Sylvester Stallone’s vision for a musical-theater adaptation of Rocky, the 1976 film that made a fictional boxer a national hero and, eventually, a worldwide franchise, never included an onstage role for himself.
“I possess zero talent in singing or dancing,” Stallone insists, laughing at the notion. “But I’ve always admired things I can’t do.”
Thus in the production of Rocky now in previews at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, fans of the film series will meet a new face, and pair of fists — belonging to Andy Karl, a theater veteran whose previous Main Stem credits include Jersey Boys and last season’s celebrated revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Karl was well aware of the challenge facing him in bringing one of the biggest names in 20th-century cinema to the stage. “We’ve watched the character of Rocky in six films and counting,” Karl says.
“I don’t shy away from the reminders of what makes that character who he is — the low and slow speech, the tics in his shoulders from boxing.”
And the heart, of course. “What must come through Rocky, and what Stallone did so well, is showing the honesty within the character,” says Karl.
Still, Stallone says, there are different nuances in Karl’s rendering of the “Italian Stallion,” and in other performances and aspects of the production, scheduled to open March 13.
“My Rocky was more guttural; Andy’s is a little more aware of his surroundings. He has a romantic quality, I think.”
Adrian, the shrinking violet who blossoms under Rocky’s affection, is played by Broadway newcomer Margo Seibert, and comes across as “a bit more worldly” than she did in Talia Shire’s portrayal on screen, Stallone adds.
In the show, which features a book by Thomas Meehan and songs by fellow Broadway vets Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens — Eye of the Tiger, the theme song from Rocky III, is also incorporated — Adrian has one number that has particularly resonated with preview audiences.
Adrian sings I’m Done after a confrontation with Paulie, her alcoholic brother and Rocky’s longtime friend.
“Women have stopped me after the show to confess how much they needed to hear the song,” says Seibert.
Stallone notes that “there’s so much silence” in the original movie that the creative team “had an opportunity to use their own thoughts” in revisiting the characters, which also include Mickey, Rocky’s trainer and eventual manager — “a little more energized” and “less gravelly” of voice than the grizzled fellow Burgess Meredith played on screen, Stallone says — and, of course, Rocky’s nemesis, Apollo Creed.
The musical also introduces a new character, Gloria, a colleague at the pet shop where Adrian works and Paulie’s love interest, identified in the libretto as a “blowsy bleached blonde.”
Stallone, who acted in some “experimental” stage productions before becoming a movie star, appreciates the task facing all the players involved in retelling the story he introduced 38 years ago.
“Making movies is like going into a gun fight with a hundred bullets,” he says.
“On Broadway,” with each performance, “you’ve got just one bullet.”
Bringing Rocky to Broadway
If your response to the news that Rocky was being adapted into a stage musical was utter incredulity, you’re not alone.
“That’s the story of my life,” says Stallone, chuckling. “First nobody thought of me for (the movie) Rocky. Then no one could see it for Broadway.”
In fact, says Stallone, “many, many producing entities had soundly passed on” the concept by the time the show had its world premiere in November 2012 — in German, in Hamburg, where it remains a hit.
The version currently in previews, has been “translated back” into English, fans can be assured.
Stallone, 67, has been convinced that Rocky could work as a musical since the Cinderella story about a small-time boxer from the streets of Philadelphia who gets a shot at the world heavyweight crown first arrived.
“I always saw it as a very romantic story, a people’s love story,” he says. “The characters have so much inside themselves that they can’t express, and I thought that music could be a way to get it out.” The idea came back to him years later, after the release of 1990’s Rocky V.
“I wasn’t happy with how that one turned out,” and his thoughts turned again to song.
“I thought maybe that’s how (the series) should have its finale. And again, everyone thought it was absurd.”
It was about a decade ago, while putting together 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the more enthusiastically received sixth installment in the franchise, that the musical finally started taking shape.
Stallone was referred by his former lawyer, Alan Schwartz, to veteran librettistMeehan, a three-time Tony Award winner for his work on Annie, The Producers and Hairspray.
Meehan, too, was reluctant at first. “I instantly thought, ‘Rocky as a musical? Of course not,'” recalls the 84-year-old writer.
But he agreed to watch the film again with Stallone, in the latter’s home screening room, and was converted.
“It had the elements I look for in making anything into a musical,” Meehan says.
“Here was this larger-than-life, sympathetic character who wanted something desperately. In this case, he wanted to not be a bum — to be able to walk down the street and not be scorned.”
Meehan tapped Flaherty and Ahrens, the team behind musicals such as Ragtime, Seussical and Once On This Island.
Alex Timbers, the acclaimed young director of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, then got on board.
Like Meehan, Timbers was attracted to the working-class struggles embodied in Rocky, whose downtrodden title character serves as a debt collector when we meet him.
“It reminded me in a way of Clifford Odets,” says Timbers, who cites the “gritty” fight choreography of Steven Hoggett (also his collaborator on Starcatcher, and noted for his work on Once and American Idiot) as a key element in the show.
Stallone describes his role in the production as that of a “back-seat” observer, and occasional adviser. “I’ll give some minor notes, but mostly I leave these consummate professionals alone,” he says.
“They each took a tremendous leap of faith, and they’ve seen things in these characters that even I didn’t. They’re all Rocky stories, if you think about it — they’ve put in all this time on something that everyone had said couldn’t work.”
With his own creative energy is currently focused on editing The Expendables 3, directed by Patrick Hughes and due later this year, Stallone is “thinking of directing another film, that’s not an action film.” But shoots can take him away from home for long periods of time, he points out, and “I have three young daughters who seem taller by the time they get home from school. When I’m away from them, I feel guilty, and deprived.”
Asked if he’d consider bringing another one of his noted films to the musical stage, Stallone quips, “I think Rambo could be a real hit.
“Could you imagine? He’d come in and shoot the whole audience. No, I don’t think so. This is it. Rocky is the one.”