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March 28, 2014

What Needs to Be Said about ROCKY

At some point at every show I attend, I take a look at my watch to see how much time has passed. Have more or fewer minutes gone by than I’ve assumed? Many times, I’ve wound up assuming I haven’t wound my watch and swearing that it had to have stopped. I couldn’t have been here only a half hour, could I?

During Act One of ROCKY, before I raised my wrist, I estimated that 20 minutes had passed.

Actually, fifty minutes had come and gone.

That Alex Timbers’ production moves at breakneck speed isn’t the only asset of what’s on stage at the Winter Garden. Thomas Meehan, who co-wrote the book with original screenplay auteur Sylvester Stallone, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have deepened the script of the much-admired movie.

Oh, it’s still the story of Rocky Balboa whom we meet as an aging journeyman boxer. He’s now getting all of $70 for beating an opponent. Actually, after the promoter takes out his padded expenses, Rocky wouldn’t have enough to buy even an obstructed view orchestra seat to this musical.

That’s not quite a fair analogy, because ROCKY is still set in 1975 when the film takes place. You can tell it’s long ago because many a person thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette – and indoors, yet.
You can also tell from Stephen Flaherty’s music, which captures the sounds of the era and is pin-point perfect for the characters, be they butch boxers or wounded-bird lovers who are trying to cope and find themselves.

With $70 paydates, Rocky must moonlight as a strong-arm for loan shark Gazzo and pummel those who don’t pay. But Rocky doesn’t have the heart to break the thumbs that Gazzo wants fractured. When one debtor comes up short and in desperation offers his mackinaw as partial payment, Rocky says a revealing line not in the film: “You’ll need that coat for the winter.”

We like him for that; Gazzo doesn’t. “I don’t pay you to think,” snarls the shark. So Rocky’s at risk of losing this job before he experiences a genuine loss. Gym manager Mickey has given his locker to an up-and-comer. Rocky learns, as most everyone eventually does in virtually every occupation, that youth must be served.

“Learn yourself a useful trade,” Mick advises. Rocky doesn’t feel he’s all done. Ahrens comes up with a shrewd lyric in “My Nose Ain’t Broken” which is part-rationalization, part badge-of-honor and part ray-of-hope. “Some guys get to be champs at 29,” Rocky muses as he approaches 30 – the first round-numbered birthday most people aren’t happy to have. He looks at the poster of Rocky Marciano he has prominently displayed on his wall. “He and I share a name,” he says.

Yes, but Marciano never lost a fight; Rocky has already lost 20.
And when Rocky attempts a chin-up, we see that he’s in pain. He wants, as another good line goes, to “get a second chance and get my life replayed.”

And just as we cared about the CHORUS LINE auditoners because we identified with their stress in conquering a job interview, we, like Rocky, would all love to have that unexpected second chance in life, for we expect that we’d make the most of it.

It’s the type of message that musicals love. ROCKY is its own 42ND STREET; here, instead of the understudy subbing for the injured star, a nobody gets the chance to step in the rectangle known as the ring after champion Apollo Creed’s much-heralded challenger gets hurt.
We also get that ancient cliché where the unattractive girl who wears glasses suddenly looks substantially better when a man removes them. (There’s an irony here: we have a boxing story where the gloves stay on, but the glasses come off.)

She’s Adrian, who works in the pet shop where Rocky goes for food for his turtles. Both are drawn to animals and have withdrawn from people, for little creatures are much better at giving unconditional love.

That’s one of the important themes of both the film and musical: how relatives who don’t believe in us make us lose confidence in ourselves. Rocky’s father encouraged him to box because he believed his son was stupid. We now see his father was stupid not to see that Rocky had some innate intelligence. “We’ve been told we’re nothing,” Rocky and Adrian eventually sing, “but together maybe we can be something.” This is the fight we really want Rocky and Adrian to win.

But at first Adrian is hard to convince. Ahrens allows us to hear what she’s feeling inside, but never in an obvious way. You’d never know from a song called “Raining” that we’d learn so much about who Adrian is. Yet we do.

Where Meehan and Ahrens have truly scored is building on something that Stallone only touched upon in the film. He had one scene take place at Thanksgiving, but in the weeks that followed, he made little mention of Christmas and none of New Year’s. All we got in the film was Adrian’s brother Paulie carrying a wreath and humming a Christmas song to himself; later, at Rocky and Adrian’s place, the camera happened past a Christmas tree.

Meehan and Ahrens have wisely made more of the holidays. They’ve added a scene in which Rocky and Adrian sing about “decorating the Christmas tree like we’re a real couple” and experiencing “something like happiness,” as her lovely lyrics go. By song’s end, they’re confident enough in each other to admit that they’ve actually found – yes -- happiness. The song is called “The Flip Side” and reiterates that each wants to show “the good side of me.” How wonderful that we see them find it in each other and in themselves.

Now we see the smartest change from the film. First, let’s recap what the movie does: Paulie returns to the home that he and Adrian have shared all their lives. He’d expected that Rocky would have recommended him to Gazzo as a loan-collector; because Rocky hasn’t, Paulie goes out of control and begins destroying his house with a baseball bat.

Yes, that’s dramatic. But in the musical, Paulie comes to Rocky’s apartment and starts swinging that bat. Destroying your own house is bad enough, but attacking someone else’s is far worse -- and far more dramatic. To see the decimation of the tree that Rocky and Adrian had so lovingly decorated – and is a symbol of their love – is far more devastating.

This scene also adheres to the musical theater tradition of having disaster strike after a happy moment. The King and Anna bond in “Shall We Dance?” only to have their joyous encore interrupted by the horrible news about Lun Tha and Tuptim. Tzeitel and Motel enjoy their wedding celebration, and then the authorities arrive and destroy the room and the presents. After Annie gratefully accepts Daddy Warbucks’ offer to be his daughter, in come the Mudges. Add this scene from ROCKY to the august list.

Meehan and Ahrens then deliver another masterstroke. Unlike the film which doesn’t tell us precisely when the fight is taking place, they’ve specifically scheduled it for New Year’s Day. As a result, what kind of New Year’s Eve will Rocky and Adrian have? Fighters aren’t supposed to have sex while training (and Adrian has come to enjoy it). What’s more, both of them aren’t just worried that he’ll lose the bout; we’ll soon hear dialogue of how he might become “a vegetable in a wheelchair” and “You wanna end up blind?” This allows for them to mutter “Some New Year’s Eve!” Indeed; while everyone else is out celebrating, these two must be enduring one of the most difficult nights of their lives.

As in the film, Rocky’s goal is modest. He doesn’t expect to win, but insists “I gotta go the distance.” That would be victory enough, and indeed that’s what he gets. How ironic that ROCKY opened just before basketball titans Duke, Oklahoma State and Cincinnati fell and little guys Harvard, Memphis and North Dakota State emerged victorious.

The night I attended, the crowd was automatically supportive of the show partly because of its affection for the original film. Applause greeted the slabs of meat at Paulie’s place of work as they flew in. Cheers came when Rocky opened his refrigerator, grabbed one egg, cracked it on the rim of a glass, let the yolk fall inside and repeated the process until he had enough to drink. But there were plenty of other cheers for what Ahrens, Flaherty, Meehan and Stallone as a team wrought.

Andy Karl has a million dollar smile -- in 1975 dollars; it’s worth much more now. What a role, and how wonderful he is in it, showing sensitivity and singing beautifully. (Margo Seibert’s Adrian sings even better.) During the fight, I swear that Karl and Terence Archie’s Apollo actually landed some punches on each other – and I believe I’m right because I was inches away from the boxing ring. As everyone who follows Broadway has heard, the ring juts out and extends over the first eight rows of the orchestra. So much for the passerelle in HELLO, DOLLY!

The night I attended, there was one of those wonderful moments indigenous to the stage. Karl was doing that boxer’s training exercise of jumping rope at a ferocious clip – when all of a sudden he slipped up. The actor shrugged and moved to the punching bag with such matter-of-factness that I had to wonder if the misstep had been written into the script. This would be enough to warrant a return visit to ROCKY, which I’ll gladly make again. And again. In the meantime, I’m hoping that all four writers are now hard at work at ROCKY II.

         — Peter Filichia

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