Back to the Future The Musical writer and producer on bringing the story to the stage
Bob Gale has been dreaming about Back to the Future. The acclaimed screenwriter of the celebrated film franchise penned the book for the new musical adaptation of the classic movie, but when the out-of-town tryout had to close early due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Gale found his subconscious taking him back to Hill Valley.
“For the first six weeks I was back in the States after we had to close, I was dreaming about this show every single night,” he said. “Now that we're revving up, I'm hoping that I'll start having more dreams about it, because this is a dream that has to come true.”
And Gale is finally getting the chance to fulfill his dream. Back to the Future The Musical is set to start performances in the West End at the Adelphi Theatre in May 2021, and the highly anticipated production brings all the characters from the film, along with some new tricks for the stage, to life in a new way.
“It’s become a true piece of musical theatre,” lead producer Colin Ingram said. “People who don't know the film will just enjoy the fact that it's obviously got these incredible characters that are singing and dancing, and the structure of it is brilliant.”
Directed by John Rando and co-created by the film’s director and screenwriter Robert Zemeckis and Gale, the musical follows Marty McFly and his pal Dr. Emmet Brown, as Marty finds accidentally finds himself back in time with his high school-aged parents. The film’s composer Alan Silvestri is creating an all-new score for the stage alongside Glen Ballard, and in addition to the new songs, hits from the film like “The Power of Love” are featured.
“Now that we're, knock on wood, coming out of the pandemic, the spirit of the show is exactly what the world needs right now,” Gale said. “Just to be able to go have a great time and celebrate a movie that everybody loves in this new medium.”
London Theatre sat down with Gale and Ingram (over Zoom) to talk about bringing this iconic movie to life onstage.
Bob, you’ve been wanting to make this movie into a musical for a while. What made you think this would be a good musical?
Bob Gale: The idea came from Bob Zemeckis's wife, Leslie. They had seen the Broadway production of The Producers, and afterwards, Leslie said, "Hey, wouldn't Back to the Future be a good candidate for a movie turned into a musical?" Bob said, "Hey, that sounds good to me. Let me kick it around with Bob Gale."
As soon as we started talking about it, we realized that it had a lot of great ingredients for a musical, not the least of which is that our main character wants to be a rock-and-roll star, so we have a reason for him to sing. That's always one of the big questions you have to ask yourself when you're creating a musical: why does it sing?
Colin, you’re a pro at bringing movies to the stage including productions like Billy Elliott and Ghost. Why Back to the Future?
Colin Ingram: I saw the film when I was 15, and I was just completely blown away by it. I went out and tried to part my curly hair and look like Michael J. Fox and buy the life preserver. Glen Ballard started speaking to me about it when we were working on Ghost. I thought, "Oh, my god. That would be incredible." But I had to go through a number of hoops in order to become the producer of the show. I have to pinch myself that I'm doing this.
Have you made any major changes from the film for the stage show?
Bob Gale: One of the things that was very important to everybody associated with this was that we not make the show a recreation of the movie. Because if you just want to see the movie, you can go see the movie. We wanted this to really work on the stage. So there were decisions that we had to make. For example, the Libyan car chase at the Twin Pines Mall, that's really not conducive to being done on the stage, so we didn't do it. We do something else that dramatically works just as effectively.
The skateboard chase is not on skateboards, because it's not practical. We have a different type of chase and there's a nod to the skateboard aspect of it. We’re got live actors here doing stuff so we don't want to take a chance of our lead actor breaking his ankle because he misses a skateboard turn or something like that. So we were always thinking about, "Okay, what's the essence of the drama that we need to preserve and how do we best convey that on the stage?"
The film script is held up as one of the best screenplays from a narrative and structural point of view, but musical theatre structure is much different. How did you learn to think theatrically in writing the adaptation?
Bob Gale: Of course, it was a challenge, and there were actually things in the book writing where I just said, "Boy, I don't know how we're going to do this." Like the clock tower scene — how exactly is that going to work? I didn't know.
But what was so extraordinary about this process is that everybody that was involved in the production were all fans of the movie. They never stopped constantly thinking about, "What is we did this? Could we try this technology?" So they brought so much to it, because I think there was the unstated feeling of: "I don't want to be the person that screws up Back to the Future on stage."
Colin Ingram: We have an incredible design team, led my Tim Hatley. I've never worked with a designer who has spent so much time designing a show, working on so little else. He has really led the process with Finn Ross, who did all the video work on Harry Potter, with Chris Fisher, who worked on the illusions on Harry Potter, and Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone. They really surpassed what we expected. As Bob says, some of the illusions use technology, some use old-fashioned illusions. I just think the scale that we've done it on has never been seen in a musical before. It's really impressive what they've done, and every single effect we used is pushing the narrative as well.
How are some of those iconic film moments like the speeding DeLorean or the clock tower scene realized onstage?
Bob Gale: All I can tell you is that when the DeLorean appears for the first time, and then when it travels through time, the audience just goes absolutely berserk. Do we have fire trails? Yeah, real fire. When the lightning strikes, it's loud. It's louder than it is in the movie.
And it’s not just the songs; there is score to the show as well. So you get the visceral feeling that you get from the movie, because Alan Silvestri has scored scenes very similarly to the way they are in the movie. So when we're in the clock tower scene and you're getting all that stuff that you hear in the movie, it's happening there, and you've got a live orchestra playing it. It's just amazing.
The movie is set in 1985, and Marty travels back to 1955. Was there any talk about changing the time period for the musical?
Bob Gale: No, no, no, no. In the early development process, we had interviewed a director who wanted to modernize it and said, "Well, let's do it in 2011." That's when we had our meeting with him. I said, "What happens in theatre is that the day after a show opens, it's automatically a period piece."
So no, we need to give the public the Back to the Future that they love. The '80s and the '50s, which is so great musically, and what these 35 years later allowed us to do was now we're looking back on the '80s in a way that we couldn't see it at the time.
Colin Ingram: The '80s were so rich in iconography as well as music, so we've had some fun with some of the costumes.
Bob Gale: When the ensemble came out of the first dress rehearsal and they're wearing these '80s hairdos and these '80s clothes, and I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, my god. Did we really look that bad?"
Colin Ingram: But it's all in fashion now, that's the thing. All that '80s stuff is now back in fashion.
Fans have a lot of theories about the movie. Does the musical offer any new interpretations or Easter eggs from the movie onstage?
Bob Gale: I'll give one of them away, for fans of the trilogy. We have the disappearing photo gag. In the movie, the three characters are standing in front of a wishing well. Well, in the show, they're now standing in front of Monument Valley, which is a nod to Back to the Future Part III.
In the film, Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd gave such iconic performances. What was it like casting Olly Dobson and Roger Bart for the musical?
Bob Gale: Everybody has a preconceived notion of who these characters are from the movie, of course, but we don't want the performers to imitate. They have to make the characters their own. Does Olly Dobson do some Michael J Fox-isms in his performance? Sure, but those are also parts of the character that came about when we were conceiving him. Zemeckis's constant direction to Michael was, "Everything's a crisis, you're always in a hurry." So John [Rando] took that idea and imparted that to Olly, so he does that. Is he channeling Michael Fox? Yeah, but he's channeling Marty McFly, because that's who Marty McFly is.
Roger is a wonderful talented veteran of musical theatre and a comedian in his own right. He took some of the aspects of Doc Brown from the movie, but he really added another dimension Doc that we don't really get to see, because the relationship between Marty and Doc in the musical is a lot warmer. So these guys brought something to this relationship that levels up what was in the movie, and it's amazing.
Colin Ingram: With musicals, we get to dig a little bit deeper into their characters, because obviously, they're singing songs about what they want and what they feel. So we're getting to know these characters a bit better and understanding a little bit better. That’s something the film can't do, because we stop and sing.
The movie is set in America, but it has also attracted a global fan base. What makes London the perfect place to premiere the musical?
Bob Gale: Well, I learned that the UK was one of our most successful territories. Somebody told me at some point that it was traditional for one of your TV stations to air Back to the Future on Boxing Day. Families would sit around the TV on Boxing Day and parents would show their kids this movie that they loved when they were kids.
Then the topper was Secret Cinema. In 2014, they did Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future. I had no idea what this was, but I came over to check it out. They had recreated Hill Valley at the London Olympic Village, and four nights a week over the summer, 3000people would come dressed up like the characters in the movie and just have this visceral Back to the Future experience. It was clear that the love that this property has in England and particularly in London, it just said, "Yeah, this is the place for us to launch."
Colin Ingram: The great advantage of opening in the West End is that economically, it's much less than Broadway, and that allows you to take risks and change things, develop things. I think John Rando has been absolutely the right choice and I think it's right that he's from the States and it's right that he's got the America musical ingrained in his experience.
Nostalgia is something that people are really looking for in this time, and Back to the Future is like the ultimate nostalgia story – great storytelling, something that reminds people of a time that's not right now. Why do you think makes the nostalgia factor and the beloved nature of the story makes this a great musical to bring theatre back after the pandemic?
Bob Gale: Whatever period of time the show is going to play in, it touches something that everybody experiences, which is you come to realization when you're eight or nine years old that your parents were once children. There isn't a single human being on the face of the planet that hasn't wondered, "What did my parents do on their first date? How did I get here?"
You may get varying amounts of curiosity about how much you really want to know about that, but Back to the Future touches that, and it touches on the idea that you have some control over your own destiny. Nostalgia is great, but I think that independent of the situation in the world today, this is why the movie's still with us 35 years later. People need to be reminded of the human connection, especially with all the isolation that everybody's been going through. We're not having enough of that. So for everybody to be able to come to a theatre and sit with each other and celebrate this story they love, I think it's going to be gold.
Photo credit: Olly Dobson in Back to the Future the Musical (Photo by Sean Ebsworth Barnes)