With success in Germany, ‘Rocky’ tries Broadway

NEW YORK CITY — Yo, Broadway.

Eight years after producers decided to take a chance on an “it’s so crazy, it just might work” project, opening night has arrived.

Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to rumble: “Rocky” enters the Broadway ring Thursday.

The show stars Andy Karl and Margo Seibert as the cutest couple of losers this side of a Philadelphia skating rink. Sylvester Stallone and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers”) wrote the book for “Rocky.” It is directed by Alex Timbers, known for his inventive work in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Here Lies Love.”

With music and lyrics from Pittsburgh native Stephen Flaherty and longtime writing partner Lynn Ahrens, “Rocky” combines a strong creative pedigree with unconventional source material. It also comes with a budget approaching a reported $15 million.

“It comes from this artist wanting to tell the story,” said Louis Spisto, one of the show’s many producers. “I believe that if Mama Rose in ‘Gypsy’ sings and Billy in ‘Billy Elliott’ can sing and Dolly in ‘Hello, Dolly’ can sing, it fits.

“We don’t think of this hyper-masculine character as being a character that needs to sing but in ‘Musical Theater 101,’ they teach you about the ‘I want’ song: What is your dream? When conditions are such that you can’t speak it anymore, you sing it.”

“This was not some film company looking to exploit its product or its catalog,” said Mr. Spisto, the former executive director and CEO of San Diego’s Globe Theater and former marketing director for the Pittsburgh Symphony. “This is something that emanated from the artist.”

“I think the difficult part about this piece, which has been brilliantly handled by Tom and Stephen and Lynn, is that they are authentic. They are realistic.”

Adding to the craziness: “Rocky” was first developed by international theater giant Stage Entertainment not for the Great White Way but for the burgeoning musical theater scene in Hamburg, Germany.

Willkommen to “Rocky das Musical.”

The songs were translated into German, although the occasional lyric is peppered with an English word or phrase. Rocky is played by American actor Drew Sarich, with Dutch actress Wietske van Tongeren as Adrian.

Based in The Netherlands, Stage Entertainment’s worldwide umbrella includes productions such as “Rocky,” “Big Fish” and “War Horse.” In the U.S., it owns the New World Stages theater in New York City.

“The idea was to put it together with the team and put it on and if it was successful, move [to Broadway],” Mr. Spisto said.

Scenic design is by Christopher Barreca, with Steven Hoggett (fights) and Kelly Devine (dancing) handling the choreography.

The differences between the Hamburg and Broadway productions are few. The boxing ring in the final act is a bit different due to the new stage’s size and shape. (“Rocky” scored its first TKO when it displaced long-running former tenant “Mama Mia” at the Winter Garden.)

Several numbers were changed or dropped when it began previews last month in the U.S. (See the Flaherty interview, above).

German audiences have embraced what is, at its core, a love story.

“What we did in Germany was a hit,” Mr. Flaherty said. “I think it was perfect for the German audience, but we’ve been modifying and shaping it for an American audience.”

Unlike Broadway crowds that sit quietly, “the Germans, they like to clap along [to the music], and then they won’t go home at the end. So we kept adding additional music for the curtain call.”

There also were a few intermissions lasting more than a half-hour.

“So, definitely cultural differences,” Mr. Flaherty said.

Successful sports-themed musicals are a rarity, and the two most frequently cited are ancient: 1927’s “Good News” and 1957’s “Damn Yankees.” The team in “Rocky’s” corner is hoping that not only will audiences identify with the underdog story, it might also bring in that most elusive of patrons: the male Broadway visitor.

“Two-thirds of the [stage] tickets are bought by women, a statistic that goes through theater and the other performing arts,” Mr. Spisto said. “This is a show that men are going to want to go to and that women will enjoy, too.”

“It’s iconic. It’s an American story, as American as Jimmy Stewart and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ ”

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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