July 19, 2024


Step Into The Technology

An Oral History of Back to the Future: The Musical’s Soundtrack

18 min read

Over a decade in the making, Back to the Future: The Musical reached the stage just as a pandemic was about to turn the world upside down, thus far limiting its audience to a lucky few in a run cut short in Manchester, England, and then on London’s West End beginning last summer. Now fans of the classic 1985 movie around the globe can experience all of the show’s music, with today’s release of the original cast recording.

The show features much of the original film’s iconic score composed by Alan Silvestri, along with new songs by Silvestri and Glen Ballard, who is known for co-writing Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and for the music and lyrics of Ghost the Musical. The duo previously collaborated on Oscar-nominated song “Believe” for 2004 film The Polar Express. Though Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis have consistently refused offers to make a fourth Back to the Future movie, they believed their sci-fi comedy was ripe for musical adaptation, thanks to the film’s larger-than-life characters and music already being an integral part of the film, particularly since Marty aspires to be a rock star.

The original cast recording comes out two years to the day after the Manchester run’s press night. Following a few weeks of previews, that evening’s performance—seen by critics and London theater owners—fortuitously helped secure a future on the West End mere days before theaters throughout the UK closed due to the pandemic. The musical now boasts seven nominations for Olivier Awards (Britain’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tonys), including Best New Musical and Best Original Score or New Orchestrations.

Ballard, Silvestri, and Gale recently spoke with io9 via Zoom for this article, which also features February 2020 interviews from Manchester with the songwriters and other members of the show’s cast and creative team—so cue up Back to the Future: The Musical’s original cast recording on your streaming service of choice (or your CD player if you’re partying like it’s 1999), and read on for all the fun and nerdy details about every song in the adaptation.

“It’s Only a Matter of Time”

The opening number is the first song Ballard and Silvestri wrote for the musical, yet it’s gone through significant changes, even since the first preview performances in Manchester. Ballard said this number has had about 15 different iterations. Previously, it primarily featured ensemble members playing various denizens of Hill Valley, singing about how the town is down at its heels. It succeeded in capturing the fictional town in the 1980s, but, Gale points out, they made changes so the show didn’t start on “kind of a downer.” Now Marty carries much of the song, singing about his aspirations: “I’ll be on MTV / I’ll rock my future.” Mayor Goldie Wilson gets a moment in the spotlight in this track now too. Consistent through the re-writes of this song is the melody of the chorus: it puts to words the notes of Silvestri’s main theme from his score for the 1985 film.

“I felt it was enormously important to use every bit of Alan’s score, even in a song, even if it’s just bits of DNA from it because it’s Back to the Future, and it’s so iconic,” Ballard told us.

Image for article titled Back to the Future: The Musical: A Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Original Cast Recording

Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

“Audition/Got No Future”

Marty’s failed audition with his band, the Pinheads, is depicted in this short track, followed by a few bars of him losing hope, singing, “I’ve got no future.” In this track and others on the album, fans can hear actor Olly Dobson not only singing as Marty but also some spoken lines, revealing his keenly crafted impression of Michael J. Fox’s recognizable voice.

“I remember every intonation and inflection that Michael J. Fox ever gave,” said Dobson, who first saw Back to the Future at age nine and now prides himself on his ability to do impersonations. His performance captures many of Fox’s mannerisms while also delivering his own personal comedic flair.

“Wherever We’re Going”

This duet comes right after Marty’s band is rejected in the audition for the school dance. Jennifer, his girlfriend, boosts Marty’s spirits, singing, “Something good is flowing / Wherever we’re going.”

“We always felt it was important for Jennifer to have this moment and for us to understand how supportive she is with Marty, how much he really loves her—how indispensable she is to his life,” Ballard said. “Because when he goes back into 1955, that’s the first person he needs to miss.”

Silvestri said they infused a “little sense of reggae” into this song, which makes it sound like it could be a nod to Eric Clapton’s reggae-pop track that appears briefly in the film Back to the Future, but Ballard said in Manchester, “that would be an unconscious reference.”

Courtney-Mae Briggs, who plays Jennifer, relished performing this song because “I love telling love stories. It’s one of my favorite things to do,” she said, and also because it was a reunion with Dobson—the two actors trained together at the Arts Educational Schools in the Chiswick district of London. “Wherever We’re Going” and “Only a Matter of Time” are sweetly reprised together in Act 2, when Marty’s worrying that Doc’s plan with the clocktower might not succeed in getting him back his girlfriend to 1985, but then Jennifer’s voice comes in from across the decades, assuring him “wherever we’re going is alright.”

Of that reprise, Briggs said, “It’s a really poignant moment in the show—the audience are really with us because everyone can relate to that and what it feels to maybe lose your love.”

Image for article titled Back to the Future: The Musical: A Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Original Cast Recording

Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

“Hello, Is Anybody Home?”

While the production explores a handful of music styles, this song is the show sounding its most purely musical theater. Featuring Marty, his older siblings, and his parents around the dinner table, “Hello, Is Anybody Home?” establishes the McFly family dynamics, with Marty bemoaning how his dad “doesn’t have a spine / He grovels, scrapes, and toes the line.”

The song continues an emotional rollercoaster for Marty through the first four songs—from his confidence in the opening song, followed by rejection, then Jennifer’s encouragement, then the bummer of seeing his father bullied by Biff.

“It Works”

Kicking off with percussion that sounds like clocks ticking and packed with catchy rhymes, “It Works” is Doc Brown’s first song of the show, celebrating his invention of something that actually works—the time-traveling DeLorean, of course. Doc is backed by female ensemble members in flashy jumpsuits that evoke the DeLorean’s stainless steel exterior and trails of fire, leading to a meta moment in the middle of the song when Marty asks, “Hey Doc, who are the girls?” and Doc Brown exclaims, “I don’t know—they just show up every time I start singing!”

Seasoned stage and screen actor Roger Bart, who plays Doc Brown, said he doesn’t consider himself an impersonator like Dobson does, but he channeled the “broadness” of Christopher Lloyd’s beloved performance as Doc Brown. “I have a fondness and, it appears, an aptitude for playing characters of vivid nature. It’s already in my DNA,” said Bart, whose great-uncle was a vaudevillian who toured with George Burns and Gracie Allen. The songwriters recalled wrestling with how to satisfactorily introduce Doc in the show, particularly since, similar to the film, he doesn’t appear onstage until about 18 minutes in. Then, Silvestri put forth the simple idea of the two-word hook “it works.”

“So we’ve been chasing that hook the whole time, and we’ve written five or six iterations of it,” Ballard said, “It always had to reflect Doc Brown’s brilliance and his big vocabulary but [that] it’s the first time in his whole life something works.”

Image for article titled Back to the Future: The Musical: A Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Original Cast Recording

Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes


In workshops, the musical’s creative team tried out using the Four Aces’ 1954 recording of “Mr. Sandman” after Marty’s arrival in 1955, just as it appears in the film, delivering a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” vibe, transporting us to mid-century Hill Valley. After watching recordings of a workshop, Zemeckis suggested replacing “Mr. Sandman” with a new song that achieves musically what the visuals in the town square do in the movie.

“Cake” became that song, and also became the songwriters opportunity to poke fun at the 1950s with the hindsight of the 21st century, as chipper townspeople sing about the wonders of things that we now know aren’t so good for us, like tobacco cigarettes and asbestos.

“Gotta Start Somewhere”

A force of infectious positivity, Goldie Wilson belts out this gospel number after Marty lets slip that he’s going to be Hill Valley mayor someday. As Goldie, Cedric Neal’s powerhouse voice and energetic dancing has consistently earned massive cheers from the audience at both Manchester Opera House and London’s Adelphi Theatre.

“It’s so rousing,” Silvestri said. “We have such a magnificent performer to interpret that song and bring it to life. I remember Glen talking about the need for something that accomplished that—it would have a kind of undeniable physical effect on the audience where they would have to move their bodies. And they do—sitting in the audience you really feel it. The round of applause at the end of that, you can just feel the energy in the room bump up two clicks.”

Image for article titled Back to the Future: The Musical: A Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Original Cast Recording

Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

“My Myopia”

Playing George McFly, Hugh Coles sings this number while aloft in a tree, tenderly but amusingly singing about how he prefers to live in his own world: “I want to be left alone / With the thoughts that are my own. / My myopia / Is my utopia.” Coles recognized how “ingrained in popular culture” the characters of Back to the Future are, explaining, “You’ve got to keep a foot in that boat because that’s what it is and that’s what people want,” but in taking on the role originated by Crispin Glover, he also felt encouraged by Gale to bring his own ideas to the part.

Ballard said with this song, “we wanted to try to find at least a minute of sympathy from the audience for [George’s] insecurity—so he’s not just a complete, one-dimensional loser. He’s a real human being. It’s a quick reveal of his own self-pity, but on some level it’s also kind of funny self-pity.”

“Pretty Baby”

As with the original film, when it came to the scene when Marty wakes up from a concussion in the bedroom of his teenage mother, the creative team of Back to the Future: The Musical had to find a way to take a moment that could have been pure cringe and make it comedic entertainment.

“[Marty] is so aware of what’s happening and [Lorraine] is so completely innocent that it allows you to have some fun without people’s skin crawling,” Silvestri said.

For this moment, Silvestri and Ballard wrote a song reminiscent of 1950s girl groups like the Chantels and the Chordettes. Backing singers show up sporting identical hairdos and dresses just like Lorraine’s purple gingham frock (one of several instances of the musical recreating the film’s recognizable costumes). As she’s batting her eyes at the mysterious boy hit by her dad’s car, Lorraine belts out, “Pretty baby, won’t you feel it too?” while Marty, squirming away, clearly will not.

“Future Boy”

This song, titled after Doc Brown’s moniker for Marty from his first encounter with him in 1955, depicts their first discussions about how to return Marty to the ’80s. It starts with Marty despairing about his situation to the tune sung earlier by his father in “My Myopia” and then shifts into a 1930s musical style as Doc is struck by ideas about how to harness the 1.21 gigawatts needed to send Marty back to the future. Doc’s backed by ensemble members again, this time a kickline donning top hats and tails.

Image for article titled Back to the Future: The Musical: A Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Original Cast Recording

Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

“Something About That Boy”

Lorraine (Rosanna Hyland) and Biff (Aidan Cutler) lead this song, both trying to put their finger on what’s up with Marty—Lorraine falling for him and Biff really not liking the guy. The song accompanies complex choreography and set pieces in the halls of Hill Valley High School where Biff is eventually made to look like a fool—the musical’s version of the skateboard/car chase around the town square in the film. It’s Biff’s first song in the current iteration of the show. When preview performances began in Manchester, he also had a song called “Good at Being Bad” in Lou’s Cafe right before Goldie Wilson’s song, but, Ballard explained, it was cut when Act One was running long and Lando pointed out they shouldn’t have two songs in the cafe. At one point, though, the bumbling antagonist was at risk of not getting to sing at all.

In 2014, news broke that Back to the Future: The Musical was delayed when its then-director Jaime Lloyd departed the production, citing creative differences—differences, it turns out, over whether or not Biff should sing. “He thought that a villain would be more villainous if he didn’t sing,” Gale recalls, “And I said, ‘What about Captain Hook?’”

Gale said, “for me, that was the dealbreaker,” while Silvestri also said, “At some point, we came to find that we didn’t seem to tonally agree in a very broad way. […] So it was another five years of [figuring out], what is that tone?” Ultimately, the musical’s current creative team decided that “we wanted everybody [in the show] to have a chance to say who they are, for you to learn something else about them that you didn’t know in the film, and that’s what song gives you an opportunity to do,” Ballard said.

“21st Century”

Act Two opens with a departure from Marty’s dilemmas in 1955 as Doc sings about his rosy imaginings of what the 21st century will be like. It’s all rather utopian, with a couple references to how 2015 is depicted in Back to the Future Part II: “Flying cars and strange machines / Will fill up the skies… Since we’ve given up cash / No more markets will crash / And we’ll vaporize trash.”

While much of the musical plays with various musical styles from the ’50s and ’80s, this is Ballard and Silvestri’s chance to go full techno.

“That particular song is our cutaway. We have a license to do that cause this is Doc’s dream. But everything else we tried to carbon-date to the era it’s from,” Ballard said in Manchester. “And having this perspective from 2020, looking back at the ’80s, looking back at the ’50s. It was really fun because we were able to move between two really distinctly different musical eras and have fun with it.”

“Put Your Mind to It”

After Goldie Wilson’s number in Act One, “Put Your Mind to It” may be the musical’s next-biggest crowd-pleaser—and it likely played a key part in earning Dobson and Coles their nominations for Olivier Awards announced earlier this week. This upbeat song is the musical’s depiction of the scene in George’s family’s backyard when Marty’s prepping him on winning over Lorraine. The mantra that becomes its own grandfather paradox-of-sorts in the movie—“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”—is lent to this song’s title, as Marty teaches his dad the toughness Lorraine apparently wants in a man but also how to carry himself himself with confidence. In the number’s choreography, Marty’s also teaching his dad how to dance.

“Here you get to see the boy and the father really have a good time together and really see their love,” said John Rando, director of Back to the Future: The Musical. “You see that this could be a good relationship if the past could only change.”

David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s 1985 music video for “Dancing in the Streets” served as inspiration for Rando as he directed “Put Your Mind to It,” leaning into the disparate styles of Marty and George. It could have easily veered into the territory of mocking dorky George while Marty shows off slicker dance moves, but because George is so endearing and because Marty’s clearly being supportive of his dad, it achieves getting the audience to laugh with, not at, George. Dobson explained that, as Marty, “I don’t want to make fun of [George] ever. It’s more about making him feel better about how he is, and so that when we end up doing the silliness of the ending of the song, I’m with him, and whatever he’s doing, it’s okay to be that individual.”

Much of the number’s dance moves came from an early workshop of the show, when Coles and Dobson were encouraged to just start goofing off.

“With the help of Chris Bailey, who’s coming in to choreograph it and make it look nice—the intention behind all of it is what came naturally to us in the first reading, and that’s why it’s so fun, ’cause it’s so much of me and so much of Olly and John’s creative overlook onto it,” said Coles, who is (impressively) making his professional stage debut with Back to the Future.

Image for article titled Back to the Future: The Musical: A Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Original Cast Recording

Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

“For the Dreamers”

This song is Doc Brown’s moment to channel Emma Stone’s audition toward the end of La La Land. In this intimate ballad, performed right after the mishap with Doc’s (immaculate but not-to-scale) model of Hill Valley, our favorite wacky inventor sings a bittersweet ode to dreamers “Who live on inspiration / Go as far as they can take it / Even if they don’t quite make it.” He sings about how “a great idea / Can change the world.”

Bart pointed out, “There’s lot of numbers in this show where there’s a lot of room for gags. It naturally is a very funny show. What I find really lovely about ‘Dreamers’ is that we start off on a really funny note, and is actually probably one of the only numbers that ends sincerely.”

After first sharing the song with Rando on the piano at his Hollywood office, Ballard initially suggested it be performed near the end of the musical, but Rando recalls saying, “No, no, it’s gotta be at the moment of crisis where the model fails, where just right when everything doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen, you have to sing this song.”

The song can broadly apply to anyone who dreams and perseveres toward any goal, but it has its own poignance coming from the show’s scientist. Bart, whose parents were both MIT scientists, said in Manchester, “This is as close as I’m gonna get to that,” adding, “It’s good to be in a pro-science musical in our world now. I’m glad I can help promote pro-science feelings and vibes in young people—try to give them the sense that anything is possible in the world of science.”

“For the Dreamers” may be heard more in the musical theater world in years to come: Gale said that ushers at the Adelphi, where the show is currently performed, have told him, “This is gonna be everybody’s audition song in three or four years.”

“Teach Him a Lesson”

In this track sung by Biff and his goons (just two of them—Match doesn’t appear in the musical), Silvestri and Ballard played around with lyrics akin to the verbal blunders dropped by Tom Wilson’s Biff in the film: “Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here?”

“He’s the king of malapropisms, so he can never quite articulate what it is he wants to do,” Ballard said.

Throughout the song, Biff has it out for Marty and tries to sound menacing (and even ends the song with a classic maniacal laugh), but his villainy is comedically undercut by his inability to get any threat right: “I’m gonna teach him a lesson / That he’ll always forget,” he sings, so his sidekicks correct him: “Never forget.”

“Deep Divin’”

This song transports us into the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, functioning as “Night Train”—popularized by Jmmy Forest in 1952—does in the film. Like that instrumental rhythm and blues track, “Deep Divin’” is saxophone-powered, but in the musical, this moment features lyrics sung by Neal, who plays both Goldie and Marvin Berry, frontman of the band at the dance. Marvin Berry and the Starlighters are on-point with the dance’s theme, crooning about buried treasure, the ocean floor, and “deep diving for love.”

“Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” and “Johnny B. Goode”

The final four songs in the musical are memorable parts of the movie’s soundtrack, starting with doo-wop group the Penguins’ 1954 debut single “Earth Angel,” originally selected for the film by music supervisor Bones Howe. It’s the music for the climatic moment when Marty is nearly erased from existence before George musters up some courage and saves McFly family history by swooping in and kissing Lorraine. On the musical soundtrack, the “Earth Angel” mix includes the ominous orchestrations that come in as Marty starts to see himself disappearing into thin air, plus dialogue from Lorraine and George, who also sing the song’s final lyrics together.

Next, one of the most beloved scenes from the movie is recreated onstage when Dobson’s Marty rocks everyone’s socks off with Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode.” The slick guitar-playing on the soundtrack is the work of Duncan Floyd, who also plays Berry’s iconic riffs in the orchestra pit of the Adelphi Theatre, while Dobson appears to be playing a red Gibson onstage. Music nerds (and Back to the Future fanatics who know every line of the movie) will be quick to pick up on one change in what Marty says to the band before launching into his rockstar moment: “This is a blues riff in B. Watch me for the changes, and try to keep up,” Fox says in the film. In the musical, Dobson can be heard saying it’s a blues riff in B flat.

Paul Hanson—Fox’s guitar instructor for the 1985 film—said in 2015 that he taught Fox to play it in B because “B flat is such a massively unusual key for guitar players,” even though the Berry’s song is in B flat, when the key still had some popularity from the horn-dominated big band era. The musical’s creative team chose to reference the song’s original key “because the line should be true!” Silvestri said.

Image for article titled Back to the Future: The Musical: A Song-by-Song Breakdown of the Original Cast Recording

Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes

“The Power of Love” and “Back in Time”

The two Huey Lewis and the News songs that appear in the movie Back to the Future close out the stage production. First, Marty, safely back in 1985, performs “The Power of Love” with his band in the town square. More members of the cast join in, first Jennifer, then Mayor Goldie Wilson, and soon the McFly family, looking happier they do in their Act One number, are belting out the song together. Gale recalls choosing to tap Huey Lewis and the News for some fresh songs for the film in part because “we just thought Marty McFly would be a big Huey Lewis fan.” (Indeed, the a poster for the rock band’s 1983 album Sports is on the teenager’s bedroom wall.)

Gale added, “Bob Zemeckis was a huge Huey Lewis fan, even bigger than I was. He just said, ‘We gotta go after Huey. We got to.’ I said, ‘Alright, let’s go after him. What the hell.’” It paid off: “The Power of Love” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and was ubiquitous on the radio as the movie hit theaters in July 1985.

Before the musical opened, some fans speculated that “Back in Time” would appear midway through the show, as it depicts Marty imploring Doc to get him back to his own time. The song ended up functioning much like it does in the movie, where it plays during the end credits. In the musical, the cast sings it after their curtain call, practically guaranteeing the audience is already on their feet ready to dance along to the final number. Ballard said they tried sliding “Back in Time” into a handful of places in the show early on, but “it ended up being the perfect encapsulation of everything you’ve just seen, maybe the best send-you-out-in-a-happy-mood song that we could ever have.”

Back to the Future: The Musical’s original soundtrack is streaming now.

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