Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

'Rocky' music owes much to the sounds of Philadelphia

Poster for the show, previews of which start Tuesday.
Poster for the show, previews of which start Tuesday.

MUCH AS IT was in the film, Philadelphia is a major character in "Rocky" the musical. So it made sense that the music should show some Philly roots, according to composer Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the songs with lyricist Lynn Ahrens.

"The story is set in Philadelphia at the end of 1975 and beginning of 1976, so there is a lot of [Kenny] Gamble & [Leon] Huff influence," he said, referring to the city's legendary soul-music team. "Especially for the character of Apollo Creed, because [he] is a showman.

I really wanted to get some of that Philly sound in it."

Though striving for a contemporary sound, Flaherty also looked for inspiration to "some of the darker stuff Norman Whitfield did at Motown," such as "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" or "Smiling Faces Sometimes."

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  • For the character of Creed, the Muhammad Ali-like heavyweight champ who picks the obscure club fighter Rocky Balboa as an opponent, Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the song "Undefeated Man," which Flaherty described as a "stadium chant kind of number," and which, he said, boasts a "funked-up 'Star-Spangled Banner' and a Tower of Power horn section."

    For the Rocky character, Flaherty set out a more rock-oriented sonic blueprint. "Rocky is much more basic" than the flamboyant, larger-than-life Creed,he said. "So, you have to rock out. I listened to a lot of early Springsteen. . . . I kept going back to some of the more spare tracks on the 'Born to Run' album, and 'Nebraska.' "

    Rocky's love interest was Flaherty's most enjoyable subject. "For Adrian, I listened to a lot of singer-songwriters from that period: quiet, soulful, confessional," he said, name-checking Carly Simon and Melissa Manchester. "It's not really folk music, but parts of it touch on that.

    "Adrian was the most interesting to write for because she has relatively little dialogue in the film. A lot of her character is told through reaction shots. We sort of created an emotional background for her that's not in the movie. There's a lot of emotional information and backstory that sort of comes out through the songs."

    It's impossible to think "Rocky" and "music" without conjuring Bill Conti's rousing movie theme, "Gonna Fly Now." Flaherty admitted he had no choice but to use it in his score.

    "There are certain iconic things that the audience is expecting, so we have to deliver on those," he said. "I've never integrated other music into a score of mine. . . . I think I found a way I can present it. It's sort of in the DNA of the piece, but sometimes I fracture it and it becomes the bass line, sometimes the harmonies. It sort of weaves through the piece. I try to use it in surprising ways."

    - Chuck Darrow

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