Confabulation #4: ROCKY on Broadway (with Eero Laine)

I think I invented the Confabulations series for events like this: ROCKY – The Musical! And I knew that there was no one I more wanted to confab about Rocky with than Eero Laine, a PhD candidate at CUNY’s Graduate Center, whose work looks at professional wrestling as theatre (and vice versa). And luckily for me, Eero was ready to jump into the confab ring with the likes of me. Our confabulation below distills a series of email exchanges Eero and I shared in early April 2014, as well as some emendations added immediately prior to today’s publication.

rocky-marqueeBRIAN HERRERA: How in the heck did you end up at Rocky on Broadway?!?

EERO LAINE: I’m currently writing about professional wrestling, about the economics of live entertainment and the limits of violence in performance. I had heard a bit about Rocky Das Musical (the 2012 Hamburg production of the musical) and it sounded like the boxing match was neither highly stylized nor a musical number. Boxing is tough to choreograph safely for theatre and the fight in Rocky is especially brutal (the opening credit sequence in Rocky II is Rocky’s ambulance ride to the hospital after the fight in the first film). So I was curious how the fights would be staged.

The fight brought me in too. I was caught by the way Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review, dismissed the show as a musical, on the one hand, even as he breathlessly raved about its finale as spectacle, on the other. I had just seen David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu (his dance-theatre account of the life of Bruce Lee) and was in town again with a chance to see a show, so I thought “why not make it my week for 1970s fighting icons on stage?” Plus, I think I’ve decided to make a hobby of seeking out what I sometimes think of as “Big Bad Idea” Broadway musicals. (Big Bad BMs for short!) SO, with Brantley’s review tweaking my curiosity, I thought: “Oh this sounds like it will be both really brilliant and really bad. I MUST GO.” (I missed Kathie Lee Gifford’s Scandalous last year, and have been kicking myself ever since.)

I like Big Bad BMs. Stallone has said in interviews that there won’t be another Rocky film after Rocky Balboa…but a musical? Sure. It expands and reinvigorates interest in the franchise while picking up a bit of cultural capital by virtue of being a live event. It’s fascinating how live theatre is used to squeeze a few more dollars out of a brand or to reimagine a piece of intellectual property entirely. Did the production live up to your expectations of being really brilliant and/or really bad?

I don’t know if the show lived up (or down) to my expectations, but I was sure glad to have seen it.

What were the really brilliant and really bad parts? Any brilliantly bad or badly brilliant parts?

As a musical, it’s sorta terrible. The pastiche of 1970s pop idioms just doesn’t work to create this world. And while the choice to make Apollo Creed the Elton John version of James Brown almost flies, the decision to have Rocky sing like he’s Philly’s answer to James Taylor just does nobody any good.

The music seems to fit the slow, domestic atmosphere of the film, however.

rocky-adrianIt’s a funny reminder that the first Rocky movie is more of a series of character sketches with some rousing sports montages than anything else.

rocky-with adrianBoth Andy Karl and Margo Seibert do a great job of carrying the show despite the string of sappy ballads. Tellingly, “My Nose Ain’t Broken” is the most memorable song of the first act and that’s largely because it could have been much worse had Karl put in a less charming performance.

The fact that Andy Karl somehow keeps “My Nose Ain’t Broke” from being a total howler? Give the man a Tony for that alone!

I was also surprised how closely the musical hewed to the first film. In my mind, Rocky is sort of an accumulation of the super-buff, masochistic Sylvester Stallone characters from the 1980s — with a large dose of his Rambo character and the Cold War fighting Rocky of Rocky IV. I had maybe forgotten that Rocky from the first film is actually really sweet. That amazing moment in the pet store: “Don’t these birds look like candy? You know. Like flying candy.” [franchise reinvigorated!])

The musical does feel like a fairly point-to-point transfer of the source material, rather than a transformation (and perhaps redemption) of it.

And then there’s the rape-y scene where Rocky brings Adrian back to his apartment. She pretty clearly wants to leave and he physically blocks the door. Why stage that? Just because it was in the film?

I sorta wish they would have compressed the whole Rocky arc (well, at least the first three) into a single show. Can you imagine if they had boiled all of what’s on stage into a single act, with that explosive finale, and then used the second act to deepen and complicate the Rocky/Adrian romance, as Rocky’s star rises. Not only would that have given us the chance to see a couple other fight sequences, but I wonder whether doing something a bit less literal and timebound might have amplified things.

The musical you describe, drawing on the first three films perhaps with nods to the others, is more or less what I had anticipated for Rocky the Musical. Maybe if the musical gets a reboot in a few years?

But even as a spectacle, it’s a bit all over the place. The Winter Garden is huge, and yet for most of the thing, Rocky feels mostly claustrophobic.

The set is claustrophobic.

rocky-interiorI was sitting pretty close to the stage and occasionally caught a glimpse of the massive machinery and stage hands moving things around backstage, which seemed far more expansive and grand than the tiny apartment or pet store we saw onstage.

But when the scenes move out of those shipping-containers (to the corporate office, to the gym, to the meatpacking plant, to the final arena) — that’s when the thing gets exciting.

rocky-wideview-stageI loved the scaffolding and the gym and Apollo’s office and the street scenes. But the most remarkable thing about the musical was its physicality. The actors are clearly in amazing physical shape. Pull-ups while sustaining a note? Really? Really.

And so many of them…all in such beautiful shape. [Ahem]

rocky-gym

The training montages were sort of what I imagined the entire musical would be. Maybe I’m admitting too much, but I’d probably go see a musical made up entirely of Rocky-esque training montages. The running montage with the projections was especially exciting and a great example of the production’s live-film aesthetic, but can’t they get Andy Karl a treadmill so he doesn’t have to run in place?

rocky-running in placeI did like all the live-film stuff. When Apollo Creed sang that first song with his back to the audience as we saw his image on the big jumbotron screen, I honestly thought that was Terence Archie synch-singing to a pre-recorded video.

rocky-apollo-jumbotronBut once I tuned in to the simple fact that the video projections were being shot “live”, I got really interested in them. Whether at the press conference, or when Rocky’s hitting the meat, or in that incredible finale, I delighted in having so many places to look. And I honestly don’t think I would have cared to look at the video had the live-film not been tethered so vividly to the storytelling. Really, it was in its intermedial aspects that Rocky’s storytelling is at its most dynamic and vibrant. Which is a fascinating paradox. And which all pays off in that finale.

I’ve been thinking about why the last sequence is so appealing. On the one hand, sports have a sort of built in logic that ties neatly to conflict based plot structures–something boxing and wrestling promoters have known for some time. You sell the fight by selling the story. Fans buy tickets to see the rise and fall of fortunes, fates decided, scores settled.

Rocky musicalBut we know that Rocky The Musical is not a sportive match and if you’ve seen the film you know that Rocky makes to the end of the fifteenth round but ultimately loses.

And boy howdy, did I love that final fight. I mean, prior to the finale, the moment I found most exciting was when they dropped all those sides of beef from the fly. But that last twenty minutes. Wowza.

Brilliantly staged and physically demanding–deserving, I think, of all the breathless raving it’s garnered. Even without the handheld cameras and the projections, the fight is wonderfully filmic, but fully theatrical.

What I think I liked best about it was that I wasn’t “lost” in the spectacle. I was thrilled to see how director Alex Timbers made those things happen. Like the ring girls walking between the fighters mid-swing, like that one slo-mo hook landing with that explosive splat on Rocky’s jaw.

rocky-powderbloodThe slow motion sequences, the powdered blood, the increasingly sweaty actors, the skewed sense of time…the sound design! Cheers, gasps, the dull thwack of leather mitts striking skin — all a sort of enhanced realism, film filtered through the theatrical.

And those makeup tricks.

rocky-bloodyIt was really a wonderful theatrical inversion of the sporting event. When Rocky and Apollo went to their corners between rounds, they came out looking worse. Instead of getting fixed up in the corner, they got makeup. It’s brilliant.

I just delighted in scrutinizing all that stagecraft and I was surprised that doing so completely absorbed me back into in the story.

We know they’re not actually boxing and we don’t care because that’s not the point. The real pleasure in this musical is seeing how Rocky “goes the distance” and, in this production, that pleasure is tied as much to the stagecraft as to the story.

"Rocky" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals And Curtain CallAlso, the latest ad campaign (published in magazines like The New Yorker) is called “The Anatomy of ‘A Knockout!'” It provides an overview of the effects that came together for the final fight…from special gloves to sound amplification to special effects…all as a selling point: “Come see (and analyze) our innovative theatrical effects!” They even posted a video! It’s great stuff.

Where were you seated during the finale?

I was House Right of the Golden Circle, which means that I was more or less ringside for the finale.

rocky-hookOnce the ring was put in position and the lights came up in the house, the crowd really was pretty active. There were high fives and a lot of the people in my section stood up to cheer the entrances of the boxers. Where were you?

I sat in the front row of the mezzanine, on the far House Left side. Not great seats for the first two hours, but perfect to absorb the full spectacle of that finale. rocky-finale-overheadDuring the fight, my eyes could click quickly between the finale’s four main points of focus — inside the ring, the edges of the ring, the caller’s box above, the jumbotrons beyond and on all sides — all without moving my neck.

Because of where I was sitting, I had to really decide if I was going to watch the ring or if I was going to watch the projections.

rocky-finale-stageviewI could shift quickly between them, but always felt like I was missing something. It felt immersive and maybe a little overwhelming, but in a really exciting way.

My location gave me a great view of the audience, too, especially the crowd-herding transition that happened as the stagecrew moved everyone from front orchestra to the onstage bleachers (so they could bring the ring out into the theatre). But my vantage point also let me watch the expressions of those like you who suddenly found themselves sitting ringside. Indeed, the fact that my seats were terrible for the musical but great for the spectacle might actually be symptomatic of this show’s defining problem.

Will you be getting tickets for Rocky II – The Musical?

Oh golly I hope not. But I would consider going back to see this Rocky again, if I could sit closer to where you were, so that I could see, um, everything up close. [Ahem] And, with that, this might be a good moment to close this out. Thanks so much for confabulating about Rocky with me!

Thanks for including me in this. I really enjoyed it.

Love wins!

confabulationsIn the Confabulations series, I instigate a virtual “public conversation” about a “live event” that some interesting person and I both happened to experience. To inspire a Confabulation, a “live event” might be a telecast, a livestreamed webcast, or one of those “live in HD” things at your local cineplex. Or it might be an actual “live” festival, concert, stageshow or somesuch. As a general rule, though, my confab partner and I will not have been in the same spot (day/time/place/row/etc) at the time of the “live event” and thus our ostensibly shared experience of the event will always be at some remove. Also, given my tastes, I suspect that very few Confabulation-worthy events will be what you might call “highbrow. And if you have a suggestion for a future Confabulation (or would like to participate as a co-confabulator), just contact me.

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One thought on “Confabulation #4: ROCKY on Broadway (with Eero Laine)

  1. Pingback: CONFABULATIONS | per•form•ations

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