This weekend, I was lucky enough to be amongst a full house at London’s Adelphi Theatre for a performance of Back To The Future: The Musical, and while I appreciate it’s not a film per se, I still wanted to write a little about it.
Firstly though, even though you probably know the original movie like the face of a friend, there are some fresh gags and changes made for the stage show which I wouldn’t want to spoil here, so this will be fairly brief and spoiler-free.
I’m on record as saying the Back To The Future films are the greatest trilogy in cinema, so I obviously went into this with pretty high expectations, but also more than a few worries as well. Because I love the original so much, would I be able to see the musical stage show (not a genre I’m a particular fan of), with an objective eye?
Anyone who knows the film knows that creator Bob Gale has always refused to reboot or remake the series, and a fourth entry in the franchise has always been waved off – though as with the constant James Bond casting speculation, whenever there’s a new, young star in town, you’ll often read some clickbaity article suggesting they’re in line to play the new Marty McFly (seriously, I remember both Daniel Radcliffe and Justin Bieber both being touted as the new Marty).
This just makes Gale’s involvement in the musical all the more important. He’s spoken about the venture being “a way of giving the world more Back To The Future without compromising the legacy of the movies”, and “a chance to do something creatively challenging, in a medium we’d always loved” – the ‘we’ being Gale himself, original director Robert Zemeckis (both worked on the new script), and composer Alan Silvestri (returning to add to the original score and develop the new music with Glen Ballard).
Nostalgia, as I’m fond of saying, is a hell of a drug, and the reunion of the original filmmakers gives you a hit to kick to get started with, but it means nothing if the new elements don’t work.
Thankfully, Olly Dobson is a note-perfect Marty McFly – he sounds just like Michael J Fox, and has the right mix of confidence and self-doubt to suit the character, as well as a cheeky playfulness to his performance that really makes it his own. Obviously, there’s an element of impersonation or tribute, but for all intents and purposes, you’re watching Marty McFly, and his lightness of touch in the comedic scenes is superb.
For the role of Doc Brown, the production got Roger Bart (who has appeared in films like Trumbo, Law Abiding Citizen, American Gangster and series including Desperate Housewives and 30 Rock), who certainly looks the part in the promo material.
However, for the performance we attended the role was played by understudy Mark Oxtoby (whose film credits include Muppets Most Wanted and TV credits include Harry Hill’s Tea Time and CBeebies’ Gigglebiz). When not in the co-starring role, he plays grumpy headteacher Strickland, but his wide-eyed Doc was the perfect counterpart to Dobson’s Marty.
Now, I’d have loved to have seen how the guy who got his balls cut off in Hostel: Part Two played Doc Brown, but I didn’t for a second feel short changed by watching his understudy.
Again, there’s an element of impersonation in the performance (Christopher Lloyd’s semi-stoned, throaty delivery), but with knowing nods to the audience and awkward dance moves, Oxtoby adds his own stamp and just feels right in the role.
Speaking of awkward dancing then, we can’t discuss a musical without talking about the music.
Silvestri’s score is present and correct in all its glory, as are the twinkling musical cues. We get Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine), a couple of versions of The Power Of Love and Back In Time by Huey Lewis, and of course, Johnny B Goode.
But we also get some great musical numbers that flesh out the characters more than you might expect – Wherever We’re Going gives Jennifer more to do than in the movie, It Works, For The Dreamers and 21st Century both give us a look inside Doc Brown’s mind, My Myopia is a fun exploration of George McFly’s nerdy otherness, and Gotta Start Somewhere is a barnstorming number for 1955’s Goldie Wilson to not only set out his future plans to be mayor, but also tell young George McFly to buck up his ideas.
Elsewhere, we’ve got the witty Future Boy which offers pretty hefty winks to the audience and plays on the title, a cheeky Chuck Berry pastiche for Marvin Berry and The Starlighters called Deep Divin’ and the genuinely hilarious Pretty Baby, in which Lorraine chases a trouserless Marty around her room while backing singers look on.
Oh, and the punch the air moments from the film? They’re all there, although some of them play out differently due to, y’know, not being a movie. The car chase around the square that ends in Biff’s car getting filled with manure becomes a fast, exciting and genuinely funny chase and fight around the high school.
I don’t want to go into too much about how the time travel and driving stuff is done, because I think there’s an element of stage magic that works best when you don’t know too much about it (though I have just read they used 300 million LED lights in the set, with a kilometre and a half of pixel tape in the auditorium which all adds to the effect).
What I will say is that the arrival of the DeLorean is spectacular, you’ll honestly believe they’re ramping it up to 88mph, and when they do… you’re gonna see some serious shit.
Could this have been a massive letdown for me? Yeah, I honestly think it could have been – I unintentionally brought my own baggage to the stage show that came from being a huge fan of the films. I wasn’t sitting there thinking ‘go on then, impress me’, but there were moments before the show started when I worried it simply might not work.
But by the time George had laid out Biff and kissed Lorraine as Silvestri’s score undercut Earth Angel, I was an emotional wreck – literally welling up because it was all just so brilliantly done, and I couldn’t be happier. Moments later I was cheering in awe as Marty actually made it back to the future, and I had a massive, goofy grin on my face as Doc danced around the flaming tyre tracks.
Sorry, I realise I said this wouldn’t be a long piece, but I promise you I could talk about it for a lot longer.
I don’t know if anyone reading this has any interest in the show – I know a lot of people didn’t realise it was even a thing – but if you love the film and you’re in London, and if you can get a ticket, I honestly couldn’t recommend it more.
As we left the theatre amid a buzz of thoroughly satisfied audience members of all ages, our phones began to alert us that a new Covid variant and a wintry storm front had arrived in the UK and were gearing up to disrupt our lives again.
Things have been so rough for so long that it’s just such a relief when something goes right. For a few hours, we remembered that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, sometimes good guys do come out on top, and if you’re going to build a time machine, why not do it in style?