Will ‘Rocky’ go the Distance as a Broadway Musical?

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

Rocky Balboa's got heart and he can fight. But can he sing? Sylvester Stallone is betting American theatergoers will pay to find out.

Stallone, who wrote and starred in the original "Rocky" movie in 1976, brought the story of Philadelphia's favorite underdog to the stage last fall with a musical adaptation that opened in Hamburg, Germany. Now Stallone, in partnership with Bill Taylor of Stage Entertainment USA, is producing a Broadway version of the "Rocky" musical, which will open at the Winter Garden Theater in February 2014.

Stallone first hatched the idea of a musical version of "Rocky" in 2011, and began recruiting a creative team for the stage version, including songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (who won a Tony award for their music for "Ragtime"), playwright Thomas Meehan (who has experience bringing movies to the stage, having helped adapt "Hairspray," "Young Frankenstein," and "The Producers"), and director Alex Timbers.

Backers in the United States were wary of the show's prospects -- not so surprising, since Stallone's collaborators weren't convinced the show was a good idea at first either. Director Timbers recalls telling his agent the "Rocky" musical "had a 95 percent chance of being awful," while lyricist Ahrens confessed when she and her writing partner were first asked about the project, "Stephen and I were both like, 'No way.' We just couldn't imagine what it would be."

However, the European theatrical production company State Entertainment believed in Stallone's vision, and the $20 million production opened in Hamburg last fall to strong reviews and solid business. Now Stage's American branch will be bringing the show back to America (and giving it its first production in English), where producers expect the new production to cost $15 million, a savings attributed to having worked out major staging issues abroad.

While the Broadway production will include a rousing concluding match where Rocky and Apollo Creed will face off in the ring, Stallone and his partners have emphasized that the stage adaptation of "Rocky" focuses more on the relationships between the characters than fisticuffs. "We've tried to think of this as an indie musical -- the David Fincher version of 'Rocky,' director Timbers said. "And scale some of the scenes and sets to fit the human beings you'd see in a Sam Shepard play."

But fans of the original movie will still find plenty to recognize. In the play, Rocky is still fighting Apollo Creed, still trying to win Adrian's heart, and still saying "Yo!" a lot. And elements of Bill Conti's classic score for "Rocky" have been woven into the play's musical score.

Stallone and his producers have already began publicizing the show - there's already a website with a "trailer" giving glimpses of the production, though the cast for the Broadway production hasn't been announced - and Stallone believes the story will speak to people from the stage just as it did from the screen.

"The story of 'Rocky' was very much like my life at the time - starting out with nothing, having to fight for roles and recognition," Stallone said. "So I put those feelings into the body of a boxer and I had no idea there were so many millions of people that felt the same way. Alex Timbers and the entire creative team have not only honored that original impulse, but have made his story as exciting, heartbreaking, and inspiring as it was when 'Rocky' first went the distance onscreen."

Watch a first look at the 'Rocky' musical:

Watch the trailer for the original 'Rocky':