Live from Broadway: Rocky and trying to get men to the theatre

Terence Archie and Andy Karl in Rocky. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Never mind Monty Python's Holy Grail; Broadway's holy grail has long been trying to attract men to the theatre. And that, famously, was one of the reasons why Monty Python's Spamalot – based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail – succeeded: it was a musical that men wanted to see.

According to a front page story in the New York Times the Sunday before last, "More men are steering clear of Broadway.... While men have been hanging back for years, their current scarcity, at a time when overall attendance is down, is particularly stark. Only 32% of audience members last year were men, or 3.7million, compared with 42% (or 4.2million) in 1980."

Even what the New York Times dubs "this spring's ultimate bro show" Rocky is having trouble attracting men so far. According to the New York Times, "Producers believed that highlighting the show’s central romance in ads — with the tagline 'Love Wins' — would attract women, while wide swaths of men would want to see a favorite hero."

But it hasn't, as yet, translated into the kind of audiences the show wants and needs. Last week it grossed $753.365, filling some 70% of its seats, but not at full price – the average ticket price paid was $88.79 (compared to $111.19 at Les Miserables, $125.96 at The Lion King, or $182.63 at The Book of Mormon).

So the producers and its marketing executives are changing their strategies. According to the New York Times,

To bolster attendance, Rocky is now making a powerful push for men. The musical’s ads now feature the word “Knockout!” — used in some theater reviews — and television ads are running where the guys are: Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central, ESPN. The show is also pursuing a social media campaign using catchphrases from legends from football and baseball.

The stakes are high, not just for Rocky but for other shows, too, like Rock of Ages (designed, according to a quote in the New York Times, to be a "musical for dudes", and according to one of its producers Matt Weaver, attracts them because of their attachment to 80s music and to sports-oriented promotions) and Jersey Boys (which has promotional deals with teams like the New Jersey Devils that includes playing 'Big Girls Don't Cry' whenever an opposing player skates to the penalty box).

When I saw Rocky myself last week on Broadway, I was struck by its the industrial maleness of its presentation and the testosterone-filled atmosphere it engendered. But then what do I know? I'm already on the confirmed list of frequent Broadway attendees: gay men. Again, according to the New York Times,

Producers don’t have data on straight men versus gay men, but, anecdotally, they believe gay men show up in strong numbers to both musicals and plays. 'Gay men remain a core part of the Broadway audience, even as we’ve lost other men,' said Kevin McCollum, a veteran producer whose musicals include Motown and Rent.

And it is striking that, even as it seeks to attract straight men, Rocky is perhaps losing gay men; it's difficult to find a Broadway 'show queen' with a nice word to say about it. So I'll buck the trend and say that I was impressed by many elements of it. Of course there's the stunning pivotal fight at the end, for which director Alex Timbers and his designer Christopher Barreca pull off a real coup de theatre that achieves the real feat of turning a traditional Broadway house into a boxing arena. But Barreca's work is outstanding throughout, swiftly moving between locations that range from gyms to a pet shop and Rocky's apartment with filmic ease.

The real disappointment, though, is the score. As a long-time fan of the work of Ahrens and Flaherty, who've given Broadway some of its best original music of the last 25 years from Once on this Island to Ragtime, I was surprised by how pedestrian and generic it all sounded. When the best number in the show is a reprise of 'Eye of the Tiger', the pop song hit that provided the theme song for Rocky III, you know you're in trouble.