Andy Karl as Rocky and Margo Seibert as Adrian in ‘Rocky the Musical’ (AP Photo/Polk and Co., Matthew Murphy)
In February 2014, Rocky Balboa — the boxer who knocked down Mr. T, conquered the human Cold War symbol Ivan Drago, and pioneered the Siberian training montage — did something unprecedented in his nearly 40-year career: He got up onstage and sang his heart out. A musical version of Rocky may sound like a joke, but the show that opened at New York’s Winter Garden Theater last year (starring Andy Karl in the title role) was as heartfelt and thrilling as the 1976 film that inspired it. Sadly, the Broadway musical closed after only 5 months, but it lives on through a cast album and a few choice YouTube clips. Watch a montage of scenes from the musical below.
Rocky seems like a counterintuitive choice for a musical for several reasons. Most of the franchise consists of boxing-centric action films that teeter on the edge of self-parody — clearly not a natural fit for love ballads and choreography. But the play was based on the first movie, which if you’ll recall, isn’t anything at all like Rocky II through V. It’s less an action film than a character-based drama and, yes, a love story. What says “Broadway” more than the story of an underdog who realizes his dreams through the power of love?
Then there’s the fact that the lead characters in Rocky aren’t exactly effusive with their emotions. Stallone, as wannabe boxer and turtle-lover Balboa, does a lot of muttering; his intended, pet store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire in the movie), is painfully shy. In fact, that’s what makes these two lovebirds perfect fodder for a musical. Characters in musicals sing when words fail them; the songs give the audience a direct window into thoughts and emotions they otherwise wouldn’t express. Adrian and Rocky may not say much to each other, but their songs bring added resonance to the bond we’ve seen onscreen. For example, listen to this gorgeous soliloquy sung by Adrian as she closes up shop early in the show (as performed by original cast member Margo Seibert). Called “Raining,” it tells the audience everything we need to know about Adrian’s troubled life up until now, and explains why she hasn’t acted on her feelings for Rocky, who clearly adores her.
But what about the boxing, you ask? And what about classic Rocky soundtrack songs like “Gonna Fly Now” and “Eye of the Tiger?” The musical has those, too! In addition the Philly-soul-inspired score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the show incorporates the two best-loved Rocky film songs (even though “Eye of the Tiger” was from the third film, not the first one). And the boxing on Broadway was breathtaking: choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine brought those iconic training montages to life onstage with an ensemble of Rocky doubles, while the show’s final face-off with Apollo Creed involved a boxing ring pulled into the middle of the audience, where the crowd was invited to gather around and cheer the (very realistic) 20-minute fight. When Rocky called for Adrian in the final round, all heads craned to the back of the theater, anxiously awaiting her entrance. For those lucky enough to have been there, it was literally like being transported into the middle of the film.
Rocky the Musical was ultimately KO’d by mixed reviews and underwhelming office. The problem boiled down to critics and audiences alike asking, Does the world need a ‘Rocky’ musical? But that’s missing the point. Hollywood has never stopped trying to reinvigorate the boxing franchise, most recently with Creed (opening Nov. 25). Rocky the Musical found an innovative way to do just that, bringing the story back to its bare essence: A boy with a dream and a girl who believed in him. Like Rocky himself, the show lost big, but still came away a winner.
Watch Stallone talk about recasting his iconic roles: