Great Scott – it’s Back To the Future, The Musical! I’m absolutely delighted that Manchester is the first place in the world to get to see this new stage adaptation of one of the greatest cult films of the ’80s, and indeed of all time; and what an absolutely amazing spectacle it is! 1.21 gigawatts of spectacle, in fact (sorry, that had to be said!). Flying cars, flashing lights and lightning strikes. I’ve never heard so many men yelling and screaming at a musical: it’s usually only we ladies doing that 🙂 .If you’re looking for Les Miserables, you’re not going to get it: apart from the original songs from the film, the music isn’t really that memorable. But, if you’re looking for Back To The Future and you’re not sure that it’s going to work on stage – believe me, it does! If you’re worried that someone’s going to spoil a sacred bit of your ’80s childhood – it’ s fine, they’re not! And, yes, the DeLorean flies!
It’s a bit surreal when you stop to think that we’re now going back further to get to 1985 than Marty’s going to get from 1985 to 1955. It’s especially surreal if, like me, you’ve never entirely got out of the 1980s. But the story works for any age. When you look beyond the sci-fi/time travelling elements, it’s a story of learning to stand up for yourself, overcoming bullying, trying not to worry that people are going to laugh at you for not being cool or trendy, and making a success of things by being yourself and doing what interests you. That’s pretty inspiring in any decade. I think that the musical actually gets that side of it across better than the film does.
And it is definitely entertaining. I’m not someone who usually gets excited about special effects, but this is really something. It’s on a 12 week debut run at the Opera House, the 5th night of which happily coincided with my birthday, and I believe that people are travelling from all over the UK and even from the US for the chance to see it; but it’s going to run and run. When this baby hits 88 miles per hour …
Obviously, you can’t do everything on stage that you can on screen. For a kick off, you can’t spend 3 hours slapping make-up on people to make them look 30 years older, so, in the scenes in the 1980s, the McFly parents look around the same age as their kids 🙂 – but just try to ignore that! There’s not much skateboarding, and (hooray!!!) there are no dogs. George falls out of a tree, rather than being hit by a car. Also – and it’s killing me to say this, because I am a child of the ’80s, and I got quite upset when it hit me that no-one much under 40 will even remember 1985 – there are things which worked in the ’80s which just wouldn’t work now. References to Libyan terrorists, and indeed any terrorists, have been removed … and, thinking about it, it’s kind of weird that they were considered suitable at the time, TBH. And Doc Brown’s bemusement on learning that Ronald Reagan the film star is now the President of the United States, which was hilarious in 1985, falls a bit flat now.
However, I’m pleased to say that the Thought Police haven’t been allowed to get to it and take away the ’80s and ’50s feel of it. I know there’s been some whingeing about recent musicals being made of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman, from people saying that they’re sexist, but can we just accept that times change and that you can’t and shouldn’t try to change the past to match? Lorraine being impressed by first Marty and then George rescuing her from the unwanted attentions of Biff, largely by walloping him, works in the context of the 1950s. And, whilst no-one is more paranoid about their weight than I am, the thing about original 1985 Lorraine being fat and new model 1985 Lorraine being slim works in the context of the 1980s. Talking about the prospect of “a coloured man” becoming mayor is the language that would have been used in the 1950s – and, of course, Goldie, who starts off sweeping the floor in a café, does indeed work his way up to the position of mayor, and he does it through his own hard work, without anyone having to change to change history for him! I don’t know if anyone now would make a film in which a girl fancies a boy whom she’s unaware is her son. And even a friendship between a teenage boy and an older man might be considered dangerous territory now – which is a shame, because Marty and Doc Brown are such a great team. But we’re not writing the story for 2020. It was written for 1985. And it’s largely been left as such. Good.
So, yes, this is Back To The Future, and this is the 1980s! As I said, it’s quite strange when you realise that, to younger members of the audience, the ’80s clothes, hairstyles and music, and things like the ’80s phone and TV in the McFlys’ kitchen, look like something from history. It’s like when you’re walking round a museum and you see stuff that you remember using. Most of it’s set in the 1950s, of course, though … and people who are 30 years older than me will probably feel exactly the same about the ’50s as I do about the ’80s! The music and dancing are part ’80s and part ’50s. And there’s a lot of music and dancing, because, well, it is a musical. In fact, it had a bit of a feeling of Grease about it, because, as they couldn’t show scenes in as many parts of town as they did in the film, quite a lot of it was set in the high school attended by teenage George, Lorraine and Biff.
The new songs aren’t that great, as I said, but the original songs are still great, and the new ones are lively and upbeat even if not very memorable. I’m a purist and a traditionalist and I would normally howl with indignation at the slightest suggestion that the main attraction of a musical was anything other than the music, but this is an adaptation of a particular film and so the special effects were always going to be the big thing. And, if you’re looking for special effects, then, yep, you are going to get them, big style! There are a lot of flashing coloured lights. There is dry ice. It has actually been made to look as if the car is going through time. Well, OK, we don’t actually know what time travel looks like, but you know what I mean! And, yes, all right, all right, we now know that 2015 was not an age of flying cars, but we didn’t know that in 1985. There is a flying car at the end, because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads!
It’s more than that, though. It’s genuinely very funny – the comedy element is great. And it’s genuinely inspiring. Because you can’t do as much on stage as you can on screen, there’s more about the characters. Or maybe I’m just getting old – and, yes, that is part of it. When you’re a kid, it’s all about Marty. When you’re older – and birthdays always make me feel like Methuselah – you feel much more for young George, shoved around by the school bullies, never able to stand up for himself, and hiding his love of sci-fi and the stories he’s writing because he’s convinced that people are going to laugh at him. And you feel much more for the original version of adult Lorraine, who’s turned from a lively, vivacious teenager into an unhappy woman, turning to food and drink for comfort. Well, unless you were a Biff-type kid at school, but, if you were, you probably won’t be reading anything written by me.
This is a brilliant fantasy time travel story. And it’s a brilliant comedy, because of the way that Marty accidentally messes up the past and then has to try to sort it out, and because of all the time travel jokes such as Lorraine thinking Marty’s called Calvin Klein because that’s what the name tapes on his underpants say. But, when you think about it more deeply, it’s a story about the shy, uncool kid, who’s got zero self confidence and gets pushed around by bullies, becoming Mr Happy and Successful. And it’s about Doc Brown’s years of trying to invent something that works finally paying off. And I love that.
Oh, all right, it’s about the flying car, as well! Because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads …