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Back to the Future: The Musical (soundtrack review)

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

There are movies that stick with you for your whole life. Maybe they weren't the most well-written or acted or filmed, but that doesn't really matter; what matters is that feeling it gives you when you think about it or watch it again.

I have a few movies I can always return to, and feel I've been transported back in time to the first viewing of it and the wonder I experienced.

For me, one of those movies is Back to the Future.

I must've watched that VHS tape dozens upon dozens of times, and then later the DVD upgrade until it wore out. In my mind, it is a near-perfect film, even with the time-travel inconsistencies that trolls on the Internet love to point out.

Because of my fandom, I was a little wary when I heard that a musical version of it would be premiering in London. I was protective of it. The pandemic delayed it, but at last it arrived in 2022. While I haven't had the chance to see it on stage, I have watched video clips, listened to the cast album, and read reviews of it, and my worst fears have been confirmed: it's not very good.

Now, granted, there have been several musicals I first encountered by listening to the soundtrack that I didn't like until I saw it on stage and are now some of my favorites (Into the Woods and Children of Eden to name two). In those instances, I needed the visual element in order to appreciate the whole. Yet, in those earlier examples, I also didn't know the story beforehand, and was trying to piece the narrative together through the bits of exposition in the songs and liner notes. But I know this movie like the back of my hand; I could probably quote it verbatim.

According to the summary of BTTF: The Musical, though, it does not depart much from the original source (which I won't rehash here, as I'm sure you probably know it too). As a result, the stage treatment feels like a hugely missed opportunity for what could have been a spectacular show.

The movie, in all its 1980s-ness, is a little politically-incorrect; namely, using Libyans as villains. In this outing, the writers have scrapped that plot altogether (good) and subbed in how the plutonium that Doc Brown stole for his time machine (still bad) is causing him radiation sickness (awkward). This raises the drama, I suppose, by addressing both his "madness" and mistakes we make that we wish we could go back and change (I get it), but it feels like a major downer for an otherwise upbeat story.

Doc Brown is played by Roger Bart (The Producers, Young Frankenstein), a distinguished Broadway and film actor, who, to his credit, is as un-Christopher Lloyd in his performance (apart from the hair) as you can be. Yet his take on the scientist seems ill-fitting for what should be a likeable character: his speech is often slurred or spoken in double-time, giving a slightly drunken feel. Maybe it's the aforementioned plutonium poisoning or the chaotic mind he is inhabiting that causes this erratic pacing, but it makes it harder to comprehend, and therefore harder to like him.

As with all musicals based on non-musical movies, Brown is one of the characters who is given his own song -- "For the Dreamers" (which was the "single" the show released prior to the launch of the cast album). Biff, the bully, also gets a musical number (aptly titled "Teach Him a Lesson") which is probably the most fun 2 minutes in the show. Yes, a whopping 2 minutes out of a 2+ hour show.

The most important part of any musical is the score, and this one feels like a big misstep. In a perfect world, Huey Lewis (who wrote and performed the movie's big hit theme "The Power of Love") would have done all the songs, now that his vocal affliction prevents him from singing. That tune (as well as his "Back in Time") is shoe-horned into the second act, along with "Johnny B. Goode" and "Earth Angel," and these turn out to the best songs in the show, although their arrangements feel a bit lackluster.

The bulk of the songs were written by the film's composer, Alan Silvestri, a hugely talented guy, who is aided by pop hitmaker Glenn Ballard, but for all of their prowess, the former is not a Broadway tunesmith. You'll still hear that famous orchestral theme from the movie, but when it comes to the song-and-dance numbers, the pair is out of time with the tone of the show.

The duo has wisely written a couple of songs with a 1950s doo-wop feel, matching the setting ("Something About that Boy," "Pretty Baby"), but there's nothing really memorable about them for that same exact reason; drop the lyrics (which are perfectly unremarkable) and you might be able to swap in any song from that time period. When Silvestri and Ballard depart from that genre, they overshoot the 80s of the show's frame, and end up in an area of schmaltzy, middling pop that sounds more like a power ballad from a 1990s Disney cartoon. Is this on purpose, to show how messing with time can lead to undesirable futures? Unlikely. Sure, those numbers may be cute and sweet, but they are far too earnest, as in the aforementioned "For the Dreamers," where Doc Brown shows his sensitive side (and hits an uncomfortably high note at the end). This ain't Les Miz, we don't need much depth -- it's supposed to be a musical comedy. Instead, a better choice for Brown here might have been a comic tune about his kookiness, or even a "Mushnik & Son"-style ditty about his affection for Marty. But him singing his heart out about missed opportunities and his dreams about time travel slow the show down when it really needs a lightning bolt of life. And that last note -- yikes.

I can't help but comment on the ending of the show, either. True to the original, after what feels like a happily-ever-after moment (even though his parents have completely changed -- like I said, the movie isn't perfect), Brown blasts in and tells Marty he needs to travel with him to the future because something has "got to be done about your kids!" In film, lead-ins to sequels are great, even if one is never made (it took over 5 years before Back to the Future Part II was made). But when has there ever been a successful Broadway musical sequel? I can tell you -- never. Did the creative team of the musical keep the original ending for nostalgia sake, or do they honestly believe that this show will be so lucrative they might do Back to the Future Part II: The Musical in the future? In either case, it doesn't work. Broadway audiences need closure, maybe because they know stage sequels never work. It would have been far more satisfying for it to just end with Marty and Doc back home with friends and family, or even skipping ahead in the film's timeline to Part III where they destroy the DeLorean because of the problems it causes.

I'm sure if and when I see the show (should it make its way to the States) some of these snafus will be smoothed out with the visual element in place; but based on the available material, Back to the Future: The Musical is a perfect example of the plot's core conflict: don't mess with history because it'll screw things up in the present. It's too bad they can't go back in time to fix it.

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