One thing that points to the fact that Broadway still has a future is that the two trends that were supposedly “killing Broadway” in the 2000s…Jukebox Musicals and movie adaptations…are becoming less and less problematic as time goes by. In the case of the latter, this is mostly because nearly all the too-obvious choices that could be adapted into musicals without challenging either their creators or audiences in the process have been used up, and so they’ve begun to turn toward less obvious, but more interesting choices, like Matilda, or, well, Rocky. The original movie classic Rocky didn’t seem like obvious material for a musical at first glance, but in reality it is a story rich in feelings that has definite potential for being expressed in song.
The show got the most attention for its final staging coup where the stage (and the orchestra seating section) turned around to project into the audience for the final fight, but it was also exceptionally strong purely as a composition. The title character is somewhat more articulate here than in the film, and antagonist Apollo Creed is fleshed out a bit and made somewhat more sympathetic (which makes a certain sense, as a similar thing would be done in the film’s sequels), but otherwise the show is almost dogmatically faithful to the original film, with much of the book taken verbatim from the movie script and the songs largely expanding on lines from the movie. If Flaherty and Ahrens’ score isn’t quite equal to the film’s legendary instrumental soundtrack (the iconic “Gonna Fly Now” theme and “Eye of the Tiger” from the third film are interpolated, but everything else in the score is new), it is still a lovely and expressive work that is easily the best thing they’ve written since A Man of No Importance.
The movie relied heavily on subtle indications and rich mood music to convey its emotions, since its lead characters were an inarticulate tough guy with the soul of a philosopher but no means of expressing that depth, and a woman so painfully shy that for most of the movie, she barely speaks. The musical can provide much more specific characterization by expressing its characters’ unspoken thoughts in song, such as Rocky’s establishing number “My Nose Ain’t Broken” which is the perfect introduction to the character, with a poignant melody and some of Ahrens’ most touching and intelligent lyrics, or Adrian’s heartbreaking soliloquy “Raining”, which evolves into her final outburst of defiance, “I’m Done”. The team provide a couple of thrilling anthems in “Fight From the Heart” and “Keep On Standin’”, but otherwise they leave the anthemic stuff to the interpolations and focus mainly on the introspective elements and the love story, as on the tender “The Flip Side”, the gently reassuring “Adrian”, and the tentatively hopeful “Happiness”.
The show didn’t do as well as it deserved to, running less than a year and not even getting a Best Musical nomination, but it shows the proper method to make a musical adaptation of a movie—one, pick interesting source material, preferably an unlikely one with musical possibilities that no-one’s thought of yet; two, know when to stay faithful to a good source; three, musicalize the feelings.