Tonys: 'Rocky,' the $15 Million Musical That Was Denied a Title Bout

THR's awards analyst examines why the adaptation of the 1976 sports classic wasn't nominated for the best musical Tony (the category's fifth slot was left empty), but could win the best scenic design for a musical award.

NEW YORK -- When the Tony nominations were announced two weeks ago, the team behind the new Broadway adaptation of the classic 1976 film Rocky -- including Sylvester Stallone, the film's writer and star, who co-wrote the show's book with Thomas Meehan and is one of its producers -- must have felt deeply conflicted emotions.

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On the one hand, their star, Andy Karl, was nominated for best leading actor in a musical for his portrayal of the title character, a small-time boxer who gets a big title-shot. On the other hand, the Tony Awards Nominating Committee, which was empowered for the first time to nominate as many as five titles in the best musical category (and the other three categories recognizing shows), opted instead for just four -- and Rocky was not one of them.

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I have since spoken with Broadway insiders who have no connection to Rocky and believe that the $15 million spectacle probably finished fifth in voting -- behind the four sure-things that did get nominated, After Midnight, Aladdin, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder -- but was kept from garnering the votes necessary to snag a nom by smaller but also passionate constituencies for The Bridges of Madison County and Bullets Over Broadway.

Moreover, one wise veteran submitted to me, Rocky, in certain years past in which the best musical field was a bit thinner, would have not only been nominated for that prize but won it, thanks to its populist appeal, catchy music and, most notably of all, game-changing staging, the thing that makes it a landmark achievement, of sorts, and a must-see show, to be sure.

To this point, one of the four Tonys for which the show is nominated is best scenic design in a musical, and, having caught a performance of it last week at the Winter Garden Theatre, I can testify to just how audacious and impressive Christopher Barreca's sets and transitions, under the oversight of 35-year-old wunderkind Alex Timbers (previously a best director nominee for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher), really are.

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On the massive Winter Garden stage, which must be surrounded by massive "wings," numerous giant, elaborate sets are seamlessly carted in-and-out, and swung up-and-down, and so impressive are several of them -- such as a frosty meat locker in which lines of frozen, bloody slabs of beef hang from the ceiling -- that they receive ovations of their own just for showing up. The principal showpiece, though, is the regulation size boxing ring, which appears early in the show, is then sucked back into the rafters and then reappears, in a most creative way, for the climactic 20-minute fight scene, which evolves into a fully-interactive affair in which every audience member plays a part.

Spoiler alert: Patrons with tickets in the prime seats -- the first six rows of the center part of the orchestra section -- arrive to find badges on their seats identifying them as occupants of that area and are cryptically told to keep it with them, as they will be relocated later in the show. When it comes time for the big fight scene, the ring is lowered onto the stage; giant Jumbotrons with ESPN-styled commentators, graphics and live shots of the ring appear above it; and those audience members are ushered onto the stage to take new seats in bleachers facing the rest of the audience. Meanwhile, as everyone's eyes are on the stage, technicians set up apparatuses over the now-empty seats which, one soon discovers, make it possible for the ring to slide off the stage and out over the vacated seats, so that it is now surrounded on all four sides by members of the audience, just as a ring would be at a real fight.

The two "fighters" and their "entourages" then appear at the back of the theater and, one by one, make their way down the aisles, past the cheering (for Rocky) or booing (for Apollo) masses, up into the ring and the fight gets underway -- but the technical tricks aren't over yet.

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After a few rounds of marvelously choreographed activity -- from the placement of every single punch (to make the fighting look real) to the location of microphones in gloves and towels (to make the thuds and chatter audible) to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it application of makeup to create "cuts" (to make it clear how taxing the fight is for both fighters) -- the ring, with everyone in it, rotates 180 degrees to give audience members a view of the other side of things. (Talk about theatre in the round!) Those seated far from the front of the theater are accorded a great view, too: several cameramen are recording all of the action, which is projected live onto the Jumbotrons.

I believe the impressive and eye-catching stagecraft will be remembered in the same vein as The Phantom of the Opera (1988), Titanic (1997) and The Lion King (1998), each of which took home a Tony for their unforgettable scenic design, just as Rocky is expected to do. Each also, however, took home a Tony for best musical, which Rocky clearly will not.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg