At 35, writer-director Alex Timbers is already a veteran of Broadway, drawing acclaim for shows ranging from "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" to "The Pee Wee Herman Show."
Still, Timbers was an underdog to lead the "Rocky" revival; he had not seen the films.
"I thought it was actually an asset," Timbers said. "You treat the script like a dramatic text. So I went to the New York Public Library and I spent three days pulling pictures of like, this is what the boxers look like, this is what Philadelphia looks like, and I came in and I said, 'This is what my version of "Rocky" based on your script would be.'"
This week, "Rocky" was nominated for four Tony Awards (including Best Performance by an Actor for Andy Karl's portrayal of Rocky Balboa).
"It's partly intimidating," the actor said of playing what he called an iconic role: "People have all their expectations, but the wonderful thing about working with Alex and making sure that we just dissect these scenes, is that they become our own."
What sets "Rocky" apart is the interchangeable parts of its set, which was designed by German engineers.
"The whole ring moves on a gantry crane, like loading docks that move giant containers onto ships," said Timbers, "and so this thing can move upstage, downstage, to the left and to the right. . . . It can also flip on its side so that you can project onto the front of the ring."
Like the movie, the musical ends with an electrifying 20-minute champion fight sequence. Audience members in the front rows are relocated onstage, so the ring can take center stage.
"I haven't seen a show before where you start looking at the show in proscenium, and then you get to go in the round and to do it, to make the stage go out over the audience, we had to drill into bedrock down below the theater, to actually be able to support the weight of the stage and the ring and the audience together," said Timbers.
It's a theatrical style Timbers uses in his other current show, "Here Lies Love," an off-Broadway musical about the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, which premiered this Thursday.
It's a lot to juggle with the "Rocky" legacy and its $16.5 million budget.
"Of course you feel pressure, because it's a lot of money at stake," said Timbers. More importantly, he added, was handling a story that people hold "dear to their hearts."
"They have this personal relationship to [it], so you want to do that justice, and yet you don't just want to recreate the movie on stage. You want to do something theatrical and fresh -- that there's a reason to be remaking this story."