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Turn on the time machine — ‘Back to the Future’ is now a musical

Olly Dobson, left,  and Hugh Coles in "Back to the Future: The Musical."
Olly Dobson, left, as Marty McFly and Hugh Coles as George McFly in a scene from “Back to the Future: The Musical.”
(Sean Ebsworth Barnes)

Red vests, Albert Einstein wigs and neon, multicolored baseball caps bedecked audience members at the first performances here of “Back to the Future: The Musical.” The long-awaited adaptation of the widely beloved 1985 film hit some bumps in the road to the stage, but it finally had its world premiere here last month at the Opera House in front of a sold-out crowd.

With massive cheers for the DeLorean time machine’s slick entrance, for Doc Brown’s model of Hill Valley, for the first notes of “Johnny B. Goode” and for countless other moments lifted from the movie, it was evident that this industrial city had attracted devoted “Back to the Future” enthusiasts. Fans had traveled from Northern Ireland, New Hampshire, Texas, Atlanta, France and Germany to see the show in its first previews.

Now that the musical’s creators feel confident they’ve won over the movie trilogy’s most ardent fans, their next challenge is to ensure that the production has legs with audiences new to the tale of an eccentric scientist who invents time travel and a 17-year-old who finds himself face-to-face with his teenage parents in the 1950s.

Three key members of the original “Back to the Future” creative team have been working on the musical for more than a decade: writer-producers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (who also directed the movie trilogy) and composer Alan Silvestri. Gale wrote the musical’s book and is among its producers, and Silvestri cowrote music and lyrics with Glen Ballard, whose credits include cowriting and producing Alanis Morissette’s breakout album, “Jagged Little Pill.” The songwriting duo previously worked together on Zemeckis’ 2004 film “The Polar Express.” Zemeckis has also been involved in the stage production as a producer.

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In an era when seemingly every successful property gets a sequel or a reboot, Gale and Zemeckis have continually refused offers to make a fourth “Back to the Future” film. But they’ve long been intrigued by the idea of turning the hit sci-fi comedy into a musical, so they set to work figuring out how to make Doc and Marty sing.

Christopher Lloyd, left, and Michael J. Fox in the 1985 film "Back to the Future."
(Universal)

“There was a time when the very idea that someone other than Chris[topher] Lloyd and Michael J. [Fox], Lea [Thompson] — the very idea that someone else would try to play those roles was kind of terrifying,” Silvestri says. “And then the great surprise was when we did hear our people, they were so magnificent.”

Slipping into the shoes of Fox and Lloyd as Marty McFly and Doc Brown are, respectively, Olly Dobson and Roger Bart. Dobson, who graduated from drama school in 2014, recently appeared in the West End production of “Bat Out of Hell: The Musical,” and Bart comes to the project with more than 30 years of stage and screen credits, including his Tony-nominated role in “The Producers.”

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“Back to the Future: The Musical” director John Rando knew fellow Broadway vet Bart well. As for Dobson, Gale recalls, “[When] we saw Olly’s audition tape, everybody said, ‘Well, it’s gotta be this guy.’”

Many of the those in the principal cast found themselves navigating how to pay homage to the film’s beloved performances while also delivering something new to theater audiences.

Dobson, who first saw “Back to the Future” on TV at age 9, says: “I remember every intonation and inflection that Michael J. Fox ever gave.” Indeed, Fox’s recognizable voice and even some details of his physical mannerisms were discernible in Dobson’s performance. The Kent native prides himself on his ability to do impersonations, and he says those skills helped for the iconic lines taken straight from the film. But he adds that Rando often urged him, “Change it up. Raise the stakes.”

Bart doesn’t consider himself to be an impersonator, but says, “I lifted a few things that I adored of [Lloyd’s] performance and the parameters of size of the performance.”

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Though many of the movie’s memorable lines — and even details of costumes and props — have been re-created for the musical, the show’s creative team knew that adapting “Back to the Future” to a 21st century stage production would call for shedding some elements of the film.

Baby Uncle Joey, along with Doc’s dogs, Einstein and Copernicus, were early deletions. Doc Brown is no longer killed by Libyan terrorists, which will strike some as an appropriate update for 2020, though Gale contends the change had “nothing to do with” being “politically correct.” He says he crafted a new threat to Doc’s life because a car chase onstage “never was going to look very good.”

After work began on the musical’s book and songs, Gale and Zemeckis found their lead producer in Glasgow-born Colin Ingram, with whom Ballard worked on “Ghost: The Musical” in 2011. British director Jamie Lloyd (no relation to Christopher) signed on even before the book was finished, and a premiere was set for 2015, the year that Marty, Doc, and Jennifer travel to in 1989’s “Back to the Future Part II.”

Then, reports broke in August 2014 that Jamie Lloyd had left the project, citing “creative differences,” delaying the musical’s debut initially to 2016. Previews in Manchester were preceded by workshops and readings in London, starting in August 2018.

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Opening the musical in the U.K. seemed a natural fit, as “Back to the Future” has became a cherished holiday tradition for Brits, airing on Christmas or Boxing Day (Dec. 26) for several years, starting in 1988 with a prime spot immediately after the queen’s Christmas address to the Commonwealth.

“Before we even began to talk about how we were going to achieve the major technical events, we all only talked about how to make it a really good, solid musical. So all the readings were focused on that: continuing to develop songs, throwing some songs out, rewriting songs,” says Rando, who was eager to bring his experience with 1950s musicals to “Back to the Future.”

Silvestri and Ballard wrote 16 songs for the musical, which also features four songs from the film: the Penguins’ doo-wop single “Earth Angel,” Huey Lewis and the News’ two songs that debuted in the film, “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time,” plus Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” for the stage re-creation of Marty’s memorable rock star moment at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.

One standout number comes in Act 2 when Marty, tasked with making sure his parents get together, must teach his dad “to be a man.” The upbeat song “Put Your Mind to It” has George attempting to mirror Marty’s smooth dance moves. For the crowd-pleasing display of Marty’s and George’s disparate dance styles, Rando gleaned some inspiration from Davie Bowie and Mick Jagger’s 1985 music video cover of “Dancing in the Streets.”

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“As wacky and as goofy as [‘Put Your Mind to It’] is, you see a bond there between Marty and George that’s very special,” the director says. “Can you imagine this wonderful thing when you get to teach your dad how to dance?”

After the musical’s limited 12-week run in Manchester, transferring to London’s West End is not a certainty, but Rando says it’s “a very strong possibility” and “our serious, focused goal.” No plans are set in stone for releasing a cast recording of the show’s music, but Ingram says “obviously, we’d like to do one.”

For now, fans can get a taste of two new songs from the musical online. The show’s official YouTube account has posted in-studio videos of “Put Your Mind to It” and “Gotta Start Somewhere,” an Act I number led by Cedric Neal, playing Hill Valley Mayor-to-Be Goldie Wilson.

“Back to the Future: The Musical” will be put to the critics’ test on March 11, when reviewing press are invited to attend.

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With an eye toward the West End, the show’s cast and crew will then have nine additional weeks in Manchester to continue working on how to best win over audiences of “Back to the Future” devotees and newbies alike.


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