It’s one thing to turn any old movie into a Broadway musical; it’s another thing when it’s one of the most beloved films of all time. But for Bob Gale — writer of Back to the Future — the fun of bringing his baby to the stage was this new medium: it allowed him to imagine the property in a whole new way, while still being recognizing what the fans expect. Add in two expert songwriters, hit maker Glen Ballard and legendary composer Alan Silvestri, (plus one flying DeLorean), and you have the crowd-pleaser at the Winter Garden Theatre. Here, the three writers go back in time to tell us about the origins of the show.
These conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bob, why did you decide to turn Back to the Future into a musical?
Bob Gale: The idea was the result of a comment that Leslie Zemeckis made after she and Bob [Zemeckis, director of the original film] saw The Producers on Broadway. She said “Hey, did you ever think about turning Back to the Future into a musical?” and a few weeks later, Bob called me up. I thought it was interesting. We’ve been approached so many times about projects: you can do a spinoff, you can do a TV series. But in a different medium, none of our diehard fans can say “You guys have screwed up the canon.” We didn’t want to be Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We were excited about the idea because it gave us a creative stretch, and the ability to work with a different set of paint brushes. The first thing we did was call up Alan Silvestri [who wrote the score for the original film] and Glen Ballard.
Glen and Alan, when the two Bobs came to you, did you see the concept in your head?
Glen Ballard: I didn’t necessarily see it right away, but I knew I wanted to do it. For all of us to see it in our collective heads took more than a few minutes, but look, I’m a songwriter. You give me something like Back to the Future to write songs for and what more inspiration do you need?
Alan Silvestri: It helped that we had one of the most beautifully crafted stories and scripts imaginable.
Were there spots in the movie, when you went back and watched it, where you realized “Oh, that’s a song?”
Bob: We made notes and came up with 30, 40, 50 places where we could put in a song. At the end of our very first meeting, Bob and I told Glen and Alan to go write some stuff and see what they come up with. And they came up with “It’s Only a Matter of Time,” “Hello, Is Anybody Home?” and “Pretty Baby.” Those were the first three songs that they wrote and they’re all still in the show. That was an indication that their creative instincts were dead on.
Glen: The songs are exactly out of the story. You just have to pay attention to what’s going on and it tells you everything you need to know. Obviously, we were trying to reveal the characters to some greater degree than what’s in the movie. When you have somebody who’s gonna take two or three minutes to sing on stage, it better be important and resonate with who we think that character is.
Alan: We knew we wanted to fashion a song around that family — the dysfunctional family — dinner. This place seemed to be a natural for a fun musical-theater number. Another such place was Lorraine’s bedroom when Marty wakes up in 1955. She’s just a lovely young girl with a cute boy in her room. But for him, it’s quite a different perspective: it’s his mom.
Glen: Most of the time, it was making sure that the characters were true to their original iteration. We never wanted to stray from these characters that people have grown to love for over three decades. There’s no way you can corrupt these characters and do it successfully. What we had to do was enrich what’s already there.
What was the hardest nut to crack in terms of the music?
Glen: The opening number is the hardest, because it’s a proving ground.
Alan: We wanted our ensemble on stage to present it. It needed to be in Hill Valley.
Glen: It seemed like an obvious thing to take Alan’s iconic theme and make an ensemble song out of that, where we introduced the citizens of Hill Valley in 1985.
Alan: And, if it’s Back to the Future, there may very well be something having to do with time. Thus: “It’s Only a Matter of Time.”
Glen: We spent several weeks trying to figure out how we could make all the characters show up within that context.
Alan: Fortunately, Glen and I had unconditional support from both Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis. We were able to work our way through the show, “one nut at a time.” When it got to a place where something needed to happen musically, we wrote it, then we would move on. And so it went.
What was it like for you guys to sit down and watch the show for the first time with all the bells and whistles live in front of you?
Bob: I vividly remember in Manchester, where we previewed the show, seeing the DeLorean with the girls and the rear projection and the turntable and I was laughing so hard, I had tears in my eyes. I just could not believe how great that number was. I had that experience multiple times, but that was the one that completely stood out. I never could completely see the show in my head. When we rehearsed, of course, we didn’t have a turntable, we didn’t have Finn Ross’s great video stuff, and the girls weren’t in costume. So, you put all this stuff together and my head exploded. That happened repeatedly.
Alan: If we’re lucky, we’ll all have at least one “pinch me” moment at some time during our lives. This was one of those. The first time a paying audience walked in and saw the show was unbelievable. And…They liked it! Even more unbelievable!