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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.

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.

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