Almost two decades later, Back to the Future remains one of the most beloved films of all time. And why not? There’s sci-fi, comedy, action, romance, social commentary and drama all rolled into one fun flick, with a little destiny and technology thrown in for good measure. (This isn’t just our opinion; Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 97). The movie, which generated $385M in worldwide Box Office sales just in 1985 alone, remains a true classic, so it’s not surprising that it has made its way onto the stage – and to great success. The theater production, Back To The Future: The Musical, won England’s renowned Olivier Award for “Best New Musical” in 2022. Since it opened in September 2021, the musical has performed to a sold-out house 8 times a week and is set to open on Broadway in 2023.
For nostalgic Gen Xers who grew up with the film version and for newer, younger fans who haven’t yet met Doc or Marty, the stage production breathes life into an old, familiar story. So, which version offers a better viewing experience? The original Back to the Future movie or the musical? (We only address the franchise’s first movie here for the sake of comparison.)
The stage production is nothing short of spectacular
This musical’s staging and exciting multi-dimensional production are amazing, especially compared to most other musicals on the West End. Its special effects are invested and impressive. As are the rapid changes of scenery, not to mention the car …Great Scott! The effects they pull off with the DeLorean on stage are nothing short of jaw-dropping. One review summed up the thrilling car scenes as, “defying the laws of theatre, if not the time-space continuum.”
The audience benefits from a higher energy level
Sure, movie fans have a strong bond with the original cast, but theatergoers will quickly get swept up into the world of the live show. The stage actors capture the best of these characters while making the roles their own. Their impeccable comic timing and intense energy while acting, singing and dancing demonstrate a broader set of skills than the movie offers. With the actors continually gesturing to the audience or when Doc acts puzzled about the dancers who show up when he starts singing, the audience feels like it’s bonding with the characters instead of just watching them. The stage version is alive in the most physical sense, offering an added value that the movie can’t.
Celebrates the future
Unlike the movie, which has a nostalgic tone, the musical looks ahead to the future. It takes a more cynical look at the past. For instance, in the live show, the song introducing the 1950s speaks about women smoking cigarettes that doctors prescribed and people using asbestos as a way to keep the home cozy and warm. Another song, which feels like an addition to the show, is about the future that happens in Doc’s mind. In a more literal sense, the production itself takes stagecraft to new, incredible, and innovative realms.
The character relationships are stronger
The core friendship of the main characters, Marty and Doc, is much better displayed and explored in the movie. This isn’t just because of the talent of the actors who became synonymous with their roles, but also because of the amount of screen time their relationship gets. The emotional closeness in the movie also had to do with the physical closeness of the camera. Unlike in the stage production, where the relationships compete with the big theatrics for attention, in the movie, the director used the art of close-ups to convey much more intimacy and a deeper sense of bonding between the main characters.
The story is richer
The story belongs to the movie. After all, that’s where most of us first experienced it. Even if viewers get to see both versions with fresh eyes, the movie story is simply richer. It has more action scenes that aren’t in the stage version. There are easter eggs that cleverly appear throughout the movie (like the images on Doc’s walls when the movie begins) which are missing in the musical, and there is no Einstein in the musical. The story was originally written for film and not for the stage, with an expansive canvas in mind, and this is where it works better. It’s understandable, then, that changes had to be made to the story for the stage adaptation but they also take away from some of the depth of the original story.
It’s an internal experience
While the musical version is a fun, electrifying show, a feast for all senses that captivates its audience with (26) songs and spectacle, the movie is driven, instead, by the story and character development. The themes of family, fate, and aging, not to mention courage vs. fear, (and let’s not forget the hint of incest) have a more meaningful punch in the movie in a way that evokes identification and empathy.
The Bottom Line: While the theatrical stage production is full of life, vitality and music that will have audiences on the edge of their seats, the movie version is a comforting, relaxing, familiar old friend. One viewing experience is communal while the other is solitary. Still, viewers will find satisfaction in the story, characters, humor and lessons of both.