Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Legitimate Theater: #2. Rocky (2014)

Welcome to Legitimate Theater: a column dedicated to movie-based stage musicals. The goal of this series is to explore those stories that originated in films and eventually worked their way onto Broadway and beyond. By the end of each entry, there will hopefully be a better understanding of this odd but rampant trend in modern entertainment. Are these stories really worth telling through song and dance? How can it even compare to the technical prowess of a camera and seamless editing? Join me on this quest as I explore the highs and lows of this trend on the third Wednesday of every month and hopefully answer what makes this Legitimate Theater.


To properly reflect what Legitimate Theater hopes to achieve over its existence, I have chosen to look at a musical that was the opposite of The Producers. What this basically means is that it's a film that won big at the Oscars, but not the Tonys. As a movie, Rocky is quite possibly the most iconic sports movie of the 20th century. How would the stage version possibly compare? Well, the lack of Tony nominations in the major categories, save for Andy Karl's Best Actor in a Musical category, would suggest that maybe it's not all it's cracked up to be. But one could hope that the greatest underdog in film history would fit into the picture with song and dance. It just has to be that way, right?

A Quick Background

Tony Wins: 1 Best Scenic Designs)
Based on: Rocky (1976)
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Book: Thomas Meehan
Prominent Actors: Andy Karl, Margo Seibert, Terence Archie


1. "Ain't Down Yet"
2. "My Nose Ain't Broken"
3. "Raining"
4. "Patriotic"
5. "My Nose Ain't Broken (Reprise)"
6. "The Flip Side"
7. "Adrian"
8. "Wanna Know Why"
9. "Gonna Fly Now (Variation)"
10. "Fight From the Heart"
11. "One of Us"
12. "Training Montage 1"
13. "In the Ring"
14. "Training Montage 2/Eye of the Tiger"
15. "Happiness"
16. "I'm Done"
17. "Southside Celebrity"
18. "Undefeated Man"
19. "Keep on Standing"
20. "The Fight: Round 15"
21. "Finale"

Note: Listen to the music here

Song Exploration

Opening Song:
"Ain't Down Yet"

From the opening notes, the Rocky musical seems to know its audience. The Bill Conti-penned melodies return from the film to tell the story of Rocky Balboa in his early days. It's all done from the speculation of outsiders who are in awe of his ability to hold his own. There's a strong establishment of style here that conveys both a narrative structure that is familiar while also a realization that the music tends to lack something inspired the further it gets from the core elements that audiences already know going in. It's fine, but it also is a strong example of why the musical as a whole hasn't gained quite the reputation of many other adaptations of the past five years.

"Gonna Fly Now (Variation)"
& "Training Montage 2/Eye of the Tiger"

Again, the musical does a good job of establishing what was great about the Bill Conti melodies. They have a built in power to them that makes even a singing choir have a power to them. For everything that the musical lacks, it does justice to the recurring music by elevating it to a Broadway sensibility, including turning "Eye of the Tiger" from a first person journey into a choir once again observing their hero as he goes about a journey to fight Apollo Creed. The additional vocals give a nice sense of plot progression and elevate the idea of a montage into something more ingenious, especially in this context.

High Point:
"One of Us"

To be honest, Rocky is a mediocre musical. There's not a lot of great moments that would appeal to audiences not already in love with Rocky as a franchise. The lyrics and instrumentation all lack an iconic feel to them, creating a sense that this would be great if it was a local production, but not a Broadway show. "One of Us" is as close to being something greater, especially as it captures the sense of town pride in Rocky's lead up to fighting Apollo Creed. The choir has a power here that allows minimal plot points to feel more special. It has an artistry to it that makes the listener wish that there was something more creative and fun about the rest of the album.

Low Point:
"In the Ring"

Again, this is at worse a mediocre song. However, it's definitely one that feels slapped together in a kind of lazy fashion. The ending for one doesn't really have a conclusive note. The rest features a song that romanticizes boxing of yesteryear that is interesting as factoids, but is outdone by this weird sense that the singing isn't all that charismatic. It comes across as goofy where it should be sincere, and it all feels like something missing. It's important as a plot point to highlight the struggles of a trainer "past his prime," but this song does little to capture the pain and anguish effectively enough.

What Does It Bring to the Story?

The story essentially has the same momentum as the film. The only real difference is that it moves "Eye of the Tiger" from a later film and places it into the training montage sequence where "Gonna Fly Now" was in the film. The film also has more of a community feel with backing vocals adding a sense of speculation and hope for their protagonist. It feels more like a triumph for the community, and it adds a subtle charm to the whole experience. With all of that said, Rocky is just as charming and charismatic as he's always been portrayed, though maybe with a weakening of the incoherent Philly accent to better hear the singer. Also, Adrian's brother gets very little time in these songs, suggesting that maybe his importance to the overall story is greatly diminished.

Was This Necessary?

To be totally honest, this was just a bad musical. Not in the sense that it failed to capture what was good about the movie. It was more that it lacked a purpose that felt like more than cashing in on one of the greatest sports movie franchises in history. Rocky Balboa as a character is rich for exploring a bruised underdog. Even then, the production of each song is lacking something that would make any of the songs stand out. None of the instrumentation is exciting, at least in terms of what's original. The music hits familiar rhythms and lyrics that maybe do a disservice to the whole experience. It's not an embarrassment towards the franchise, but it does little to capture the esteem and impact that the film had. It's a noble effort, but it never justifies what made it special or interesting. 

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