Here’s how the 1985 hit took flight on Broadway – flying DeLoreans and all

From left to right: Lea Thompson, Michael J. Fox, Casey Likes, Christopher Lloyd and Roger Bart at Broadway's Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Illustration by Alex Cochran for Yahoo; Photo: Everett Collection)

From left to right: Lea Thompson, Michael J. Fox, Casey Likes, Christopher Lloyd and Roger Bart at Broadway’s Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Illustration by Alex Cochran for Yahoo; photo: Everett Collection)

Transforming the 1985 action comedy Back to the Future into a Broadway musical complete with song-and-dance numbers and Hollywood-level effects sounds like a heavy proposition. But the creative team behind Back to the Future: The Musical is walking on air as the show opens at New York’s famed Winter Garden Theatre — the home of blockbuster hits like Cats and Mamma Mia! — after a nearly two-decade journey to the beating heart of America’s theater scene.

According to Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale, the initial “Great Scott!” moment happened in 2005 when the movie’s director, Robert Zemeckis, visited Broadway to watch Mel Brooks’s musical version of The Producers with his wife, Leslie Harter. “Afterwards, Leslie said to Bob: ‘Did you guys ever think about turning Back to the Future into a musical?'” Gale tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Bob said, ‘No, but that’s an interesting idea.'”

Zemeckis brought his wife’s pitch to Gale and the duo — who have famously resisted making another Back to the Future sequel or reboot — decided that there was something there. They also knew that they’d be the ones in the driver’s seat as Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean made its way from the big screen to the stage.

“There was no way it was going to be anyone else,” says Gale, who penned the book for the musical, while Zemeckis served as a creative consultant and Back to the Future composer Alan Silvestri wrote the music and lyrics with Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Glen Ballard. “Early on, we met with producers who would say, ‘Just turn this over to us, and we’ll do everything right.’ But our feeling always was that if the show sucks, we want it to be our fault!”

Watch the trailer for Back to the Future: The Musical

Based on the strong sales for the show’s London’s run — where it has been playing since 2021 — plus the cheers and applause that followed a Broadway preview performance attended by Yahoo Entertainment, Back to the Future: The Musical definitely doesn’t suck. And the movie’s cast has given its blessing, with Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson all appearing at a gala event on July 26 alongside the actors who play their roles onstage: Casey Likes as Marty McFly, Roger Bart as Doc Brown and Liana Hunt as Lorraine Baines-McFly.

“I was very consciously aware that this was a moment very few people get to have,” Likes says of meeting the original Marty McFly moments before the curtain went up. “I said to Michael, ‘What’s your advice to me before I go out onstage?’ And he said, ‘Kick ass: If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.’ That was amazing.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 25: Michael J. Fox and Casey Likes pose at the Michael J. Fox Foundation opening night gala performance

A portrait of two McFlys: Michael J. Fox and Casey Likes pose at a gala performance of “Back to the Future: The Musical” in New York. (Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage)

In separate interviews, members of the musical’s core creative team — Gale, Likes, Silvestri and Ballard and director John Rando — provide a backstage tour of Back to the Future‘s new life on Broadway, from the fan-favorite moments and characters they cut from the movie to the addition of some freshly relevant social commentary.

No Einstein, no problem

Roger Bart and Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Roger Bart as Doc Brown and Casey Likes as Marty McFly in Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

From the jump, Gale and Zemeckis’s chief goal was ensuring that Back to the Future: The Musical wouldn’t become a “slavish adaptation” of Back to the Future the movie. “If that’s all people wanted, they could just stay home and watch the movie,” Gale notes. That meant cutting the parts of the film that fans might want to see, but wouldn’t translate to the stage.

So those Libyan terrorists who kill Doc Brown in 1985, prompting his teen pal Marty’s trip back to 1955? Gone, and replaced by the good doctor succumbing to radiation poisoning. Marty’s skateboard chase through Hill Valley’s town square with bully Biff and his goons in hot pursuit? Chopped, and adapted into a foot chase — with a few skateboard cameos — through the halls of Hill Valley High. Even Doc Brown’s adorable dog, Einstein, proved expendable. “People say, ‘I miss the dog,'” Gale says, laughing. “I miss the dog, too! But when you consider the practical aspects of having a dog onstage, it’s not a good idea.”

According to Rando, Roger Bart was more disappointed than anyone about losing his alter ego’s canine companion. And, for the record, Likes was down for recreating the much-loved skateboard chase. “I would have really enjoyed doing that,” the actor confesses. But Rando credits Gale with always being first to kill his own darlings from the 1985 movie. In fact, he and Zemeckis occasionally had to be the ones arguing for a stay of execution for certain classic moments. “The original draft didn’t have the scene where Marty says goodbye to his parents after the Enchantment Under the Sea dance,” Rando recalls. “It was so clear that we really had to have it, and Zemeckis urged Bob to put that moment back in.”

“People say, ‘I miss the dog.’ I miss the dog, too!Bob Gale

Besides, many of those familiar film moments were dropped in service of what’s new about this particular telling of Back to the Future: the musical numbers. As Silvestri and Ballard explain, their original songs fulfill the role of a cinematic close-up, allowing audiences to get close to the characters and actually hear their thoughts. “While Bob Gale was breaking down the story — and brutally taking out some of the things from the movie — we had to figure out how to focus on these characters and their aspirations,” Ballard says. “It’s a loving kind of translation.”

The entire creative team points to Doc Brown’s big solo number, “For the Dreamers,” as an example of what’s gained when you’re willing to lose the familiar elements audiences expect to see — like a cute dog. That song follows Doc’s failed attempt at showing Marty how he’s going to get back to the future from 1955 via a fire-prone model. “Doc feels like a complete failure, and we gave him that song. I think we get closer to Doc Brown than we ever have in that moment.” The character’s co-creator wholeheartedly agrees. “That’s the best song in the entire show,” says Gale. “It expresses so many things about Doc in such a beautiful way.”

And for those truly intransigent fans fuming about Doc dying by radiation poisoning instead of a hail of gunfire, you should know that change allowed Gale to add in a character detail that’s only previously been referenced in a Back to the Future comic series. “When Marty finds him alive back in the future, Doc says, ‘I”m glad I kept my radiation suit from my Manhattan Project days,” the writer says. “That’s always something that Bob and I had in mind for his backstory — he was a junior physicist who worked for the Manhattan Project. And with Oppenheimer playing in theaters now, more people know what that is!”

Fixing the past

Jelani Remy in Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Jelani Remy as future Hill Valley mayor, Goldie Wilson, in Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Back to the Future is still riotously funny today, but Gale is well-aware that the film is a period piece. Make that two period pieces. “When the movie came out in 1985 it was totally contemporary, but now we’re looking back at both the ’80s and the ’50s,” the writer says. “The musical is a way of looking back at both decades being able to make some social commentary that we weren’t able to make or didn’t even thing of making at the time.”

Those newly inserted bits of commentary are most overt in the song “Cake,” an ensemble number that introduces Marty to what his hometown was like in 1955. “1955 has been a banner year,” sings a member of Hill Valley’s Chamber of Commerce, with other town members chiming in to cite such advances as “super-leaded gasoline,” “filtered cigarettes” and “DDT” — things we now know are more harmful than helpful.

The song ends with a wry reference to the era’s gender dynamics with the ensemble cheekily singing: “It just feels so right when/All of these white men get to have their cake/So let the women bake/We get to have our cake and eat it, too.” Those lyrics inspired waves of knowing laughter among the Broadway preview audience.

“It was very important to Glen, Alan and both Bobs that we point out how the ’50s were obviously not perfect,” Rando says of how “Cake” came together. “You have to work fast in musical theater, and that song shows how you can distill that decade and turn it into a nightmare for an ’80s kid.”

“We had the great advantage of looking back at both the ’50s and the ’80s from a 2020’s perspective,” Ballard adds. “We wanted to audience to feel like they were in the ’50s, but also not be naive about what the ’50s were. And Marty is also arriving there from the ’80s and going, ‘I don’t get this.’ So it’s still all about the storytelling, but it’s also acknowledging that we look back on both decades with a different perspective now, and we’re grateful for that.”

“Cake” is immediately followed by “Gotta Start Somewhere,” which passes the mic to Goldie Wilson — a busboy at Lou’s Cafe in 1955 who goes on to become Hill Valley’s first Black mayor by 1985. A minor character in the movie, Goldie brings down the house with his gospel-infused solo, belted with maximum crowd-pleasing force by Jelani Remy, who previously headlined the Tony-winning Temptations musical Ain’t Too Proud.

“That song is inspired by a late, great piano player named Richard Tee,” reveals Silvestri. “My whole musical background is very south of New York, so I’ve heard that kind of gospel playing all my life. We wanted to do a number that’s aspirational and absolutely danceable.”

“To give Goldie a bigger voice was wonderful, and speaks to the way we were able to look back at the ’50s,” adds Gale. “He had to start somewhere and he actually got there!”

Risky business

Casey Likes and Liana Hunt in Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photos: Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Likes as Marty McFly and Liana Hunt as his future mom, Lorraine, in Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photos: Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

“Pretty Baby” is easily the most complex number in the Back to the Future musical… and we mean that in the Oedipal sense. The Sandra Dee-inspired tune recreates the hilarious — and cringe-inducing — scene from the film where teenage Lorraine feels the first stirrings of lust for Calvin Klein, aka her future son Marty. While the lyrics of the tune sound innocent, Lorraine’s body language makes it clear that this good girl would happily explore her bad side with the purple underwear-clad boy in her midst.

“In the movie, Lea Thompson is doing all this great stuff with her face,” Gale says of the conceit behind the scene. “We couldn’t do any of that onstage, so Lorraine sings about those feelings instead. And the way John stages it, the song turns into this kind of chase where she’s literally chasing Marty around the bedroom. That’s a big way of showing the little things that were happening in the movie’s close-ups.”

“It’s Lorraine’s fantasy song,” agrees Rando, crediting choreographer Chris Bailey with ensuring that Lorraine’s pursuit of Marty comes off as more comic than creepy. “Early on, we discovered that our way into a lot of these musical numbers was to treat each one as fantasies for each of the characters. And Lorraine is so excited by her fantasy that she replicates herself, and there are three background singers around Marty singing about how adorable he is and how much they want him. It’s all part of the journey of making a musical out of Back to the Future.”

Having previously scored the movie version of the Lorraine-Marty scene, Silvestri remembers the cringe factor being an issue back in the day. “It was always like, ‘How can we walk the razor’s edge of this and not be in bad taste,'” he says of how he and Ballard handled the tricky dance that “Pretty Baby” demanded.

“In the film, the key to it was that Lorraine had no idea this was her son, and that removed all of the serious creepiness of it,” the composer explains. “We wrote this song that clearly got a seduction edge to it, but she’s once again completely ignorant of the fact that this is her baby boy. And ‘pretty baby’ is something that a mother would say to her child, so that became part of the fun. She’s singing to her baby boy, but she doesn’t have all the pieces of the equation. The audience gets that and are delighted by it, so it’s not creepy at all.”

For his part, Likes isn’t creeped out by having to be Lorraine’s “Pretty Baby” every night onstage. “The last Broadway show I did was Almost Famous, where I was half-naked in a bed with four women,” the actor says, laughing. “So it’s this weird thing that I’ve now done twice. I guess the last one was with older women and this is my mom. I’m gonna have to figure that one out.”

This DeLorean flies… and talks

In addition to being a former Manhattan Project member, Back to the Future: The Musical reveals that Doc Brown must have had a serious Knight Rider addiction. That’s because this version of Doc’s flux capacitor-powered DeLorean boasts its own speaking voice, albeit one that sounds closer to Alexa than William Daniels. “That was Bob Gale’s idea,” Rando says. “In the film, they were able to show close-ups of the dates the DeLorean is traveling to, but we needed a way around that. So having it speak was a simple, but remarkable idea for our storytelling purposes.”

Rather than have an actor record the DeLorean’s lines, Gale says that the production uses a computer-generated voice that’s performed in real time during every show. That approach also allowed him to introduce one of his favorite new car-related gags into Back to the Future lore. As in the movie, the musical ends with Doc Brown showing up in 1985 to whisk Marty back to the future. “But they can’t go to 2015 like the do in Back to the Future II, because that’s already in the past,” Gale points out. “So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if the date they were going was the exact time and day of the show the audience is watching?’

“I went to the sound guys and asked, ‘Can the voice do that?'” Gale continues. “And they said, ‘That’s easy.’ So for people in the audience that are listening, they can hear the DeLorean say that Marty and Doc are coming to the show they’ve just seen.”

And like its cinematic counterpart, this DeLorean doesn’t need roads to get to Broadway circa 2023. For its grand finale, the car takes flight at the end of the musical and extends outwards over the front rows of the audience, executing a full 360-degree barrel role so you can see both Marty and Doc inside. Rando declines to reveal the magic behind that moment, but Likes wants everyone to know that he’s really riding shotgun alongside Bart. “A lot of people ask me if it’s really me up there, and I just tell them, ‘You saw me waving — of course it’s me!’ But it’s intense, man. That fact that I’m on a theme park ride eight times a week is pretty surreal.”

For the record, the only thing this DeLorean doesn’t do is sing. Asked whether he and Ballard considered giving Doc’s car a verse or two, Silvestri lets us down gently. “I don’t remember us talking about that,” he admits with a laugh. “We do pay homage to it as one of our stars! But we never had any discussions about the car singing.”

One and done

Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Marty rocks out in the climactic scene of Back to the Future: The Musical. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Contrary to your Mandela Effect-impacted nostalgia, Back to the Future wasn’t supposed to have a sequel, but Gale and Zemeckis ended up making back-to-back follow-ups in 1989 and 1990. Everyone involved with the musical, though, makes it clear that history won’t be repeating itself. “It’s three movies and a musical,” Rando says emphatically. “Never for a moment have either of the Bobs expressed any interest in going down the sequel road,” agrees Silvestri.

“As good as the Back to the Future sequels are, the first movie is the best of the three,” Gale says candidly. “Also, Back to the Future II is all plot, whereas the best musicals are relationship-based, so it’s just not going to make for good musical theater.”

Those who really want a peek at what Back 2 The Future: The Musical might look like can satisfy that curiosity with “21st Century,” another Doc Brown solo number that features numerous shout-outs to the film’s retro-futuristic version of 2015. That also happens to be Ballard’s personal pick for the favorite number he and Silvestri wrote. “It’s probably our wildest song, and they let us open the second act with it,” he marvels. “It’s all about Doc’s 21st century predictions that didn’t come true, and the choreography is crazy.”

“It’s three movies and a musical.”John Rando

So with no new film — or stage show — on the horizon, can fans consider this musical to be the long-awaited Back to the Future sequel? It’s worth noting that the final scene reveals that Marty’s previously wimpy father, George, is now a bestselling author who just published his latest novel titled, appropriately enough, Back to the Future 4.

But Gale says not to read too much into that gag. “The musical doesn’t really continue anything,” he notes, pointing to the 2010 Back to the Future video game as being the closest thing fans will likely get to a fourth installment. “It’s just a way to revisit Back to the Future in a different medium where nobody can say, ‘They screwed up canon!’ The movies are their own thing, so let’s leave them alone.”

Back to the Future: The Musical is now playing at New York’s Winter Garden Theater.

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