Rumor has it that after THE MUSIC MAN vacates the Winter Garden on New Year’s Day, the London hit BACK TO THE FUTURE will soon fill the void.
I couldn’t wait that long to see it, so off to London I went last week to savor the musical version of the wildly popular (and deservedly so) $380 million-grossing movie.
Funny, the 1985 film went back in time 30 years to 1955. We’re now more than 30 years removed from then – 37 years, to be precise – but the property still has its many charms.
Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, sharing credit on music and lyrics, smartly render to the ‘80s the sound of that decade and to the ‘50s the sound of that one — when rock was officially called rock ‘n’ roll.
Smart, too, of the songwriters to write an opening number called “It’s Only a Matter of Time,” for that’s what the property has always stressed. Here we not only hear Marty McFly’s ruminations on the subject, but also new mayor Goldie Wilson’s proclamations on what he plans to do.
This BACK TO THE FUTURE can almost be considered the newest member of that now-almost-venerable genre: The High School Musical, for much of the action is centered in the not-so-hallowed halls of secondary education. Marty McFly remains a student who helms a rock group that’s hot to audition for an upcoming school event.
In the film, Marty & Co. only got to play the vamp of “The Power of Love” before being rejected. Here they get in two lines of the intoxicating Oscar-nominated song before they’re silenced. That’s what you’ll hear on Track Three of the original cast album, which will allow you to decide if getting an extra six seconds of the Huey Lewis and the News hit is better or more frustrating than just hearing the film’s few guitar licks.
Then comes another Silvestri/Ballard in-joke when Marty fears he’s “Got No Future,” though Jennifer Parker, Marty’s devoted girlfriend, isn’t as worried as he as to “Where We’re Going” (with a quintessentially amiable ‘80s melody).
Jennifer isn’t just being optimistically supportive. Bookwriter Bob Gale has added a savvy new ingredient: Jennifer says she has connections with a record executive and can get Marty a much higher-profile audition. Once Marty goes back 30 years, this will be added motivation for him to return to 1985.
Tony winner Roger Bart, the only original lead still with the show, plays Doc Brown, everyone’s favorite eccentric scientist. He gets a techno-infused song about his time-traveling car in “It Works” (which we’ll soon see is true).
When Doc ruminates on the dates people might choose to visit, he first mentions July 4, 1776. Sure, being there would be more moving even than when what we witness in its recreation on stage and screen in 1776. However, Doc then mentions November 22, 1963. Why bring up the Kennedy assassination in a musical that, like Tina Denmark, was born to entertain? Granted, that date can’t wound British audiences as much as American ones but, considering the billions of dates available to the writers, they should opt for one of the pleasant ones.
The film’s plot in which Doc Brown is endangered by terrorists has, most understandably, been dropped. Now Doc endures a plutonium accident which spurs Marty speeding for help. When he hits 88 m.p.h., that’s the magic number that Doc arranged to take a driver back to the past.
Now we get the first of the ‘50s songs, which happens to be a commercial for “Cake” and other necessities. (It’s delicious.) Then we meet Goldie Wilson as a diner employee who has greater goals for himself; he expects them to be achieved, as Princess Elizabeth sang in REX, “in time.” Audiences have quite a time with his rousing “Gotta Start Somewhere.”
Now comes a song that’s even retro for the ‘50s. “My Utopia” has a ‘20s sensibility, which is perfect for teenage George McFly, awkward and wimpy as ever and bullied by the Neanderthalish Biff. “He has no future,” Marty mourns, and anyone who doesn’t know the film will feel the same at this point of the story.
George lusts for Lorraine Baines who sings “Pretty Baby” (“how you drive me crazy”) and “Something about That Boy.” They’re tangy ‘50s bubble-gum songs that would be welcome in any production of GREASE.
The object of her affection, however, is not George but Marty, suddenly the coolest kid in town.
A bevy of teen girls show up out of nowhere to sing back-up to Lorraine. It won’t be the last song in the show that brings in supporting singers and dancers out of the blue.
Once Marty tracks down the 30-years-younger Doc, one of the most delightful bits in the film is only semi-replicated. When Doc asks who’s president in 1985, Marty must answer “Ronald Reagan” — causing Doc to almost scream in astonishment “The actor!?!?!” before eventually asking “Who’s Secretary of the Treasury? Jack Benny?”
It’s a joke that still played in 1985, for most of the audience remembered the famous miser from his long-running radio and TV series. But Benny is unknown by many members of the current generation of theatergoers who can be pardoned for not seeing Benny’s last starring role in a hit film, which was literally 80 years ago. (And it was filmed in black-and-white, so you know that many today wouldn’t deign to watch it for that reason alone.)
So, Doc now offers Pepe Le Pew.
The delightful scene in the film where Biff drives into a truck of manure is understandably absent here; a vat of spaghetti will do, as the act comes to an end to quite sustained applause.
Will Act Two give audiences the songs they knew and loved from the film? It’s a rare stage production of GREASE and THE SOUND OF MUSIC that doesn’t now include the songs from those blockbuster films, for today’s audiences want to hear them. So Silvestri and Ballard put their egos aside and let “Earth Angel,” “Back in Time,” “Johnny B. Goode” retain their rightful positions.
And “The Power of Love” that got short-circuited in the first act? The writers and director John Rando now have Marty and his band sing that from first measure to last at the school extravaganza. The audience’s wild response shows that this is the right decision for a musical of today.
One of the best and most surprising aspects of BACK TO THE FUTURE occurs when Marty returns to 1985 and finds that his father has turned out to be a successful author. Instead of replicating the film’s scene in which George is at home when his hot-off-the-press books arrive, the musical brings us to the town square where George McFly Day is celebrated, all in honor of his latest best-seller-to-be. Former tormentor Biff is now the lackey who must lug the books to the table where George will autograph them.
Spectacle in such a musical is a must, so the side walls of The Adelphi Theatre are bedecked with parallel neon rods along the lines of the TRON film. The DeLorean is impressive and lifts over the audience as did the title “character” in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.
The audience certainly felt it was getting bang for its bucks – nay, power for its pounds.
All in all, American audiences have something to look forward to in their future. The Winter Garden should be hosting it through many a summer, winter and fall, too.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.