ring awaited Stallone smack dab in the Roseland Ballroom. Not a few of the first-nighters made the connection this would probably be the last opening-night party to given at Roseland, as it will be shuttered this spring. But at least it was going out in a bustle of old-fashioned theatrical glory and pandemonium. Stallone, who arrived at the theatre with three daughters and Jennifer Flavin, moved solo about the theatre and party, pausing to do only a token amount of press stops.
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"I always thought 'Rocky' was a great love story," he said, "that it had a romantic and musical feel about it — music in 'Rocky' is so important — but never in my wildest imagination — when you let go and have this new theatre group of writers and directors and lyricists and, of course, Andy and Margo — did I think they would take the characters to a new high. I feel like I've been through 15 rounds myself."
The conclusion of the play is constant, rather chaotic music composed by Stephen Flaherty. "The entire fight actually uses themes from every song in the score," he pointed out. "It's as if the entire show is being filtered through Rocky's consciousness as he is being punched in the ring. I wanted to get inside his head.
"One of the cool things is we've been doing a lot of work with the taiko drum, which is an ancient warrior drum, That was so much fun because you feel it viscerally."
And the most fun he had doing Rocky, said Flaherty, "was working on the final fight because it was a true collaboration among all of us, all my fellow theatre artists who are trying to make something that pushes the envelop of what theatre can do and, also, tells it in such a musically dramatic way. It just explodes in that moment."
The out-of-town work on Rocky was done out of continent, in Hamburg, Germany, and lyricist Lynn Aherns insisted she didn't mind her words Germanized. "I actually loved it, and I loved the whole translation process," she trilled. "I could sing them all in German, and I was told I had a brilliant German accent. The German tryout was invaluable. We got to mount the show and get a good look at it and edit and rewrite in a country where no one could understand the language. We were really out of the critical eye. It was very relaxing and very productive to do it there." For her, the hardest number to write was "Ain't Down Yet," which opens the show. "We didn't want to write a traditional opening number — we also didn't want to write a traditional anything. We wanted the scenes to move from the first brutal fight into Rocky's world and locker room and finally his home. And our major goal there was the just keep the music going and keep the words going in a naturalistic way."
As you might imagine, Ahrens had to hit the research books hard for Rocky. "The boxing world was certainly new to me," she admitted. "In fact, I knew nothing about it. Hurting people and making them bleed in public were certainly not my thing, but I have to tell you I have a very healthy respect for the sport. I really do."
The next Aherns-and-Flaherty musical, with book by their Ragtime book writer Terrence McNally, will be closer to her universe. "It's called Little Dancer, directed by Susan Stroman, and it will be at the Kennedy Center this fall. September we'll start with Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker and Tiler Peck, who's a big star of the NYCB."
Stallone shares two hats with this musical — co-producer and co-book writer. He is partnered for the latter with Thomas Meehan, a seasoned veteran of turning movies into musicals (The Producers, Young Frankenstein).
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"You have to take the movie apart and build places to put songs, so it feels like we're following the scenario of the movie, but we start new characters and there are new scenes. We also slightly changed the characters of Paulie and Mickey. Sly has been fine to work with. He sorta handed it over, saying 'You guys know theatre and I don't,' and he was very open for our changes. Toward the end, he came in about two weeks ago and had about three or four ideas that we incorporated. He was definitely the co-writer."
As star-making parts go, Rocky Balboa has struck again — with 39-year-old Karl, who's out for bear from the get-go: He sings! He dances! He acts! He boxes! "He's a quadruple threat — and a wonderful guy, to boot!" chimed in Rock of Ages' Kelly Devine, who's responsible for the choreography part of his workload.
Plus, from afar, in that pork pie hat, speaking sloppy Stallonese, he could be mistaken for the genuine article. "When Stallone first did the film, "said Karl, "he went to a thrift store and bought that hat for $3 for the movie — and that jacket was also just three dollars — because he knew he wanted that particular sort of feel for the movie.
"Stallone has been wonderful to me — a real champ. It takes cojones to want to take your baby — your movie — put it up on stage and get it to do what it did tonight."
For Karl, the musical was akin to growing up and playing your own childhood hero. "'Rocky' movies were as precious to me as a kid. I know there are in the audience a ton of people who did the same thing, so I'm doing the best I can for them." As his love interest, the painfully shy plain-jane Adrian, Seibert brings to mind her celluloid counterpart, Shire — especially in her difficulty of getting words out.
"It's that underdog story of the two of them," she said. "Can they overcome what holds them back and will they really succeed? You just don't know. Can Adrian overcome it? You want her to, of course. I don't think she knows how not to be honest, and I love that about her. You can see her struggle, how much she cares about Rocky but how scared she is to let that out and jump off that cliff and live a little, but they have that slow burn together and you get to see more and more of her true colors.
Archie, who swaggered onto the local theatre scene in 2010 in the title role of Kristoffer Diaz's Pulitzer-contending play about TV wrestling, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, makes a properly imposing Apollo Creed, and, from the looks of him, he has stayed in training.
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"The fight, in and of itself, is a form of dialogue," Archie contended. "It's not just people throwing knuckles and getting hit in the ribs. The fight is a heightened form of language, just like singing is, so we have to make sure we communicate something different every round. I love the physical scenes. I mean, if you've got anything on your chest, when you get in that ring, you can let it out. You can have a good excuse for it. So I don't mind hitting Andy Karl at all. He's got a good head to hit."
He takes particular pride in this project because "it makes us part of a great legacy. "'Rocky' has been around for over three decades now, and it doesn't just touch people in America. It touches people all over the world. When you hear 'Eye of the Tiger' [Theme for "Rocky III"], something riles up inside you, and that's no fluke. There's a reason for that. People get inspired by it, people who are downtrodden. When they hear that, they sorta get inspired and they want to do something for themselves."
Not everyone can say they did on Broadway roles last played on film by Adolph Menjou and Burt Young, but Mastrogiorgio can — although he adds correctly than Menjou was miscast in Golden Boy and the part was better done on stage by Roman Bohnen. Young was in attendance, and Mastrogiorgio ran off to see what he thought.
"Paulie is a little bit of an unsavory character to a lot of people," Mastrogiorgio understated. "The thing I like about him is that he is the guy who tries. He doesn't always succeed, and maybe he doesn't even often succeed — but he tries."
Still, you don't want him over for the holidays. No turkey or Christmas tree is safe. Matthews admitted, "It's kind scary walking in Burgess Meredith's footsteps," but, other than that, he very much liked the crusty old coach he played. "I like the fact that he has a hard exterior and a soft, disappointed core, and then when he's called upon to be a father to Rocky he manages to do it, and they have a kind of love story." Jennifer Mudge, best known as a strong dramatic actress, reverts back to musical theatre here — in a role considerably enlarged from the film. ("She had one or two two lines, and you just see the back of her head." But her future looks more musical: "I did Into the Woods at the McCarter last year, and it's coming to the Roundabout at the end of the year. I played the witch." Does she want to do it again? "That's the plan."
Director Timbers was showing the wear-and-tear of all the heavy lifting of bringing Rocky to the Broadway musical stage. He was proud he put acting over singing in casting his show. "Three out of the six principals have never done a Broadway musical. They let us cast play actors, and that was really important to getting us the tone and the emotional fiber of that world. To have musical theatre actors up against play actors really creates some interesting things."
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He was delighted the way his two long-shot leads paid off. "I've never seen Andy do a leading man role before, and he just brought all those things that are just inherent to Rocky — the butchness with the innocence, and his voice, and his ability to do the fights are incredible. Margo auditioned for us literally nine times. When I first saw her, I thought she didn't look like an actress with a capital A, and she acts in this naturalistic manner, too. In the show, she feels very honest and authentic.
"These Broadway musicals are like a 12-week process, and, when you get to the end, it feels like you really are at the end of a marathon not a sprint. Downtown you still have a little energy left, but I feel pretty exhausted right now — and happy."
The red carpet ritual this brisk and bracing evening was uncoverably cold. Seen slivering and shivering into not-much-warmer lobby and innermost lobby of the Winter Garden were Whoopi Goldberg; "Titanic" helmsman James Cameron; original "Rocky" producer Irwin Winkler; ex-Jersey Boy David Reichard; Disney duo Newsie Jeremy Jordan and Little Mermaid Sierra Boggess; Gregg Edelman from Drood; Ayn Robbins and son; Aladdin composer Alan Menken with daughter Anna Rose; set designer Derek McLane and Lia Vollack; designer Ralph Lauren and Ricky Anne Loew-Beer; director-lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. and producer-comedienne Jamie de Roy; playwright Terrence McNally and his Mothers and Sons lead producer, Tom Kirdahy; Jujamcyn kingpin Jordan Roth and agent Richie Jackson; playwright Douglas Carter Beane and composer Lewis Flinn; actress Heidi Blickenstaff and Nicholas Rohlfing; Violet's Colin Donnell and Patti Murin; publicists Judy Jacksina in from Boston and Tony Origlio in from Italy; Wesley Snipes; the newly Oscared Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez letting it go; Joey Slotnick; Memphis mighty Montego Glover; Buyer and Cellar and bound for the West Coast Michael Urie; Sylvie Meis; David Bloch and composer Andrew Lippa; Silver-haired David Byrne whose Here Lies Love will soon lie at The Public directed by Timbers; Jay Armstrong Johnson, fresh from the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd and a recent musical Romeo for Timbers at the La Jolla Playhouse; Orfeh; Bobby Cannavale and Ramona Singer.