My Dearest Alex,
It pains me to say this, it does, but I have to be honest. And I feel like just getting this out of the way might make it hurt less? I dunno, I guess I’m picturing this like a bandaid I just need to rip off. So here it is: Rocky is kind of a bad musical.
I STILL LOVE YOU! But Rocky is kind of a bad musical.
Seriously, though. This is not your fault. It’s like… the opposite of your fault. Because it’s so abundantly clear that you did everything you possibly could to save this show from itself — to snatch it back from the jaws of pastiche-y, kickline-y horror — that the producers owe you an enormous debt. And fuck, so do Ahrens and Flaherty. Especially them, in fact.
Because that score is… well… let’s just say you have a real serious problem on your hands when the best song in your musical is a pop song that was written over 30 years ago by people who are not named Ahrens. Or Flaherty. Sorry dudes, but that score is dreck, and even the songs that work are more feats of performance than perfect songwriting.
Like, sure. “I’m Done” has the ability to bring the house down. (I’ve seen it ‘done.’) But I still can’t remember a single word of that song. And I’ve seen the show three times. It’s just that holy HELL does Margo Siebert perform the absolute piss out of that song — peep the shock on even her own face as she realizes she’s finally summoned the courage to tell her shitty brother to fuck off — and frankly, homegirl kicks it’s ass from here to Philly and back.
So you have that. You and Das Musical have that at least — a handful of genuinely kick-ass performances, anchored by your Rocky and Adrian. Or Andy Karl and Margo Siebert, as it were. Dany Mastrogiorgio’s turn as Paulie, Adrian’s abusive doucheroo of a brother, is pretty great, too, as is the hilarious Philly accent he’s sporting. (Though, really, in 2014 do we HAVE to forgive the abusive fuck so quickly and easily?) But really, it’s all about Karl and Siebert, who are both giving seriously smart, sensitive, subtle performances. Watching Siebert’s Adrian find her inner strength is just lovely. And Karl’s carefully crafted Italian Stallion — neither too far from, nor too close to Stallone’s original interpretation — is equal parts dumb, sweet, and heartbreaking.
But like. Let’s get real. Much though I’m really hoping Karl and Siebert get all kinds of accolades for their performances… anyone who sees this show is going to walk out giving basically no fucks about anything but your direction. Because somehow, despite astronomically bad odds, you have taken this pile of shlock and turned it into a good show. Rocky is the best bad musical I have ever seen and that is entirely down to you.
Sure. The first act is slow. But by the time we all make it to the second act, things are picking up. We’re moving. Your incredible sets — designed by Christopher Barecca — have us completely enraptured, and then “Eye of the Tiger” happens and for a second we get to pretend the score doesn’t suck and THEN ROCKY GETS TO THE STEPS OF THE ART MUSEUM AND YOU FUCKING PULL THEM RIGHT OUT TO THE EDGE OF THE STAGE AND TURN THEM AROUND AND ROCKY IS FACING US AND FIST PUMPING AT THE TOP AND OH MY GOD WE ARE ALL DEAD FROM YOUR PERFECT DIRECTION AND PS THE BIG FIGHT HASN’T EVEN HAPPENED YET.
Okay. I’m breathing.
Because we still have to talk about the big fight. Which is like… probably the most genius thing I’ve ever seen on stage. Ever. Better than the turntable in Les Miz, or the barricade even (and that has its own entrance music!!), or the helicopter in Miss Saigon, or the fact that Elaine Stritch even thought she could just muddle through A Little Night Music and we all kind of agreed. But I digress…
I saw Rocky: Das Movie as a kid, so I already knew how this whole shebang ended. And again, I’ve seen Rocky: Das Musical three times. So when the fight starts, at this point, I actually know like… every single move that’s about to be made in that ring. And let me tell you — that fight does not get any less exciting. It’s never not thrilling. It always finds me on the edge of my seat, chin in my hands, fingers ready to cover my eyes as necessary, which is pretty fucking amazing, all things considered.
It’s kind of the greatest thing ever, actually. Because you managed to harness the power of live theater — the way the best of it can grab you by the shirt collar and drag you into another world even as the people sitting, breathing, rustling M&M bags beside remind you of exactly where you really are — and marry it to the drama and energy of live sports. You saw no limits, no rules you couldn’t break, nothing to stand in your way and keep you from making this more real than it seems like the stage could ever allow.
And that’s what saved everything. The realness. From the gritty, Trainspotting-inspired wallpaper and suffocating ceilings in Rocky & Adrian’s homes, to the full-contact fight at the end. You refused to let musical theater’s baser instincts win, and we are all better for it.
So thanks for keeping it real.
And please, please don’t be mad that I just told the world I think the music is basically really fucking bad. Because what you did is really fucking amazing. And that’s what matters most to me. Not the spectacle, but the reality you grounded it in. So I can try to forget that Rocky sang the words “my nose ain’t broken” like sixty-five times in three hours. And I can continue to love you, and your work, and pray every second of my day that you don’t ever leave theater for very long. Because Hollywood will never love you like I do.
PS. Call me.
PPS. Lucky has an idea for you that I think it’s important to share, so, here goes… What if you took all the songs out of this show and just replaced them with the entire Hangin’ Tough album? THINK ABOUT IT. It kind of works. Probably better than this score does, anyway. And like… Rocky: The Musical Featuring the Songs of Hangin’ Tough Directed By Alex Timbers is a show we would instantly see. Like, 400 times. So. You know… just a suggestion. #weacceptkissesinlieuofroyalties
PPPS. Shoutout to fight choreographer Steven Hoggett, who I basically love, and who I forgot to mention up there in the body because I was just so excited about all the things I have to say to you that I kind of lost control of my words. But really. Steven Hoggett is the bees knees and Rocky wouldn’t be what it is without him, so, you know… just let him know I said thanks, too.
Photo: Steven Klein