Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” is now a Broadway musical. Listen, it’s a hit. There’s no way around it. “Rocky” is a huge entertaining spectacle led by a very talented actor and written, directed, staged, choreographed by experts who know how to put on something a lot of people will want to see, will enjoy and tell their friends about. If you’re looking for “Sweeney Todd,” this isn’t. Aside from the “Rocky” movie theme and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” the songs are derivative and tedious. But you won’t mind at all.
“Rocky” opened last night where “Cats” and “Mamma Mia” have had long, long runs. They were also not “South Pacific,” if you get my drift. But the Winter Garden is huge–1,500 seats– and demands a big show of shows. “Rocky” is exactly that. In the second act, when every stop is pulled out, literally, audiences will gasp and buy more tickets. A show like “Rocky” is essential to Broadway’s economy survival. It’s something you can not see anywhere else.
They will also marvel at the talented cast, especially Andy Karl as Rocky Balboa. Karl (whose wife, Orfeh, is a Tony nominee from “Legally Blonde”) gets a workout every night that would send all of us to a hospital or at least to bed for a week. He runs, climbs, leaps, jumps and fights. He never stops moving, except when he has to sing one of those songs. (They are ponderous, and take some concentration and oxygen. Along with “Big Fish” and “Bridges of Madison County,” they are among the most tuneless entries in Broadway history. One of them sounds suspiciously like Cee Lo Green’s “F You.”)
At the premiere last night I asked him what it’s like when the orchestra kicks into the “Rocky” theme, “Gonna Fly Now.” Karl replied, with a grin (and this now wearing a suit and tie after two hours in workout clothes on stage), “You think here it comes, and off you go.” And he runs up a huge steep flight of stairs built to resemble the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Rocky” is also aided by a strong adaptation from Thomas Meehan, the Bard of Broadway. Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers”) broke Stallone’s original movie down and delineated characters, gave them back stories, made them like likeable and accessible. They’re consistent too. Rocky never gets over losing his locker at the boxing gym no matter how well he’s doing. Meehan always comes back to that. It’s one of many nice touches.
At last’s premiere: the Talking Heads’ David Byrne. His own gem of a show at the Public Theater, “Here Lies Love,” was also directed by Alex Timbers. In “Here Lies Love,” the audience moves, physically, with the production. Timbers has applied that to the second act of “Rocky,” and it’s the key to the whole deal.
Stallone brought his wife and daughters. I also ran into director John Herzfeld, who’s just finished a movie in which Stallone makes a cameo, he said, as a “Harvey Levin type character from TMZ.” Burt Young, who played Paulie in the “Rocky” movies, saw the show, as did “Titanic” director James Cameron. Wesley Smipes, who co-starred with Stallone long ago, arrived wearing his trademark black hat. I spotted “Blue Jasmine” star Bobby Cannavale with pal Joey Slotnick, “Mama I Want to Sing” creator Vy Higgensen with husband Ken Wydro, and NYPD Commish Bill Bratton and journalist wife Rikki Klieman.
Stallone, by the way, is incredibly gracious. His family is a pleasure. He stayed a long time at the after party, greeting everyone. He told me the musical was his vision. He can’t get over Andy Karl. “You wouldn’t buy it if it weren’t for him. He makes you believe it. And he’s tireless.”
I should note the lavish after was at the Roseland Ballroom. It’s the last Broadway premiere there ever, as Roseland will close soon after 80 years. The party planners set up a boxing ring in the center, so guests could get their pictures taken faux boxing complete with red satin robes. There was also a realistic replica of the Philly art museum, where diners could sit on the steps while chowing down. It was a grand send off for Roseland, which will probably become a unnecessary glass tower full of $20 million condos and a CVS downstairs.