Andy Karl boxing in Rocky the musical

Staging the Thrilling Fight in Rocky

The music swells. Lights flash. A full-size boxing ring rolls out into the audience. The fight begins. It’s beautiful, it’s bloody and it’s brutal.  It’s the most electrifying 20 minutes on Broadway right now.

When Alex Timbers took on the task of directing the musical based on Sylvester Stallone’s iconic 1976 movie, Rocky, he resolved to deliver a boxing match like nothing you’ve seen before in a theatre. In the first half of the musical, the audience is drawn into the tender love story between the South Philly boxer Rocky Balboa and his girlfriend, the shy pet-store assistant Adrian. Then comes the climactic 15-round bout that pits sweet-natured underdog Rocky against the cocky reigning champion, Apollo Creed. “If you invest emotionally, as in any other musical, in the story of Rocky and Adrian,” says Timbers, “I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if you could be a participant in the drama and actually be at the final fight instead of just watching it?”

During the past decade, Timbers has emerged as one of New York’s most innovative directors, incorporating the scrappy experimental techniques he developed Off-Broadway into his work on Broadway (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher). In previous works — as disparate as his 2006 Hell House, a deadpan staging of an Evangelical fire-and-brimstone morality play, and Here Lies Love, the David Byrne musical about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos (currently on a return engagement at the Public Theater downtown) — he moved playing areas and audiences around with astonishing dexterity. Getting the audience to surround the Rocky fight by thrusting the boxing ring eight rows into the orchestra, he turns the musical, two-thirds of the way through, into a similar immersive-theater experience.

“The idea of being able to transform a space — taking something that exists in the proscenium and then turning it suddenly into an in-the-round experience — is something that I get excited about. And that kind of gestalt shift is appropriate for the big seismic shift that is happening to Rocky’s life at that moment,” says the 35-year-old director.

“It is infectious working with someone like Alex,” says Steven Hoggett, the choreographer responsible for the fight performed by the actors, Andy Karl (Rocky) and Terence Archie (Apollo). “This is all absolutely his mad dream. The moment you decide to put the fight in the middle of the auditorium, the presentation just keeps on unfolding. He sets a really exciting high bar and gives us all the encouragement and time to achieve all we want.”

To come up with the most authentic-looking fight for the musical, Hoggett reports that they took as a starting point the big fight in the movie sequel Rocky II. “We analyzed it, not in terms of actual punches, but for the look and feel, to see what kind of mood and dynamic was created, and how the narrative was working,” he explains. After conducting a series of workshops with professional boxers at a Brooklyn gym, in the summer of 2011, he was ready to work with the two actors themselves.

“The first thing I made sure was that they knew how to box,” says Hoggett. “Once they had gotten the technique right, you then treat it like choreography and set the boxing sequences to certain counts in the music. When the guys both felt that they knew what they were doing, we stepped up the brutality. It gets a bit darker and you want the punches to be a little bit harder.”

Because they are fighting in full view of the audience, Rocky and Apollo have to make full contact and the punches must really connect. “My big promise to both of them was that by the time we came to open the show, they will know every single punch, every single count; every move will have been drilled into them so they will feel completely safe. What has happened now is the guys have become so quick and so fast during the fights that you don’t have a sense of them of doing it step by step by step,” says Hoggett.

To enhance the impact of the live fight, Timbers introduced live video coverage of the action, displayed on a giant Jumbotron. “With the video involved and audience on all four sides, the big challenge is when to add makeup, add blood and splatter effects, and how fast it can all happen,” notes special effects designer Jeremy Chernik. “It’s not like we have 45 minutes to carefully create the perfect makeup for this fight. We have sometimes two seconds or less to accomplish something.” Chernik says it was through his collaboration with Hoggett that he was able to pull off some of his best effects. “I was able to say, ‘If you changed this one-second move, or if he used his left hand instead of his right, we can accomplish much more’ — that was truly amazing.”

In his efforts to give the audience the best approximation of the real thing, Timbers called for raising the quality of live camera work in the show to a level not previously seen on Broadway. “I wanted the kind of graphics package that makes you feel like you are watching the sports channel. We are cutting back and forth between about 11 cameras through the theatre and two that are hand-held; we used the same computer programming system that was developed for U2’s concert tours.”

And, as if the in-the-round experience, realistic fight choreography, bloody special effects, ingenious sound, lighting, and video design weren’t enough, Timbers upped the ante. He recalls that when the composer Stephen Flaherty suggested holding back the famous “Rocky theme” until the 15th round, he got the idea to spin the entire ring around at that same point in the match. “The audience’s perspective shifts.  That’s when people lose their minds!”

Technical wizardry aside, however, the success of the Rocky fight ultimately rests on the two actors pummeling each other on stage. “A boxing match isn’t just two men hitting each other, it’s a huge psychological battle,” says Hoggett. “In my mind, it is like a game of chess, and there is a lot the guys do in terms of performance. They have to play character moments: What kind of intentions are behind these punches? There is a moment when Apollo’s manager tells him that he has to finish the fight, so how does he feel at this point?”

“My ambition was to make a piece of theater where, for a start, there is a narrative and the story is always clear to an audience, and then, to honor the art of boxing,” Hoggett continues. “I think boxing is one of the most incredible physical events anyone can ever do, so I wanted to pay respect to that sport in the best way that I can. I haven’t told the guys this, but every single night, it’s very emotional watching those two actors commit to something like this — the physical demand of it, and just trusting each other. I find it amazing that it actually happened and that we were able to achieve what we do and with such conviction.”