Bob Gale on Back to the Future – The Musical: ‘We were outsiders’

Bob Gale on Back to the Future – The Musical: ‘We were outsiders’

Looking back at how Back to the Future originated, I’m always astonished that so many serendipitous events had to come together to lead to its birth. I often wonder, “what if?” What if just one of them had been different, would BTTF have ever been born?

The movie’s origin story is familiar to many. In August 1980, I was visiting my parents in my home town (a suburb of St Louis, Missouri) while promoting the movie Used Cars which Robert Zemeckis and I had just made for Columbia Pictures.

By happenstance, I came across my father’s high school yearbook in the basement, something I’d never seen before, and discovered that my dad had been president of his graduating class.

As I looked at his photo, I thought of the president of my class, someone with whom I’d had nothing in common. I asked myself, if I had gone to school with my father, would we have been friends?

At that moment, the metaphorical light bulb illuminated over my head as I realised this was a great idea for a time travel movie: a kid goes back in time and ends up in high school with his future father.

When I returned to California, I related this to Bob Zemeckis who reacted with equal enthusiasm, suggesting that the protagonist’s mum could also attend that same school.

Back to the Future (Photo: 1985 Universal City Studios Inc)

In less than a month, we’d worked out enough of a story to pitch the project to Columbia Pictures. That’s when we learned it was a truly great idea because the studio chief gave us a thumbs-up on it in just minutes.

We didn’t need to explain many of our plot elements, details or complications. By the end of the following week, we had been hired to write our untitled script which soon became known as Back to the Future.

Consider just a few of the “what ifs?”

What if we had not made the movie Used Cars?

What if I had not gone to St Louis that summer?

What if I had not found my dad’s yearbook?

What if my mum had thrown it away?

What if dad had not been Class President?

What if Bob Zemeckis had hated the idea?

So: was Back to the Future “meant to be,” or simply a product of life’s randomness? Of course, this “what if” game can be played infinitely, with almost anything in life (and it tends to get better the more alcohol one drinks).

We wrote two drafts for Columbia, but they passed on the project, believing it was not viable in a market which favored raunchy comedy.

They gave it back to us in what’s called “turnaround,” meaning we could submit the script to other companies with the understanding that Columbia would be reimbursed for their costs if we were able to get it off the ground.

Over the next two years, Back to the Future was turned down by every studio and myriad production companies for a total of more than 40 rejections. #

Frustrated that his directing career had stalled, Zemeckis decided to helm the next decent script which came his way, a little something called Romancing the Stone.

Two wonderful things occurred: Bob hired a virtually unknown composer named Alan Silvestri to write the score, and the movie became a big hit.

Now that he was a hitmaker, every studio was willing to make the next Robert Zemeckis film. But Bob turned his back on his new fairweather friends in favour of our real friend, Steven Spielberg, who had always liked the script and had just set up his new Amblin Entertainment Company at Universal Studios.

In summer, 1984, we were in pre-production. And it became the world’s biggest movie hit of 1985 and spawned two extremely successful sequels.

Roger Bart as Doc Brown in Back to the Future: The Musical (Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes)

If the Bob Gale of 2021 traveled back in time to 1980 to tell the 29-year-old Zemeckis and Gale about the future of Back to the Future, our younger selves would have probably thought the old guy had not taken his meds that day.

I pinch myself regularly over the longevity of this project and its various iterations. An animated series, two comic book series from different companies, toys, videogames, board games, documentaries… and now Back to the Future: The Musical.

The seed for doing a musical was planted in 2005 by Bob’s wife Leslie who suggested it after seeing The Producers on Broadway.

It took about a year for that seed to germinate, and in February 2006, composer Alan Silvestri, songsmith Glen Ballard, Bob and I had our first meeting to seriously discuss it.

One thing was a given: we would not turn the project over to strangers. Despite our ignorance of the world of musical theatre, the four of us collectively vowed to be the primary creative force in bringing the musical to the world.

And that turned out to be another bump in the road. Our various successes in the world of film and music – from major awards to big box office to record sales – meant nothing to most Broadway producers. We were theatrical outsiders.

Olly Dobson as Marty McFly in Back to the Future: The Musical (Photo: Sean Ebsworth Barnes)

But serendipity has an interesting way of turning up at the right moment. This time it was in the guise of Ghost The Musical, for which Glen was hired to co-write the songs with Dave Stewart, for British producer Colin Ingram.

In 2012 after I met Colin in New York after a preview of Ghost, I sent him an email: “Let’s do this.” The last key piece of the puzzle fell into place in early 2018 when we met the director John Rando, a veteran of countless Broadway musical comedies. Again, the chemistry was perfect. Despite Covid, we never looked back.

I believe that clichés become clichés because they’re true.

“Good things take time” because they do take time. And Back to the Future: The Musical is improved because of it.

Thanks to advancements in stagecraft, our show is much better now than it would have been had it been produced in 2010 or 2015.

You will believe that our DeLorean goes 88 miles per hour, that Marty McFly travels back in time and that Doc Brown climbs out on the clock tower ledge in a lightning storm.

We also have 14 fabulous new songs (along with classics including “The Power of Love” and “Johnny B Goode”).

Bob Zemeckis, Alan Silvestri, Glen Ballard and I know how much the original movie means to so many people, and we wouldn’t have put this musical on stage if it didn’t meet the high standards set by the film. We believe we have captured and honoured its spirit. Great Scott!

Back to the Future: The Musical is at the Adelphi Theatre, London to 13 February 2022