by David Hancock Turner
Rocky on Broadway
Rocky: Das Musical opened in Hamburg in 2012 after German producers were the only backers willing to take a risk on a musicalized adaption of Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hamburg has gradually become a global boxing hub as the sport’s epicenter shifted to Eastern Europe, and over the past 10 years world heavyweight champions are now much more likely to be Ukrainian or Russian than American. Already fans of the sport, German audiences fell in love with the show, which cleverly drowns out the theoretical problems of musicalizing the untraditional source material with a spectacularly immersive choreographed fight at the end of the evening.
Before that final epic match between the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa and his African-American opponent Apollo Creed, however, we are treated to a series of songs that tell the conventional Rocky story of an underdog boxer given a chance to fight for the world title. A dictum of the musical theater says that when emotion rises, you sing; if it rises even higher, you dance—to this we must add that if it rises even higher, you box! The laconic loner Rocky, who expresses his inner struggle less through words than through his body, thus presents a challenge to effective musical storytelling. Musical theater relies on a dramatic transformation that occurs through singing, with music conveying an inner emotional truth of the character. The artificiality of this process is never totally overcome, the strength of the form lying in the strangeness and fantasy of its execution. So when we first hear Rocky sing the folksy strains of “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” we begin to lose the dichotomy of a fighter whose uniquely stilted Philly dialect contrasts with his ferocious physical talent. The music playing with his patois smoothes over and confuses his brusque humor, whereas his final rousing rock song, “Keep On Standing,” similarly breaks the contrast between the silent focus of his training and the final physical climax. Instead of embracing the strangeness of the genre, allowing Rocky to create a bold new language through song, or even allowing Rocky to dance and break the “reality” of his aura, the musical remains on a self-defeating quest for authenticity that is paralyzingly on the nose.
The deliberate simplicity of the music and lyrics is an unfortunately naturalistic choice for a songwriting team who successfully expressed the complexities of urban America in the musical Ragtime (1996). The idiom also veers into sentimentality in Mickey the trainer’s nostalgic song about his boxing past and Rocky and Adrian’s duet “Happiness,” both saccharine preparations for salty characters. When we hear the horn fanfare from the 1976 film, however, it is not just the familiarity of the anthem that rouses the audience, but the contrasting imperial heroism evoked by the brass. With that sound we can hear the ’70s, but also echoes of Roman gladiatorial battles and the historical weight of empire. Even “Eye of the Tiger” (a song composed for Rocky III in 1982) propels the action in a striking way because of the jarring abstraction of its words. Unlike many lyrics from the show that hew too closely to the empirical immediacy of the scene, “Eye of the Tiger” stands out for its evocative, if banal, metaphor.
The musical’s fear of theatrical abstraction is recurrent, with video screens unnecessarily showing us the “live” result of what is clearly an on-stage television interview, and when Rocky and Adrian visit the ice rink their feet are obstructed by a low barrier that hides whatever contraption is used to simulate Adrian’s skating. The lack of faith in the audience’s imagination and obsession with “reality” reaches an absurd climax at the end of the evening when the audience seated in the center orchestra are ushered onto the stage to sit in bleachers while a boxing ring is constructed where they were previously sitting. Proscenium presentation shifts to theater-in-the-round as Philadelphia sports team banners drop from the ceiling. We begin to imagine ourselves in the old Spectrum Arena in 1976, waiting for the fight to begin as videographers film the action simulcast on screens overhead. While Rocky and Apollo make their way down the aisles to the ring, the audience finds itself in the middle of a sporting event and joins the cast by becoming a crowd of eager fans.
The fight begins and the music and lights reach a level of insane intensity and it soon becomes difficult to maintain a critical distance: “Is this real? Is this boxing or a musical? Where am I?” The fighters in the ring duck and weave, but the action inside the ropes also competes with the video projections overhead that relay close-ups of the boxers. The choice of what to watch produces a kind of decisional delirium uncommon to the theater, which is further amplified by the interaction of the audience, many of whom stand ringside, physically committing to the emotional investment the show demands. Whatever dramaturgical problems the musical previously suffered from are soon forgotten as the spectacle swells.
The climax of Rocky on Broadway is hardly the first “immersive” theatrical experience of its kind; asking the audience to participate physically in the performance is becoming more and more common. While audience interaction is a recurring theme in the history of theater, contemporary manifestations are not dramaturgical so much as totalizingly spatial and relational. The trend is not to introduce an aleatory element of an audience member’s self-aware persona into the action, but rather to introduce the drama itself inside and in-between the audience and thus break not only the “fourth wall” of the theater but the very concept that there is a “wall” in the first place. We have here the opposite of a theater of alienation that would call attention to its own artifice, and instead a technique that dissolves the mimetic binary into a flowing matrix of mutually reinforcing experiences. There is no alternative, there is no outside; we are inside, combined and complicit.
Rocky the film was released in 1976 when the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence produced a climate of national soul-searching exacerbated by a series of wreckages upon wreckages: Watergate, the 1973 oil crisis, rising inflation and unemployment, the fall of Saigon in 1975, accelerating deindustrialization, and the school busing crisis that focused renewed attention on racial issues unresolved by the Civil Rights Movement.
Philadelphia in 1976 was no longer the industrial powerhouse of the ’40s and ’50s whose population had peaked at two million inhabitants. With the Delaware River shipyards employing tens of thousands of laborers, the greater Philadelphia region during World War II was one of the world’s most important industrial sectors. After a slow decline in the post-war decades, 1969 saw the nation’s first (failed) attempt to implement affirmative action with the “Philadelphia Plan,” which was designed to confront the racism in the awarding of federal contracts to a local construction industry dominated by craft trade unions hostile to Black labor. By the 1970s, a significant portion of the population had begun to leave, with white flight to the suburbs and factory closures accelerating throughout the decade. Rocky the film depicts this urban decay in different ways, showing the working-class neighborhood where the fighter lives, stationary railroad cars, a dock-worker who can’t pay his debt, and the famous training sequence in which Rocky’s physical regimen also forces him to absorb the historical weight of a capitalist urban geography in crisis. Several times after a scene has ended the camera curiously lingers a little too long over some dilapidated concrete conglomeration.
Philadelphia in 1976 was also no longer the city that witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, although the “spirit” of that moment ironically echoes throughout the film. Stallone’s original inspiration for Rocky was a 1975 bout between Muhammad Ali and “The Bayonne Bleeder” Chuck Wepner in which the Jersey native went 15 rounds with the trash-talking world heavyweight champion before Ali knocked him out. Rocky’s world champion Apollo Creed may echo aspects of Ali’s outspoken nature, but he firmly repudiates the champ’s draft-dodging anti-American attitude. Creed routinely refers to America as a land of opportunity and the importance (and business savvy) of providing an unknown with a shot at the world title: “Who discovered America? An Italian, right? What would be better than to get it on with one of his descendants?” And later: “American history proves that everyone has got a chance to win. Didn’t you guys ever hear of Valley Forge or Bunker Hill?”
When Creed finally enters the arena at the end of the film he is doing his best George Washington impression, crossing the Delaware as snowflakes fall about his mock rowboat. Wearing a colonial tri-corner hat, a powdered white wig, red cape, and blue coat, Creed also mimics the legend of the young Washington by throwing coins into the audience. Joking on the current inflationary crisis, the commentator quips: “Of course when you threw a dollar in those days it went a lot further.”
Race is a central component of Rocky, and the hubris, business sense, patriotism, and Blackness of Apollo Creed are meant to ricochet off one another on both earnest and ironic registers. America is the land of opportunity, and 200 years after its founding, the nation sees an African-American sports star symbolically embodying the position of its slave-owning first president. But the film does almost everything it can to distance Rocky the character from racial resentment. When Creed first appears in the film he is seen on TV in a bar where the bartender-owner asks Rocky: “Would you take a look at that guy? I mean where are the real fighters going to come from, I mean the pros? What we got today are jig clowns.” Rocky fails to repeat the euphemized slur and replies “Clown? You callin’ Apollo Creed a clown?” The owner doubles-down on his racism and replies “Well, what else? Look at him.” Rocky then echoes the mantra of self-sufficiency the film wishes to impart: “Hey, Andy, are you crazy? This man is champion of the world. He took his best shot and become champ. Huh? What shot did you ever take?”
Rocky is obsessed with reinforcing an optimistic American creed by proving that he isn’t just another bum from the neighborhood, but it is difficult to imagine the film achieving even one quarter of its blockbuster financial and critical success had Rocky’s opponent been just another white fighter and not a swaggeringly successful African-American. Boxing as a modern sport long dominated by Americans has for just as long been burdened with the country’s racial baggage. Jack Johnson was one of the earliest exemplars of a successful, confident, and wealthy African-American man, and the “Great White Hope,” James Jeffries, would try and fail in 1910 to win the Heavyweight Championship back for the “white race” in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century.”
As racial progress and toleration made significant strides so did the calcification of racial stratifications harden as white flight and controversies over busing reached violent extremes during the 1970s. Jefferson Cowie, in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2012), writes of an influential 1969 New York magazine article by Pete Hamill that
concluded that it was less race, per se, which drove phenomena like northern blue-collar support for George Wallace, than it was workers’ belief that they were not respected and that society had focused its attention and resources on other, noisier groups. The urgency of the war, civil rights, and the rising women’s movement were threatening the privileged centrality of the old New Deal base—the white ethnic working class.
White workers, feeling “threatened from every angle” as Cowie puts it, would try to fight back in different ways.
From a certain perspective, then, Rocky could be viewed as a new Great White Hope set on redeeming the white working class, left behind and forgotten after years of watching other “noisier” groups progress socially, but he is more elusive and disarming than that. Although working as a collector for a local loan shark, Rocky is reluctant to use force against debtors who can’t pay, and, in contrast with the brutality of his boxing, he is in love with Adrian, a pathologically shy introvert despite a decade of feminist agitation, who only blossoms and finds her voice once she and Rocky sexually connect.
The final moments of the film see Rocky screaming “Adrian!” over the hoopla and music while the announcer declares Apollo Creed the winner. The Italian Stallion is now bloodied and bruised, a figure of tortured flesh reminding us of the very first shot of the film, a fresco of Jesus painted into the domed roof of a small-time boxing arena. Now, having miraculously endured 15 rounds with the champ Rocky ignores the press and microphones closing in; he only wants his woman in his arms: “I love you.”
In 2014, with an African-American president, the depiction of Apollo Creed has shifted. In the musical he no longer seems like an impetuous upstart, but a natural inhabitant of the highest rung of power. The potential conflation with Obama clouds the original political focus and much of the historical specificity that gave the film its texture is downplayed in the musical. 1976 and the resonance of the bicentennial no longer figure, the racist barkeep is absent, and the sets and lighting sparkle and scintillate, far from the fraying fabric of the late 1970s.
In the context of U.S. deindustrialization, Rocky’s boxing, born from a proletarian pugilism in which he has nothing to sell but his own fists, resonates with the irredeemable crisis suffered by traditional white male industrial working class. His training sequence in the musical begins with a series of uninspiring video projections timed to the beat of “Eye of the Tiger,” but eventually grows into one the musical’s few evocative moments as hooded athletes appear, multiply, and finally dance. It’s an effective use of abstraction that generalizes the crisis of masculine manual labor and engenders a creative distance between the story and its realization. A mass of “Rockys” inhabit the stage and a vision of what a resonant 21st-century theatrical Rocky could be is briefly glimpsed; Rocky the Ballet? Why not? But soon enough we find ourselves transported into the arena, encircling the ring, and the productive gap that demands our theatrical imaginations abruptly collapses.
This revival of Rocky resurrects a macho icon in an age where masculinity is perhaps suffering from another crisis in the middle of a Broadway theatrical scene that has failed to attract the male demographic. Rocky’s rugged tenacity may serve as a brief antidote to the slippery surface of our contemporary identities, but he is never allowed to embrace the musical theater language and transcend his iconic persona. The “reality” of the arena we inhabit at the end of the musical also distracts from the traditionalism of the hard-won intimacy he shares with Adrian, and the story dissolves into a totalized immediacy which may reflect our current moment, but not the conjuncture of 1976 or the safe harbor of monogamous romance. When the show needs to be “real” and reflect the specificity of ’76, it falters; when it needs to be abstract and reflect Rocky’s quest in the metaphorical language of musical theater, it instead chooses to be “real.” The bond between the two lovers and their desire to escape a frenzied world (and perhaps the musical itself) transforms into our own escape of the world into the delusional emotional terrain of a sporting spectacle. Drunk on the feeling, no spotlight can bring our minds back to the connection between Rocky and Adrian. We are still in the arena, overwhelmed by it all.
ContributorDavid Hancock Turner
DAVID HANCOCK TURNER is a musician and writer living is Queens, NY. He tweets at @guava_puree.