I’m a huge fan of Back to the Future. I saw it for the first time in January 1986 and maybe a hundred times since. I’m not a huge fan of musical theatre and less of the trend, both satirised and anticipated by The Simpsons’ Planet of the Apes: The Musical skit, in which Troy McClure took on Charlton Heston’s role and sang the immortal lyric, “chimpan-a to chimpanzee”, of retrofitting movies for the stage. I confess, time travel fans, when I heard Marty and the Doc were heading for the West End I wondered if the sub-genre had jumped the shark. And this at a time when there’s a play about Jaws just a few streets away.
Bob Gale, co-writer of the movie, and author of the book for this stage reprise, famously has a contractual veto that forbids Hollywood from unilaterally remaking the 1985 film. This gives rise to the obvious gag – nobody ruins Back to the Future but him. But has it been ruined, or can an all-singing, all-dancing version with the basic story and characters in tact recapture the film’s magical blend of nostalgia (doubly so since the ‘80s have passed into history) and family restoration fantasy?
The short answer is not without some tweaks. Back to the Future, whatever you think of it, is a cinematic experience. The stage has limitations the filmmakers neither thought or cared about. Forward and back projection are required to recreate the movie’s kinetic sequences of automotive action and cinematic cuts – not least in the distinctly untheatrical climax. Sequences have been conflated or excised to minimise the number of scene changes. And the DeLorean is now voice activated for no reason other than it conveniently grounds the car when required and removes the need for close ups of the interior in the now film-only scene in which the Doc demos the time circuits.
But we know these are just stage craft conversions. What we’re really interested in, ahead of curtain up, is how Gale has dealt with the absurdist and, for a mainstream Hollywood family film of any era, subversive elements that today, in a theatrical culture where contextual misgendering gets a trigger warning in the programme, rattles a production’s contemporary sensibilities.
Going in I hoped Gale would throw caution to the wind and make fun of elements like the Libyan terrorists who bring a rocket launcher to a California shopping mall carpark, and Marty inventing Rock’n’roll by giving Chuck Berry a preview of his own ideas, with some irreverent songs and a little knowing humour. But deemed problematic, these memorable moments from the film have been removed – the former replaced with a less threatening and far less eye-catching workaround. What may interest those who note these omissions, not to mention the lack of swearing, is what has remained untouched.
Back to the Future is a story about a father and son – both literal (Marty and George) and figurative (Marty and Doc) – Brown the stand-in for the father figure effectively absent from Marty’s original timeline. This is touching and relatable in the original film, though its treatment throws up one of the most extraordinary Hollywood conceits of all time – the threat of incest when Lorraine, Marty’s teen mother, falls in love with him instead of his Dad-to-be.
Why? Because, other than being in the wrong time and place, Marty, to Lorraine, represents a kind of masculine archetype – a man who’s strong and protects the woman he loves – that the gangly, shy, anxiety ridden George does not. George, anticipating the geek culture that’s now mainstream – the nerd who loves science fiction and, in a forerunner to the internet, spies on women undressing using binoculars instead of a browser, can only restore Marty’s future by becoming the kind of man who’s prepared to knock another out. This is old-fashioned, unreconstructed stuff. Perhaps an accurate missive from the Darwinian world of sexual competition, but highly regressive in our new era of abstract thinking around genderfluidity and sexual attraction.
All of which makes it into the Back to the Future musical unmolested and unquestioned. It still works. There’s still that exhilaration when George lays out Biff with one punch, and you can’t take any of that out without ripping up the original story, but perhaps Gale should have considered a few gags about the ruinous impact of gender archetypes, rather than the easy one about Covid.
Ultimately, though you will need a credit card to ride this train when the best seats in the house are £80, Back to the Future: The Musical has enough of the film’s DNA to engender the good feeling and mischievous fun of old. It’s edgeless compared to its movie counterpart – after all, camp destroys drama and the musical format flattens out characterisation, but the songs are jaunty enough and the cast (both understudies for the leads present at my performance but looking good from the back) give it their all. In short, like the time machine, it works. But let’s not do anything like this again, okay?