An unlikely musical adaptation of Sylvester Stallone's boxing hit proves it's no punchline


The last time an iconic film hero hit Broadway, a comic-book daredevil became a litigious disaster in 2011’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. So the idea of a musical version of Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 boxing flick Rocky seemed far from a sure thing. Director Alex Timbers thought it had to be a joke. Choreographer Steven Hoggett’s friends told him to avoid the job. And lyricist Lynn Ahrens had an almost visceral distaste for the idea. “I hate boxing, and I don’t want to watch violence,” she recalls. “I thought, Not in a million years will I want to work on this show.”

Against great odds, the trio of theater vets did indeed sign on to adapt the Oscar-winning story of a small-time Philadelphia fighter who gets a bout with a heavyweight champion — and finds love with a shy pet-store clerk named Adrian. The $16.5 million musical, now in previews at the Winter Garden Theatre before an official March 13 premiere, features a 30-person ensemble led by Andy Karl (Legally Blonde), a modern rock- and R&B-tinged score, and a regulation-size boxing ring that flips and floats out over the audience for the climactic fight between Rocky and his rival Apollo Creed (theatergoers in the first eight rows are escorted onto the stage to watch the final 20 minutes). Yes, there’s full-contact boxing. Yes, they sing “Eye of the Tiger.” And no, there are no kick lines or jazz hands anywhere in sight. But perhaps most surprising? Audience buzz is terrific.

The first priority of Rocky’s creative team was to be true to the unflashy tone of the original. “It was very evident that the show existed in a reality, not in some musical-theater version of 1975 Philadelphia,” says Timbers, famed for his work on edgy shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. “I was blown away by the masculinity and grittiness of this kind of emotion-driven spectacle.”

But every spectacle starts as just a speck. A decade ago, Stallone began toying with a musical version of his first hit. “I loved the idea of seeing Rocky on stage,” he said in a promotional video. “The tempo, the way the characters talk, their voice, and what they said was almost lyrical.” He set up a meeting with Thomas Meehan, who’d coscripted such stage hits as Annie, Hairspray, and The Producers. Like virtually everyone else approached about the project, Meehan was skeptical: “I said, ‘I’ll meet with Stallone, but I don’t want to do a musical of Rocky.’ “

But Meehan’s doubts wore off when he watched the movie in the screening room of Stallone’s L.A. home as the star told the legendary story of how he wrote the film in just three days. “I had forgotten how powerful that first movie was,” says Meehan. “Seeing it with him and through his eyes, I began to think there might be something here.” After Meehan penned a 26-page outline, he and Stallone spent three years shopping it to Hollywood songwriters like Diane Warren and R. Kelly, who they hoped would compose the score. “They each wrote this sort of great big power ballad, a ‘Someday I’m going to be the champion’ thing,” Meehan says. “That’s not what we wanted.”

What Meehan wanted — and what he persuaded Stallone to consider — was the Tony-winning team of Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime). At the insistence of Meehan and Ahrens’ husband, Neil, the pair read Stallone’s film script and got hooked. “There’s a lot that’s told in reaction shots, so in a good way it’s underwritten,” says Flaherty. “The emotional, interesting places that you can go with music had to do with what was not being said. When Adrian says, ‘Good night, Rocky,’ and he leaves…” Here Ahrens interjects, “What’s she thinking? That’s where you find music.”

Ahrens and Flaherty wrote four songs, including Rocky’s introspective anthem “Fight From the Heart,” which they nervously performed for Stallone in 2006 in a Philadelphia hotel while he was shooting Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment in the series. Flaherty recalls, “After the first song, he slammed his great, giant action-figure fist on the table — he was really emotional — and said, ‘That’s it, that’s it.’ “

Impressing Stallone was the easy part; finding investors proved harder. “People wanted us to do a parody of it, to Book of Mormon-ize it,” says Ahrens. “They think tap-dancing boxers, and it would have been easy to do that, but that wasn’t what we felt.” Then a team of German producers (with the help of Ukrainian boxers the Klitschko brothers) independently pitched a Rocky musical to Stallone — and agreed to finance a pre-Broadway production in, of all places, Hamburg. “I’ve had shows done all over the world, but never a brand-new show in a foreign language,” says Meehan.

After eight months translating the script into German, the team premiered Rocky das Musical at the Operettenhaus Theater in November 2012. The show became a hit, and NYC producers soon took notice. But does one of America’s most famous underdogs have a fighting chance on Broadway? At the sold-out first preview this month, Stallone seemed encouraged — despite the wait. “I was born about nine blocks from here,” he said. “It only took 67 years to get here, so it shows you how Rocky moves slowly.”

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  • Movie
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  • John G. Avildsen