“God, I just love theater so much!” I shouted to nobody and everybody on Sunday evening, as I walked out of The Wintergarden Theater after seeing Rocky, the new Broadway musical based on a little seen movie about some boxer or something. (That’s called a joke!)
I really enjoyed Rocky, and people that know me often joke that I like everything. This is a bit of an overstatement, but not when it comes to live theater. I’ve never walked out of a Broadway or off Broadway show anything but thrilled. After I come down from the high of watching something, and analyze it with my English Major brain, sometimes I’ll know that something wasn’t actually good, but in the moment, I’ll never realize it because there’s something about live theater that turns me on in a really different way than any other art form.
Not that Rocky is art. It isn’t. It’s spectacle, and it’s very good spectacle. Sometimes spectacle can be art (early Cirque de Soleil) and sometimes art and spectacle can combine into something special (Anytime Puccini is presented at The Met.) but this wasn’t one of those cases. It has nice songs, shifts the focus of this familiar story to give it new life. Rather than focus on the conflict between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, the musical shifts your attention to Rocky and Adrian’s blossoming romance. It works really well. The music was written by David Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens, who wrote Ragtime, Seussical and Once On This Island. This score feels more like Ragtime than any of their other work, which is a boon, because Ragtime is art. “Happiness” the song that Rocky and Adrian sing as they decorate their Christmas tree is one of the best Act II duets I’ve heard in a very long time. “Fight From the Heart” the song that Rocky sings as he decides to fight Apollo isn’t quite as good as “Wheels of A Dream” the song from Ragtime that the thought of makes me cry, but is as good as “A Part of Us” the gorgeous mourning song from Once On This Island. (Also congrats to Andy Karl, on his Tony nomination. He turned in a lovely performance.)
But there’s also spectacle. The sets and choreography and performances are all great and larger than life. Act II opens with Rocky drinking his raw eggs and running through Philly. Then there’s a short interlude with Mickey, and he goes into training mode again and there’s an epic, epic version of “The Eye Of The Tiger” sung. Which brings me to my next point.
Rocky is a story that defined an entire genre. One of the things that I’m looking forward to the most this Movie Season (starts tonight with The Amazing Spider-Man 2!) is Million Dollar Arm a movie that would probably not exist without Rocky. So, there are a lot of things that people just expect to see tied in to this story. One of them is “Eye of The Tiger,” even though that song didn’t come around until Rocky III. (Mike suggested that all of the sequels get folded into one show. Mary said that Ivan Drago could not be contained by a few scenes. Also no Rocky V or Rocky Balboa. They don’t count.) And just about every iconic image is preserves. The grey sweat suit, the leather jacket and pork pie hat. Punching the meat. Apollo as Uncle Sam. That weird freeze frame punch image that ends Rocky III. And of course Rocky’s triumphant run up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Everything is there. (I mean, this Rocky probably couldn’t end the Cold War.)
But I really do just love theater, and seeing theater on that level at all, performed by people who just love what they’re doing. It’s the highest form of happiness I can think of, it’s just so satisfying.