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Going back to the past for musicals of the future

Rocky on Broadway
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Next Tuesday (February 11), Broadway’s latest film-to-stage musical arrives at the Winter Garden Theatre with the beginning of previews for the stage version of the 1976 sleeper hit Rocky – the movie that turned Sylvester Stallone, of course, into a major movie star.

The low-budget film – which cost just over $1m to make and was shot in just 28 days – earned back some $225m worldwide, and spawned no fewer than five sequels. Now it is something even bigger: a big budget Broadway musical. When its European try-out opened in Hamburg, Germany in November 2012, its reported budget was $20m.

Yet there were lots of naysayers when the idea was even mooted. As the New York Times reported in 2012,

When a team of Broadway veterans began pitching New York producers on turning the classic 1976 movie Rocky into a musical, the mere idea made people wince. Would it have a chorus of tap-dancing boxers? Fighters breaking into song in the ring? A musclehead made eloquent with rhyming lyrics, as he punches sides of beef in a meat locker?

As Stephen Flaherty, its composer, commented, “People couldn’t believe we didn’t see it as satire.” The metamusical – like Monty Python’s Spamalot or Mel Brooks’s The Producers – has become a well-established route to highlight the absurdity of the very idea of something being turned into a stage musical by satirising musicals themselves. But Rocky was going to take itself more seriously.

Broadway may have been resisting, but then – says the show’s lyricist Lynn Ahrens – “these crazy German people showed up.” Those crazy Germans were executives of Stage Entertainment, a producing company with growing global interests that also include a brand-new British musical that also arrives in London later this month – I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical, which comes to the London Palladium from February 27.

Joop van den Ende, Stage Entertainment’s founder and owner, has invested heavily in Broadway in the past, with credits that have included a number of notable flops – among them, Cyrano – the Musical, High Society, Dracula – the Musical, Good Vibrations, Sister Act and most recently Big Fish. He has also been an investor in many more, including Victor/Victoria, Titanic, Footloose and 42nd Street – that have been more successful.

And now he’s determined to finally crack Broadway properly. He told the New York Times in 2012, “We know New York right now is one step higher artistically and commercially than Europe. There is much work to do to make ‘Rocky’ better and better. But people in New York will be pleasantly surprised by what we have.”

And, as the paper ruefully remarked, by what it doesn’t have, too, reporting that there’s “relatively little boxing and no awkward attempts to meld prize-fighting with high kicks or hoofing.”

Director Alex Timbers, who himself initially resisted the project, too, telling his agent that the idea “had a 95% chance of being awful” — described his approach thus: “We’ve tried to think of this as an indie musical — the David Fincher version of ‘Rocky.’ And scale some of the scenes and sets to fit the human beings you’d see in a Sam Shepard play.”

Sylvester Stallone is co-producing himself with Stage Entertainment, and heavily involved in its creative development. In his words,

I imagined it in the style of a West Side Story or a ‘Saturday Night Fever, with these almost childlike characters who the audience will want to root for. But I knew it had to be gritty, street smart. And that it couldn’t be too — what’s that word in musical theater? It couldn’t be too exuberant.

We’re about to find out if they’ve succeeded. Stage Entertainment’s managing director for Germany Johannes Mock-O’Hara told the New York Times, “People didn’t believe this show could work, just like people didn’t believe in Rocky. But both the show and the man are about believing in yourself.”

And just as that show now arrives on Broadway after a lengthy gestation, another film property from the year before has also just been announced that is aiming for the stage in 2015: Back to the Future will be brought to the West End, it is promised, in the 30th anniversary of the film’s release.

Like Rocky, Back to the Future also turned into a franchise – there were three in all – that between them took some $936.6 million at the box office (which, as the press release helpfully explains, is over $1.8 billion in today’s money). Bringing it to the stage is  an idea that the film’s original director Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who co-wrote and co-produced the trilogy) have, they say, been exploring for almost ten years.

And now they’ve conscripted a formidable creative team, led by Jamie Lloyd as director who is about to bring Urinetown the Musical to the St James Theatre and is also represented in London by The Commitments. He’s got support from Paul Kieve – the secret weapon of most London musicals that require illusion, from Matilda the Musical to Ghost (now on tour) – and, intriguingly, Andrew Willis as ‘skateboard consultant.’ We’ve had rollerskating in musicals, of course, thanks to Starlight Express, but I can’t think of one that has used skateboards!

Musicals clearly need a X Factor to help sell them, but they also need an ex factor of a film title that people already know. But having the latter is far from infallible – From Here to Eternity will have only managed a run of six months when it closes at the Shaftesbury next month.

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