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In ‘Back to The Future: The Musical,’ the Car Is the Star of the Show

todaySeptember 2, 2021 6

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LONDON — During a recent performance of “Back to the Future: The Musical,” at the Adelphi Theater here, the audience couldn’t stop cheering.

They cheered a preshow announcement asking everyone to turn off their cellphones, “since they weren’t invented in 1985,” the year the original movie was released. They cheered when Marty McFly, the show’s main character (played by Olly Dobson), skateboarded onstage in an orange body warmer. And they cheered, again, when he started singing, surrounded by break dancers and women in aerobics getup to complete the 1980s vibe.

But the loudest applause came about 20 minutes in. After three loud bangs and a flash of light, a DeLorean car seemed to magically appear in the middle of the stage, lights bouncing off its steel bodywork and gull-wing doors.

The audience went wild.

Bob Gale, who co-wrote the original movie with Robert Zemeckis and wrote the musical’s book, said in a telephone interview that he always knew the car would be vital to the show’s success. “We knew if we pulled it off, it was going to make the audience go nuts,” he said.

He added he had been working on making that happen for over 15 years. In 2005, Gale recalled, Robert Zemeckis took his wife, Leslie, to see “The Producers” on Broadway — another musical adaptation of a cult film. As the couple left the theater, she asked if he had ever considered doing a “Back to the Future” musical. Neither Gale nor Zemeckis had any professional theater experience, but decided to give it a shot — yet finding a producer who would take the project on their terms took the better part of a decade, Gale said.

Getting the car right didn’t take as long, but Simon Marlow, the show’s production manager, said it was still a yearlong process. There were two challenges: to achieve the impression of movement and speed on the cramped stage of a theater, and to make sure every detail of the car onstage matched the DeLorean in the movie. “‘The ‘Back to the Future’ fan base is massive, and they’re very pedantic,” Marlow said.

Only about 9,000 of the stainless-steel cars were made at a factory in Northern Ireland before the company went bankrupt in 1982 (John Z. DeLorean, the company’s founder, went on to be tried, and acquitted, for trying to sell cocaine to prop up his firm’s finances). So Marlow’s team contacted Steven Wickenden, a “Back to the Future” superfan who lives in the seaside town of Deal, England. He owns a drivable replica of the movie’s DeLorean that regularly appears at fan events.

Wickenden, 49, said in a telephone interview that he had loved the DeLorean since watching the “Back to the Future” movies on videocassette as a teenager. It was “so cool and futuristic,” he said. In 1980s Deal, a local greengrocer and a dentist had owned DeLoreans, he added. “As far as I was concerned, we had two time machines driving around town,” he said.

When he was 21, Wickenden traveled to Universal Studios in Florida to see one of the film’s original cars, he said, and eventually his wife bought him his own as a 40th birthday gift.

Wickenden said he was surprised when the musical’s producers got in touch. He put the car onto a truck — because, under the terms of its “classic car” insurance, allowed mileage is limited — and took it to Souvenir Scenic Studios, a London prop maker, where “six or seven guys” used 3-D scanners and took thousands of photos, to capture its likeness, inside and out, to use as the basis for the onstage version. (They called him later to check some details, like the original brand of the tires, he said.)

Once the model was made, the show’s team had to “pack it with engineering,” Marlow said, including a device that allows it to spin on its axis (so it looks like it’s doing stunt turns) and pneumatic equipment that lets it tilt in the air (when it crashes into a farmer’s barn). Projections also help create the illusions of movement.

“We’re pushing the technology to the limit,” Marlow said. He added that around 20 people had worked on developing the production’s car and associated visual effects.

Although the DeLorean is one of the most memorable features of both the movie and the musical, Gale said it wasn’t part of the original concept. In the first script he wrote, in the 1980s, Marty McFly climbed into a fridge to travel through time; he swapped the fridge for a car when the movie was in preproduction. In addition to its futuristic look, the DeLorean was notorious at that the time because of its maker’s cocaine trial, Gale said, so it seemed an attention-grabbing choice.

At the Adelphi Theater, all the hard work on the car seemed to pay off. Ten audience members — many dressed as “Back to the Future” characters or wearing DeLorean T-shirts — said that the car had been a highlight. “I was in tears the first time I saw the DeLorean come out,” said Stephen Sloane, 43. “It’s just got the ‘wow’ factor,” he added.

Yet for all the team’s painstaking attention to detail, Roy Swansborough, 44, said he had noticed a few differences between the stage and movie cars. “The steering wheel is slightly different,” he said. But his wife, Beverley, said he was splitting hairs. “If you don’t look too carefully, you can go, ‘Oh, it’s like watching the film,” she said.

The only moment of the show when the actors seemed to upstage the DeLorean came right at the end. The cast all came onstage for a final song and dance number, and each player took their moment to claim an ovation. But the car didn’t get one of its own. Despite all the technical wizardry, the one thing it can’t do is bow.

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