Here’s the thing. The blockbuster film Back To The Future was first released in 1985, starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, a rock ‘n’ roll-loving teenager who is accidentally transported back to 1955 in a time-travelling DeLorean (ask your parents) invented by his friend, Dr Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd. Before he can return to 1985, Marty must ensure that his own high school-aged parents fall in love in order to save his own existence.
So far, so sci-fi. However, not only was Back To The Future great, well-crafted fun, it was one of the first mainstream films to take popular culture seriously – and that was long before the academic world, Sunday supplements and Radio 4 felt obliged to do so. It became a bona fide cultural phenomenon itself, not only providing a basis for many gags but also spawning animated TV series, theme park rides, comic books, action figures, video games and all the paraphernalia that studios now bank on. The film was a massive commercial hit all over the globe, raking in gazillions long before the many and various DVD repackages. That first film took $360.6 million at the box office worldwide (try doubling that figure to get an idea of how much it earned in today’s money) and the two sequels in the franchise took the total take to $936.6 million (more than $1.8 billion by current standards).
So, at a time when the most unlikely of films are being turned into stage musicals, surely Back To The Future – The Musical is the sort of project that stage producers are falling over themselves to become involved with? When it comes from the film’s original creators, writer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, plus the man who wrote its music, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning Alan Silvestri, as well as Glen Ballard, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter for Ghost – The Musical, the phrase ‘no-brainer’ springs to mind.
Apparently not, according to Gale on a recent visit to Manchester’s Opera House, which is where the show will open in February next year before transferring to the West End.
“That first film is nearly 35-years-old and it’s never left public consciousness, that’s what’s so amazing. Everybody’s seen this movie and so have their kids. I’m still blown away by its longevity. It seems to cross all cultures and generations.
“So, like you, we’d thought it was a slam-dunk, but it’s been a long time in the gestation. Actually, we’ve been thinking and talking about this since way back in 2004, with half an idea to tie something in with the 13th anniversary in 2015. But we’d meet with producers who just didn’t get it. Maybe they just weren’t connected to the movie as well as they could have been or didn’t remember it. We actually met with one producer, a pretty big name, and we’d had the meeting set up for three weeks. So we go into his office and it’s Bob Zemeckis, who’s an Academy Award-winning director, me, Alan Silvestri, and Glen Ballard, a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, and he starts with ‘well you know I haven’t seen Back To The Future since it came out’. We all looked at each other and all thought ‘well, you’ve had three weeks and you didn’t see it?’ Here we were, some guys who you’d think might have earned some respect, but he still treated us like the guy who takes out the trash in the morning.”
He continues: “The pact that Bob, Al, Glen and I made right from the start was ‘it’s us, we’re doing it, not hiring somebody else’. That was the package, if you want Back To The Future – The Musical, it’s got to be us. But Bob and I would meet with people and say ‘we’d like to introduce you to Al and Glen’ and they would say straightaway ‘no, they can’t do a musical, they haven’t done one before’.
“We did also meet people who might say ‘well we want you to have this guy direct’ and then the director didn’t get it. There was a false start in 2014 when we announced the project with director Jamie Lloyd, but Jamie had some ideas that were not in sync with ours and he also didn’t connect well in a working relationship with Glen and Al. So we mutually agreed to part ways.
“By then, Glen had introduced us to our producer Colin Ingram who’d produced Ghost – The Musical, and we decided ‘let’s get some songs written, let’s perform them in a 40-minute showcase we can get on video’. Then we had something we could show to directors and say ‘take a look at this and if you see a musical here we want to meet you’. John Rando (the Tony Award-winning director of Urinetown and On The Town) immediately took to it. So he came out to California from his base in New York, met with us and we loved his energy and ideas. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Meanwhile, the book of the show was taking shape based on, but not slavishly sticking to, the films.
“It would be insane to try to follow the arc of all three movies,” says Gale. “So, we stick to the first one as it’s the one that’s most beloved and that’s got the strongest story of the three. When we made the movie in the 80s, it was just the 50s we were being nostalgic about. Now everyone’s nostalgic about the 80s, which happened to be one of the predictions we made back in the second movie, so we have two worlds of nostalgia and it’s been kind of fun to be able to throw in some 80s jokes as we’ve been developing the show.
“We’ve all seen stage shows that have been too slavish to the screenplay, but if you want to see the movie, see the movie. Stage is a different medium. So every joke that’s in the movie is not going to be on stage, it can’t be. That’s fine, we’ve got new jokes. Some of the scenes are the same, some are similar, some are new – and there are songs. Everything we’re trying to do is with the idea of ‘let’s not try to do things that won’t work on stage just because they were in the movie, let’s come up with something different that will work better on stage’.
He continues: “Technology has, of course, come on by leaps and bounds so you can do some things on stage that are going to knock everybody’s socks off. So that’s been a blessing in disguise of it taking so long.”
The show has been work-shopped here in the UK with preview audiences including celebrity fans such as Leigh Francis/Keith Lemon as well as the two women who started the UK Michael J. Fox fan club back in 1985.
“If our fans aren’t happy with it, we’re shooting ourselves in the head,” Gale admits. And the reason they are premiering the show here in Manchester goes back again to Ghost – The Musical, which also premiered at Manchester Opera House before becoming a worldwide smash.
“That had the same producer Colin Ingram, as well as the same lyricist Glen Ballard. They said ‘we need to do that again, it was just such a great way to get the show started’. When you first go out there, you don’t want people throwing tomatoes at you and they were both raving about what a great experience it was to open it in Manchester, how enthusiastic, receptive and cool the audiences were.”
Main image: Olly Dobson and Bob Gale. Copyright Phil Tragen 2019.
Back To The Future – The Musical opens at Manchester Opera House on February 20, 2020, and runs until May 17, 2020.