LONDON – During a recent performance of “Back to the future: the musical, “At the Adelphi Theater here, the audience couldn’t stop cheering.
They applauded a pre-show ad asking everyone to turn off their cell phones, “since they weren’t invented in 1985,” the year the original film was released. They applauded when Marty McFly, the show’s main character (played by Olly Dobson), skateboarded on stage in an orange vest. And they applauded, once again, when he started singing, surrounded by break dancers and women in aerobics gear to complete the 1980s vibe.
But the loudest applause came about 20 minutes later. After three loud bangs and a flash of light, a DeLorean car seemed to magically appear in the middle of the scene, the lights bouncing off its steel bodywork and gullwing doors.
The audience went wild.
Bob Gale, who co-wrote the original film with Robert Zemeckis and wrote the book of the musical, said in a phone interview that he always knew the car would be vital to the success of the series. “We knew if we were successful it would drive the audience crazy,” he said.
He added that he has been working to make this happen for over 15 years. In 2005, Gale recalled that Robert Zemeckis took his wife, Leslie, to see “The Producers” on Broadway – another musical adaptation of a cult movie. As the couple left the theater, she asked him if he had ever considered doing a “Back to the Future” musical. Neither Gale nor Zemeckis had professional theater experience, but decided to give it a go. Still, finding a producer who would agree to the project on his terms took nearly a decade, Gale said.
Getting the car right didn’t take that long, but Simon Marlow, the show’s production manager, said the process still took a year. There were two challenges: getting the feel of movement and speed on the cramped stage of a theater, and making sure every detail of the car on stage matched the DeLorean in the movie. “The fan base of ‘Back to the Future’ is huge, and they are very pedantic,” said Marlow.
Only around 9,000 of the stainless steel cars were made in a factory in Northern Ireland before the company went bankrupt in 1982 (John Z. DeLorean, the company founder, was subsequently tried and acquitted for attempting to sell cocaine out of his business finances). So Marlow’s team contacted Steven Wickenden, a ‘Back to the Future’ super fan who lives in the seaside town of Deal, England. He has a flyable replica of the DeLorean from the movie who appears regularly at fan events.
Wickenden, 49, said in a phone interview that he loved the DeLorean ever since he watched the Back to the Future movies on videotape as a teenager. It was “so cool and futuristic,” he said. In the 1980s, a greengrocer and a dentist owned DeLoreans, he added. “As far as I’m concerned, we had two time machines in town,” he said.
When he was 21, Wickenden drove to Universal Studios in Florida to see one of the original cars from the movie, he said, and eventually his wife bought him hers as a gift for his 40th birthday.
Wickenden said he was surprised when the producers of the musical got in touch. He put the car on a truck – because, under the terms of his “classic car” insurance, the mileage allowed is limited – and took it to Souvenir Scenic Studios, a London accessories maker, where “six or seven guys “used the 3-D scanners and took thousands of photos, to capture his likeness, inside and out, to use as the basis for the stage version. (They called him later to check on some details, like the original brand of the tires, he said.)
Once the model was made, the show’s crew had to “pack it up with engineering,” Marlow said, including a device that allows it to spin on its axis (so it looks like it does. acrobatic turns) and pneumatic equipment that allows it to tilt. air (when it crashes into a farmer’s barn). The projections also help to create illusions of movement.
“We are pushing the technology to the limit,” said Marlow. He added that around 20 people had worked on the development of the production car and associated visual effects.
Although the DeLorean is one of the most memorable features of the film and the musical, Gale said it was not part of the original concept. In the first screenplay he wrote, in the 1980s, Marty McFly climbed into a refrigerator to travel through time; he traded in the refrigerator for a car when the film was in pre-production. In addition to its futuristic look, the DeLorean was notorious at the time due to its maker’s lawsuit for cocaine, Gale said, so it seemed like an eye-catching choice.
Five films to watch this winter
At the Adelphi Theater, all the hard work on the car seemed to pay off. Ten members of the audience – many dressed as ‘Back to the Future’ characters or wearing DeLorean t-shirts – said the car was a highlight. “I was in tears the first time I saw the DeLorean come out,” said Stephen Sloane, 43. “It’s just the ‘wow’ factor,” he added.
Yet despite the team’s meticulous attention to detail, Roy Swansborough, 44, said he noticed a few differences between stage cars and movie cars. “The steering wheel is slightly different,” he said. But his wife, Beverley, said he was cutting his hair into quarters. “If you don’t look too closely you can say, ‘Oh, that’s like watching the movie,’ she said.
The one moment in the show where the cast seemed to outshine the DeLorean came right at the end. The cast all took to the stage for a final song and dance number, and each player used their moment to claim a standing ovation. But the car didn’t have one. Despite all the technical magic, the only thing he can’t do is bow.