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American actor Drew Sarich plays Rocky Balboa in Rocky, the musical adaptation of the Oscar-winning film, which premiered in Hamburg (Morris Mac Matzen/Stage Entertainment)
American actor Drew Sarich plays Rocky Balboa in Rocky, the musical adaptation of the Oscar-winning film, which premiered in Hamburg (Morris Mac Matzen/Stage Entertainment)

Rocky the musical heading to Broadway – by way of Germany Add to ...

Boxer and small-time thug Rocky Balboa is returning to his shabby apartment after another day getting beat up in the ring and on the streets of Philadelphia. He talks to his turtles, gazes at his poster of Rocky Marciano, opens a bottle of beer and – well, here’s where this scene will no longer be familiar to fans of the 1976 Oscar-winning movie.

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This Rocky Balboa begins to sing, in German no less: “Ich hab’ ’nen blaues Auge und ’nen warmes Bier. Doch, hey – die Nase hält noch.”

Translated, that would be: “I got a black eye and a warm beer, but, hey, the nose ain’t broken.”

In the original movie, when Rocky – played by Sylvester Stallone – is asked why he fights, he replies, “Because I can’t sing and dance.” But in the Hamburg hit Rocky: Das Musical, he does both. Well, rather than dance, he trains to the beat of Eye of the Tiger, alongside a chorus line of Rockys in grey hoodies.

With lyrics and music by Ragtime’s Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and a script adapted by The Producers’ Thomas Meehan, Rocky is more than just another movie-turned-musical that happens to be translated into German. In fact, the production marks an important milestone in the development of commercial theatre here. This coming February, Rocky – albeit in English and with a different cast – is scheduled to become the first musical created in Germany to get its big chance on Broadway. It’s almost as unlikely as the show’s storyline about a ham-and-egg boxer who gets his one shot at heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.

The company producing the show, Stage Entertainment, is very proud of that accomplishment, and it is using it to help bolster its view of Hamburg as the Broadway of Europe. Rocky is still going strong 10 months after opening late last year. And it’s not just New York impresarios who are paying attention to Stage Entertainment’s overseas pitch; producers in North American cities such as Toronto, Chicago and Seattle – where Broadway musicals such as Rocky have traditionally had their trial runs – worry they will be left with smaller pieces of the theatrical pie.

“What happens now is we have a potential third market, where you can have a big, worldwide opening night of a show, recoup [the production costs of] a show, and bring a show to Broadway,” Johannes Mock-O’Hara, managing director of Stage Entertainment Germany, says over a coffee in his office in the booming Hamburg docklands area of HafenCity.

“We really do make the third-biggest musical theatre market in the world,” adds publicist Stephan Jaekel, who estimates the annual economic spin-offs of musical tourism in Hamburg to be €500-million ($694-million).

“If you compare us to Toronto, to Las Vegas, to Sydney, there aren’t many other places in the world where musical theatre plays the same role.”

This talk of being the third-biggest market will certainly have Canadians flashing back to Toronto in the 1990s, when Livent impresario Garth Drabinsky made similar claims about his city – coincidentally, at a time when he was opening a show with lyrics and score by Ahrens and Flaherty (Ragtime).

Livent’s dream famously flopped, but Stage Entertainment appears to be built on more solid footing. Although it’s based in Amsterdam and led by Dutch billionaire Joop van den Ende, its German subsidiary generates 50 per cent of its ticket revenues: 10 of Stage Entertainment’s 28 theatres are located in Germany – Hamburg has three of them, with a fourth under construction – and Stage Entertainment sells about four million tickets a year in the country.

For more than 20 years, the company has been a licensor of pre-existing shows such as Disney’s The Lion King. But in the past six years the company has also been developing new works for international markets, such as Sister Act (which premiered in London), and for local stages, such as Ich war noch niemals in New York (I’ve Never Been to New York), a jukebox musical based on the songbook of Austrian singer-songwriter Udo Jürgens.

But how do you persuade top American creators – whether a Hollywood star like Sylvester Stallone or Broadway names such as Ahrens and Flaherty – to first stage their new show in another country and another language?

Actually, it turns out that the language barrier is a selling point that Stage Entertainment offers. Critics may not fly to Germany to review a show in development if their budgets are tight and they don’t understand German. Ken Davenport, a New York producer, says many in the business are intrigued to see if the Rocky model gives directors more time to develop their shows before they are subjected to intense media scrutiny by everyone from veteran critics to amateur tweeters.

Earlier this year, Davenport tried out another movie-turned-musical, Somewhere in Time, in Portland, Ore., and says that it’s more difficult to keep a show under the radar in traditional theatre centres. “When you have a big star or creative team or high-value property, that’s when it’s hard to do really good work without being exposed too soon,” says Davenport who keeps a well-read blog about the business called The Producer’s Perspective. “There’s really not as much of a protective environment any more to develop a show out of town, because anyone can tweet or send an e-mail and snap a photo.”

Ahrens has experienced that first-hand. When she was working on Ragtime in Toronto in 1996, she found it a very positive environment despite being less than a two-hour flight from New York. But just four years later, when she and Flaherty were developing Seussical in Boston, the Internet had already changed things. A mole within the company – Ahrens never figured out who – sent out e-mails on a daily basis about who was fighting over changes that were being made to the show.

“It felt like you were standing there in your underwear trying to do the show,” recall Ahrens, who for Rocky learned to speak a little German to better understand the translated version in Hamburg. “I’ve been very concerned about it ever since. Truth is, it’s impossible to get a show right on the first go-around.”

Broadway theatre journalists who have flown to Hamburg find little local gossip about the show’s lyrics or book. Most have been limited to writing about the physical production – and particularly the astonishing final scene, where a full-sized boxing ring goes out into the audience. (The director, Alex Timbers, is also behind the immersive off-Broadway musical Here Lies Love, while the surprisingly realistic fight sequences are by Britain’s Steven Hoggett, who choreographed the military movement for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch.)

Stage Entertainment will continue to run Rocky in Germany as long as it can in an effort to earn back the estimated $20-million it spent on production costs. That’s impressive since, while Hamburg has always been home to prestigious state-subsidized theatres such as the Deutsches Schauspielhaus and Thalia Theater, commercial theatre here is comparatively new.

Initially, commercial theatre’s growth closely mirrored that of Toronto’s: Its first big successes were Cats (1980s) and The Phantom of the Opera (1990s). By the end of the 1990s, there were two main commercial companies operating in Hamburg – Stella AG and Stage Entertainment Germany. Stella AG went bankrupt more than a decade ago, but Stage Entertainment thrives, in part because its nimble business model enables it to move a show to a second city when demand subsides in its first market.

It also helps that Stage Entertainment can tap into a German population that is more than double the size of Canada’s, but in a country that’s just a third of the size of Ontario. So while Toronto’s theatrical tourism market hasn’t returned to 1990s highs, before the imposition of post-9/11 border restrictions and the 2003 SARS outbreak, Hamburg’s has continued to grow.

Stage Entertainment will face tougher competition on Broadway, and there could be taste issues – German audiences didn’t fall head over heels for Les Misérables, for instance, while Americans didn’t share the Germans’ appetite for the musical Dance of the Vampires.

But the company does have a man on the ground: Stage Entertainment USA’s managing director Bill Taylor moved to New York from London two years ago after Sister Act had opened. “It became very apparent that it’s hard to produce shows from 4,000 miles away,” says Taylor.

What excites Hamburg audiences may not suit American tastes, so Rocky’s success so far is not guaranteed to translate. “The German audience is a very sophisticated audience, but no two countries are the same and, until you put a show in front of a live audience, you can never be certain,” says Stage Entertainment USA’s managing director Bill Taylor.

For Mock-O’Hara, the domestic challenge is to get musical theatre treated in Hamburg with the respect that it gets in North America. He relates with astonishment how, at the Lincoln Center in New York, workshops of Rocky: Das Musical and Hamlet were taking place at the same time in adjoining rehearsal spaces.

That easy mix of traditional and commercial would not happen in Germany, he explains, because the classical view here is that commercial theatre is not really culture. “To get the top classical-theatre actors into our theatres, on stage or in the audience, is very, very difficult,” he says with a sigh.

Perhaps a Broadway hit will make it easier.

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