Not long ago in 2022, Sylvester Stallone, the writer and actor behind the 1970s franchise Rocky, the 1980s franchise Rambo, and the 2000s franchise The Expendables, said a thing that seemed most unlikely in relation to his long history of cinematic dealerships and continued chapter-like film themes.
When it came to yet another Rocky spinoff after the Creed franchise gearing up for its third volume – Creed III – Stallone was mightily unhappy when it came to the August 2022 announcement of “Drago,” a reported project designed to center on Rocky rival Ivan Drago, the Soviet-Russian fighter played by Dolph Lundgren, who took on the Italian Stallion in 1985’s Rocky IV, and killed off Apollo Creed, thus requiring Michael H, Jordan to play Creed’s son in those recent spinoffs, who already has major beef against Lundgren’s character’s son, Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) from Creed 2…. So, you can see already where this will wind up.
“I’d like to congratulate Irwin Winkler and family beating another wonderful character into the ground! # no shame,” tweeted Stallone following initial reports about the Drago spinoff. It should be noted that Stallone had already been bitching out the Winkler family for not ponying up additional monies for Stallone and his children, after creating the Rocky character (and Creed, and Drago, and Adrian – my guess at another more feminist sequel if anyone’s asking), and selling them for chump-change back when Stallone was appearing in D-grade porn films to sustain himself in Hollywood. (Actually, it is MGM who owns the rights to the entire Rocky franchise and all of its characters, and now that Amazon owns MGM, audiences can expect to see many Amazon small businesses stitching Rocky-like boxing shorts and Burgess Meredith wooly caps along with the Amazon-owned Whole Foods selling Rocky protein bars. Howmuchyouwannabet?)
After his brief Twitter tirade, Stallone – currently starring in Paramount+’s Tulsa King, created by Yellowstone’s Taylor Sheridan with Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter – jumped onto Instagram and took further aim at Irving Winkler and his producing sons for “once again picking clean THE BONES of another wonderful character I created without even telling me. I APOLOGIZE to the FANS, I never wanted ROCKY characters to be exploited by these parasites,” he said, according to Variety. “By the way, I once had nothing but respect for Dolph but he NEVER told me about what was going on behind my back with the character I created for him!!! REAL FRIENDS Are more precious than gold.”
Another recently-deleted Instagram post from Stallone featured a graphic series of photos with Winkler as a vampire who “SUCK[s] ROCKY DRY” and pointing out that the extended Winkler family had “found their next meal” in Drago.
Sure, throwing money at Stallone for his troubles (and creating such stalwart sequel-ready characters) could be an answer, but then again, maybe not. Maybe everything Rocky is sucked dry. Which begs a logical question – with the franchise going on 50 years of age in 1976, is Rocky a dried-up old boxer, punch drunk and woozy? Or, as Rocky is portrayed in Creed (but not Creed III in which he refused to take part), is there life for the old pugilist left?
Reboots and prequels and Hollywood’s overall need for revivalism aside, can and should Rocky survive yet another round?
One man who states that Rocky is not dead, but instead stands as an iconic everyman whose stature as one who fights the good fight in the face of all resistance and strife is director-choreographer Richard Stafford, the man behind the stage show, Rocky: The Musical.
Co-scripted by Stallone himself and esteemed playwright Thomas Meehan (the 2012 show was Meehan’s last before he passed away) with composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, the Broadway show was a smash hit a decade ago and nominated for many a Tony Award.
“Everyman can see themselves as Rocky Balboa,” says director-dancer Stafford, who hit boxing gyms in New York City with his Rocky cast’s pugilist-actors, to help achieve what he believes is the necessary realism and authenticity so to make the Balboa tale sing in the ring.
“It has to feel as if it is two men really slugging it out for life or death for Rocky Balboa. Going the distance is what matters most – to him, to us. There’s a rawness to that, two men in a ring.”
Everyone in 2022 is slugging out in the ring, metaphorically, as fighting against all adversity is what binds people together – whether they’re in Hollywood, on Broadway or on the streets of Philadelphia where Rocky: The Musical appears from October through November at the Walnut Street Theater. When the subject of whether or not a Rocky could or should sustain itself through its upcoming 50th birthday, director and choreographer Stafford states that the boxing, dancing and prancing Balboa has more than enough life in him for several lifetimes – as crucial of a battling, buoyant everyman and dramatically enticing character as is Willie Lomax in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
“There is a visceral quality to this musical that draws you in – like Cats, The Music Man or like Hamilton,” says Stafford. “But with Rocky, the audience members can imagine themselves in his place, battling the odds. Most audience members can’t imagine themselves as actual cats or as singing, dancing con men or American Revolution era statesman or a phantom stalking the opera. You can imagine yourself, however, dealing with trying to get by, being an outsider, attempting to live out your dreams. People can see themselves in Rocky and Adrian. Rocky: The Musical is about resilience and going the distance, something that is completely necessary when you consider everything that we’ve gone through since 2020 – the pandemic, social justice unrest, political heartaches, financial headaches. Through all this, we remain upright. If we fall down, we get back up again. We heal. We’re always going to face challenges that we have to take up, head on. You let courage and faith win. To that, Rocky is relevant, and will always be relevant.”