Adapting stories from well known films to stage musicals can sometimes lead to a less than ideal version of a story best suited to its original medium. However, the Broadway production of ROCKY, directed by Alex Timbers, might just be an example of a thoughtful evolution of a classic movie that will succeed in its new form.
It seems that no expense was spared as witnessed by this show’s astounding production values. With a reported budget of $16.5 million to transform the 1976 little movie that could, into a large-scale musical for today’s Broadway audiences, ROCKY is the work of Broadway heavyweights brought on to the project by Sylvester Stallone. The man who created this brand of Americana enlisted the veteran Broadway scribe Thomas Meehan, of Annie and Hairspray, to write the book, and chose Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, most well known for Ragtime, for the score and lyrics.
Stallone and Meehan’s book has kept close to the plot of the movie, and Flaherty and Ahrens crafted a score that includes a number of ballads aimed at developing the love story of Rocky and Adrian, in addition to some big ensemble numbers that support the feel and sweep of the drive and journey and the spectacle of the ring. Some of the iconic music from the film, such as the theme from Bill Conti’s score the Eye of the Tiger, are used in this production — a humble and seemingly intentional move by the musical team. The show’s stated goal was to deliver an authentic and tender love story within the dazzling spectacle that only Broadway can deliver. And it seems that it has succeeded.
All in all, ROCKY packs an emotional wallop and generates an incredibly joyful response from the audience each night. As would be expected, this has been particularly gratifying to the creatives, cast and producers. One of the show’s co-producers, Lou Spisto, said, “We couldn’t be happier with what the creative team and the cast have brought to life. Andy Karl, Margo Siebert and the entire cast are stunning. I’m honestly amazed at what Andy has done with the role—he has truly made it his own, and I marvel at his ability to handle the extraordinary physical demands and give such a nuanced and heart-wrenching performance.”
The musical, which opened on March 13, has received positive reviews from many New York and national theater critics who have paid particular attention to the vision of director Alex Timbers. TIME Magazine’s review is headlined “ROCKY Musical Lands A Solid Hook on Broadway,” It says: “Innovative staging and lunkheaded charm leave audiences punch-drunk with pleasure.” The New York Post’s Elizabeth Vincentelli writes in her review, “the final 20 minutes of the musical, in which a boxing ring descends from the rafters, is electric. Director Alex Timbers earns his keep right there.”
Marilyn Stasio, in her review for Variety, writes, “[the production] looks like it was worth every penny [of its $16.5 budget]. The real coin for Alex Timbers’ extravagant production went into the spectacular projections, sound and lighting effects, and into the scenic showpiece ‑ a regulation-size boxing ring that puts the audience ringside for the big fight.”
The accolades for Timbers are part of a continuing pattern for this young director who has been widely praised for inspired direction of Broadway shows Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher, the recent Off Broadway cult hit Here Lies Love, and projects with non-profit companies in New York and across the country.
For Lou Spisto (formerly in regional theater and the performing arts), involvement in a commercial production such as ROCKY indicates projects led by artists such as Timbers will find widespread support in any platform: Broadway, off-Broadway, or non-profit venues. Spisto notes, “It’s a large team of producers needed for a show of this size and, while I don’t speak for the group, I can say without hesitation that we’re all big fans of Alex. What’s especially exciting for me is that he’ll continue to bring us his unique vision in this and, I suspect, other mediums for a long, long time.”
While adaptations from film to stage might never be less than a very risky venture, the initial response to ROCKY may prove that musicals have the potential do more than just shed some new light on a familiar film. With brilliant vision and careful execution, these musicals can be important works of art and entertainment in their own right, and become part of the cannon of great musical theater.