BACK TO THE FUTURE IS BACK IN THE PRESENT By Peter Filichia
Yes, tempus does fugit.
When BACK TO THE FUTURE debuted in 1985, it sent the time-traveling Marty McFly to 1955 – thirty years earlier.
Now, since its July, 1985 debut, more than thirty-SIX years have passed.
Time hasn’t flown for Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, its Oscar-nominated screenwriters. They would have never believed in 2006 when they decided that BACK TO THE FUTURE should become a musical that sixteen long years would pass before it would make its world premiere in London.
It would have been fourteen years had it not been for you-know-what, but here it finally is. Of all the new musicals that debuted in London this past season, BACK TO THE FUTURE wound up receiving more Olivier nominations (seven) than any other musical.
Aside from the bookwriters going light on the Libyan terrorists angle and eliminating Einstein the dog, it’s still the story of Marty McFly, a California teen (still in 1985) whose family is so dysfunctional that it must be deemed non-functional. His surrogate father is Dr. Emmett Brown, who’s been trying to create a time machine. Circumstances well beyond their control wind up sending Marty back to 1955, when Marty meets the adults he’s known all his life as the teenagers they once were. That leads to plenty of problems, including one that, if his mother had her way, could bring OEDIPUS REX to mind.
As great fun as the film is, the surprise ending makes it more than just a clever comedy. Even the august National Film Registry saw its worth, and selected it for preservation.
Now it’s on the stage of the Adelphi Theatre – and available from Masterworks Broadway – with music by Alan Silvestri, who scored the original film and received a Grammy nomination for his efforts. Silvestri was a logical choice for Zemeckis, for he’s provided music for all of the director-screenwriter’s films, including such household-name hits as FORREST GUMP, CAST AWAY and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? Joining the composer was his frequent lyricist Glen Ballard (of THE POLAR EXPRESS fame).
All but four of the stage score’s two dozen songs are theirs. First and foremost among the inclusions is the Oscar-nominated “The Power of Love,” which was a number one gold record, thanks to Huey Lewis and the News. It was also heard in the two BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels, so its legacy continues here.
“Back in Time” mirrors where it was originally, played over the film’s end credits. Here it’s the eleven o’clock number shared by Marty, Dr. Brown and the ensemble.
Fans of the film will remember that Marty sang “Johnny B. Goode” at the high school dance. Alas, he only received blank and confused stares from these pre-Baby Boomers who preferred their artists to not kick across the stage on one foot and force a guitar to emit sounds that could pass for painful screams.
An undeterred Marty met their astonished faces with “Your kids are gonna love it,” with the obvious advantage of knowing that Chuck Berry would have a Top Ten hit with it in a few years. Here’s the “Goode” song again, still with us more than sixty years later.
Yes, these 1950s’ kids whom Marty encounters can only give much forbearance to rock ‘n’ roll (as rock was then called). The more benign “Earth Angel” is about as far as they’ll go.
Makes sense; although 1954 saw Bill Haley and the Comets jump-start rock ‘n’ roll with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” it was only the twenty-sixth best-selling song of the year. That put it way behind recordings made by such easy listening singers as Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como. (You’re pardoned if your response is “Who?”) Here too the musical’s creators didn’t care to tamper with success and included “Earth Angel.”
Those who have watched and re-watched the film – and which of us has not? – will also notice that a piece of Silvestri’s background music has been made into a genuine song by Ballard: “Only a Matter of Time,” which is a logical lyric for any show that travels through the years. Here we hear from Marty as well as Goldie Wilson, the African-American who’s running to become the town’s mayor in 1985.
After that, it’s all new material. Silvestri and lyricist Glenn Ballard have pretty much made the fifties songs sound fifties and the eighties songs sound eighties.
Considering that Marty’s parents make The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Emily Litella resemble superheroes, the lad’s first song has him ruminating on his ignoble lineage: “Got No Future.” Luckily Marty has a supportive girlfriend in Jennifer, who says “Wherever We’re Going (it’s all right with me).”
Things are working out for Dr. Brown, too, who’s thrilled to find that his time machine, to see “It Works.” Part of the fun is that he puts it in a DeLorean, a futuristic-looking automobile (1975-1982) whose side doors opened much like the trunk and hood of a car.
Doc has a medical crisis, and Marty must drive him to the hospital. The lad is so concerned that he doesn’t observe speed limit signs, despite Doc’s entreaty “Don’t Drive 88.”
Youth never listens, and speeding past eighty-eight gets Marty a ticket – not from speeding, but a ticket to the past, where he finds the town’s residents singing about their carefree and optimistic lives in “Cake.” Despite the food image, the lyrics spend more time reminding us of when gas was nineteen cents a gallon.
But they don’t know what to make of this person who emerges from that DeLorean, which could be a flying saucer for all they know.
The Goldie Wilson we meet here is a mere busboy, but we see his indomitable nature through the gospel-tinged “Gotta Start Somewhere.” One reason that he gets somewhere is his fine singing ability, as the kids at the dance discover in the fifties pastiche “Deep Divin’.”
Marty sees his father is a skim-milquetoast teen who believes “My Myopia (Is My Utopia),” because he works hard to “only see what I want to.” That isn’t going to help Marty to get back to the future, especially when the younger version of his mother sings “Pretty Baby” to him – not realizing that he would be actually her genuine baby some years later.
This and “Something about That Boy” have an early rock feeling, too, which is right for a girl who wants to let herself go where “nice girls” weren’t supposed to go then.
No, Marty must convince his father-to-be to become interested in his mother-to-be, which he does in the insistent “Put Your Mind to It.” Even so, he has another roadblock in Biff, who tortures two generations of McFlys. Biff will “Teach Him a Lesson” which, given that he’s the bad guy, ends the song with a cackling and vicious laugh for which villains are famous.
The cast has performers whose names are unfamiliar to Americans (for now!) with one substantial exception: Roger Bart, a Tony-winner for his Snoopy in YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, plays Dr. Brown. Longtime Broadway observers know that Bart has had stage experience as a scientist, having played one in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
So until BACK THE FUTURE arrives on Broadway, here’s the album that will get you to the show without benefit of a time-machine or an airplane. Need we add that a DeLorean would be no help at all?
Peter Filichia is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly, a columnist at www.broadwayselect.com and a commentator on www.broadwayradio.com.