Rocky the Musical Makes World Premiere in Germany Nov. 18; American Drew Sarich Stars

By Kenneth Jones
November 18, 2012

Drew Sarich, the American actor who has had a busy career performing musicals in Europe, plays iconic underdog boxer Rocky Balboa in Rocky the Musical, opening in its world premiere Nov. 18 in Hamburg, Germany. The American creative team — Alex Timbers, Thomas Meehan, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty — have been on hand for its rehearsals and previews. Performances began Oct. 29.



Rocky, drawing on the Oscar-winning boxing movie, plays the Operettenhaus in Hamburg. The producers are Stage Entertainment, filmmaker and original "Rocky" creator/star Sylvester Stallone and Vitali & Wladimir Klitschko.

The 36-year-old St. Louis-born, Vienna-based Sarich was Armand in Broadway's Lestat and played Grantaire (and later Javert and Valjean) in the 2006 Broadway revival of Les Miserables. He was the title character in the stage premiere of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Germany.

Adrian, Rocky's underconfident girlfriend, is played by 31-year-old Dutch actress Wietske van Tongeren.

The musical (which is performed in the German language, but was first written in English by its American writers) has a score by Tony Award winners Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Once On This Island) and a book by Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray). Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher) directs. 

The original German cast album was recorded and is available in the lobby of the theatre.

Ahrens and Flaherty have been in Hamburg since late August, they told Playbill.com.

"It has been an amazing adventure," composer Flaherty said in an email from Germany. "Our international cast comes from 12 different countries, our band features some of the best players I've ever worked with, including three amazing guitarists playing 17 different guitars (!), and I have had the pleasure of working with some favorite regular collaborators (orchestrator Doug Besterman, music supervisor David Holcenberg and sound designer Peter Hylenski) along with some truly inspired new ones (Alex Timbers, Steven Hoggett, Kelly Devine and our wonderful designers)."

When asked about the challenge of writing the show in English and then seeing its book and lyrics translated to German, lyricist Ahrens said by email that it was "an interesting and fraught process [in] that German does not use slang, that it has many more syllables per square inch than English, and that in the end one has to surrender to changed imagery, different sounds — lots if hard consonants and 'ch' sounds! — and simply hope for the best. Luckily, Tom Meehan and I have two great and collaborative translators (Ruth Deny for book and Wolfgang Adenberg for lyrics) and the German audiences are responding powerfully. I'm even beginning to be able to sing along! It has been an amazing time."

Flaherty added, "In short, [I'm] having the time of my life. And thank God for the Basic German For Dummies app!"

Rocky co-producer Stallone, who created the story, wrote the screenplay and starred in the 1976 source film, was apprised of casting progress earlier this year by viewing videos of each performer throughout the process. He said in a statement, "To find a guy like Rocky is very difficult. This was a real challenge for the casting team. I saw a lot of candidates on video and I was surprised about the great talent pool in Germany. I am very happy that we finally found Drew Sarich. He is a great actor, brilliant singer with the right look of an honest, simple guy fighting for his moment of dignity."

Steven Hoggett, a 2012 Tony Award nominee for Choreography for Once, whose credits also include Black Watch, American Idiot and Peter and the Starcatcher, creates the boxing choreography. Kelly Devine (Rock of Ages) is choreographer of the more traditional musical numbers in the show that composer Flaherty called a kind of "visceral …street opera." In addition to offering intimate songs, the show also has its moments of "gladiatorial spectacle," Timbers said in a promotional video.

Sarich came to Germany in 1999. Since then, in addition to playing the Hunchback, he played the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar and was Count Krolock in Dance of the Vampires. He is also a musician and songwriter, and has released seven albums as a solo artist or with his band International Victim. He currently lives in Vienna with his wife and two children.

Sarich and van Tongeren appeared together in Rudolf Mayerling Affair in Vienna in 2009. She created the role of "I" at the world premiere of Rebecca the Musical in Vienna in 2007.

Of physically transforming into the boxer, Sarich said in an earlier statement, "I was never fit. I was never fit! I came to Europe in 1999 with a weight of 120 kg. Right now I am about 80 kg and I [was] was told a week ago: 'Now you need another 10 kg more but pure muscle.' That means push-ups, cross-training, pull-ups, large meals. I really look forward to it."

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The musical had 2011 industry presentations in New York City. Timbers directed Broadway's The Pee-wee Herman Show and directed and wrote the book for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (for which he was Tony-nominated as a writer).

The film's writer and star Stallone attended the 2011 New York City presentations of the developing musical about a meathead Italian boxer from Philly whose big heart lands him a shy girl named Adrian. As in the film, Rocky Balboa's aging trainer Mickey, shady future brother-in-law Paulie and boxing rival Apollo Creed are major characters in the musical.

The movie from then-unknown Stallone won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Picture. It also won the Oscar for Best Director (John G. Avildsen) and Film Editing (the dynamic boxing-ring scenes had post-Watergate, post-Vietnam audiences cheering).

The musical is aiming for a Broadway life in 2013, Meehan previously told Playbill.com, though no producers have announced such a trajectory. The show is expected to include the original film's popular, Oscar-nominated song, "Gonna Fly Now," as well as the Oscar-nominated "Eye of the Tiger" from "Rocky III." The bulk of the score is made up of new songs by lyricist Ahrens and composer Flaherty. The composer said the score will be flavored with rock, R&B, folk and funk.

The production is billed on the Stage Entertainment website as Rocky, Das Musical, Fight From the Heart.

The scenic designer is Chris Barreca (The Violet Hour, Marie Christine).

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Ahrens and Flaherty won the Best Score Tony Award for Ragtime, and were nominated for Once On This Island. Like Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock before them, they have been praised for their ability to write muscular, driving, melodic show tunes while alternately zeroing in on tiny human emotions in ballads.

Ahrens & Flaherty also wrote the scores to the musicals My Favorite Year, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, The Glorious Ones and Lucky Stiff.

Visit musicals.de for ticket information.