Ever heard of the Long Count Fight? Neither had I, until reading Bill Bryson’s latest book. One Summer: America, 1927 contains a description of a famous championship boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Apparently people gathered around radios all over the country to experience the big fight as it happened. Obviously we still have boxers and championship fights (I guess — Do we?) but any notion of it being so central to popular culture is long gone. The same could be said about Broadway musicals, which carry nowhere near the cultural influence they did several decades ago. Let’s bring these two once-ubiquitious, now-peripheral forms of entertainment together and see what we get, shall we?
We get Rocky. We all know the story (underdog Rocky versus champion Apollo Creed) so I won’t bother rehashing. The classic boxing movie was adapted with the blessing and collaboration of Sylvester Stallone, its original author and star. The musical hasn’t been terribly well received: the reviews were lukewarm, it didn’t get a Tony nomination for best musical, everyone’s complaining about the lackluster score, and there’s a general annoyance at the wasted potential given all the talent involved in its creation.
So I basically expected to hate it. But lo and behold: I had a good time! Two major reasons stand out: the staging (from Alex Timbers, with choreography from Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine), and the star, Andy Karl. Andy Karl is absolutely heroic in his performance. His nightly to-do list includes the following:
- Make us forget Sylvester Stallone
- Stay onstage for most of the show
- Sing lots
- Show incredible athleticism in all the workout and training sequences
- Win over the audience with charm and lunkheaded appeal
- Get beat up at the end of the show (or pretend to, at least)
Plus he’s obviously incredibly fit, so clearly he has to work out for hours every day as well. I’m trying to decide what Mr. Karl does after each performance. Either he faceplants into his dressing room sofa from complete exhaustion, OR he eats four cheeseburgers, an entire pizza, and a bucket of ice cream.
The other star of the show is the production, which is really slick and splashy. Normally I’d say that with scorn (“Well, Bullets over Broadway is definitely slick, if THAT’s what you’re looking for”) but in this case it suits the material so well that I mean it as a compliment. The story (book by Mr. Stallone and Thomas Meehan) is just as slight and sentimental as it was in the movie; what it needed was a production that justifies telling this story theatrically. Which we definitely got. Mr. Timbers, Mr. Hoggett and Ms. Devine show off their best stuff: quick cuts, effective movement, nice use of an ensemble to recreate the feel of South Philly. They’re especially masterful in the “Eye of the Tiger” training sequence in Act 2 (the audience goes a bit loopy during the opening bars of that song, by the way).
Timbers is also clearly a fan of immersion, gradually escalating the use of the auditorium-as-extension-of-the-stage concept until the final fight scene, when the stage actually moves into the auditorium itself. (I didn’t want to put that in bold, but I can’t help myself: The stage actually moves into the auditorium itself.) It’s stunning and this scene alone justifies the price of admission. The fight is just as impressive choreographically as it is technically: every movement between Rocky and Apollo Creed feels spontaneous, though it’s actually planned down to the second. I was sitting on the far right side of the orchestra, near the front, and my entire section stood up to watch the fight. Theater usually isn’t particularly good at showcasing the excitement of sports — movies are far better in that regard — but Rocky‘s final scene really gives you a sense of just why people find boxing compelling.
All that said: everyone is probably right to be disappointed with Rocky. In a less dazzling production, without a star like Andy Karl, this thing is going to fall flat. Mostly because the score (by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) doesn’t sing the way it should. Actually, listening to it made me think of Woody Allen. Let me explain: in a recent New Yorker profile on Susan Stroman, Woody Allen’s sister said: “He hates the new music for shows, the new composers,” a comment which doesn’t make much sense to me (I mean, all of them? But there are so many! I mean, is Sondheim included? How far does this go back? Does he like show music from the 1980s? 1970s? 1960s? A lot of it isn’t so different from the standards he adores!). But I imagine the score for Rocky was the exact type of score Woody Allen would think of as typical modern show music. It sounds pleasant enough. But it’s totally forgettable; it’s probably too earnest; it just doesn’t really do anything in terms of the story. And this from some of Broadway’s better talents!
On my way out of Rocky, I heard a few people around me chatting about which of the Rocky movies were their favorite. (A compelling case was made for Rocky III with Mr. T.) That’s the kind of show this is, I suppose. You’ll have a good time, and you’ll leave talking to your friends about how much you loved the movie.