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How 'Back to the Future: The Musical' created a DeLorean that flies

Tim Hatley's sketch shows the musical's DeLorean on stage.
Tim Hatley
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Back to the Future: The Musical
Tim Hatley's sketch shows the musical's DeLorean on stage.

Updated August 25, 2023 at 11:47 AM ET

After a recent matinee of Back to the Future: The Musical, dozens of families poured out onto Broadway. One of them, the Angelos, had traveled from Sugar Loaf, Penn. to see the show.

"It was amazing," said 8-year-old Lula. "And the car? I can't even speak about it. It went upside down!!"

That's right. It flips upside down . . . because the DeLorean flies. Into the audience.

"I think the most important rule we gave to ourselves is the car is the star." said Finn Ross, the show's video designer.

Casey Likes is Marty McFly in the stage adaptation of "Back to the Future."
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman / Back to the Future
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Back to the Future
Casey Likes is Marty McFly in the stage adaptation of "Back to the Future."

In the 1985 movie and the new musical adaptation, the car is a time machine and the driver of the story, bringing teenager Marty McFly from his own 1985 to his parents' 1955. Ross and the rest of the team of designers knew that it was the car that would dazzle the audience. It had to look like a DeLorean, it had to have cool effects, and it needed to look like it was driving like a real car on real roads.

"Like, we can't overpower the car. We have to create a world for the car to inhabit and be free to move around it," Ross said.

A mechanical madness of gizmos

The musical originated in the West End in London — it won several awards there, including the 2022 Olivier Award for best new musical — and the all-British design team worked on the car with director John Rando. First, they thought up elaborate storyboards, then created models, then worked on life-size mock-ups of the DeLorean.

Set designer Tim Hatley made a 3D scan of a real DeLorean and then created a car which is slightly smaller in scale. It had to fit onstage — and it also had to be danced on.

"Inside it all is a mechanical, steel, aluminum madness of gizmos and electronics and what we call turtles to make it spin," said Hatley. "Motors, lights, effects, smoke machines, speakers. It's crammed with that. You can just get a person in it."

The car itself only moves slightly, while turning around. So to create the illusion of speed, Finn Ross installed an LED wall at the back of the stage and a scrim in the front, with the car sandwiched in between. It's projected video, along with lights, sound and underscoring, that make it look like the car is truly hurtling from 0 to 88 mph.

Designer Tim Hatley's sketches show his ideas for what the stage could look like as the car zooms toward 88 mph in the finale.
Tim Hatley / Back to the Future: The Musical
/
Back to the Future: The Musical
Designer Tim Hatley's sketches show his ideas for what the stage could look like as the car zooms toward 88 mph in the finale.

Ross also created videos of the fictional Hill Valley in 1985 and 1955, based on the original design plus maps created by fans.

"We could sort of draw and plot the DeLorean's journey around [the map]," said Ross, "but also make sure that the diner is in the right place, the travel agent's in the right place, all the different sort of things you see in the background of the movie."

The car actually flies — but it does other stuff, too

The real star of the show is the DeLorean
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman / Back to the Future
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Back to the Future
The real star of the show is the DeLorean

The car speaks, like Knight Rider. And it leaves fiery skid marks. Early in the show, the DeLorean suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere. That trick was figured out by illusions designer Chris Fisher.

"I have Marty sail through on the skateboard, lit through the space," Fisher explained. "So, there's nothing there. We're saying there's nothing there. And then bang, bang, bang, there's the DeLorean."

Pulling those illusions off took days of technical rehearsal with the stage crew, all of whom are sworn to secrecy, "because when you find out a secret of how magic works, it's actually quite disappointing!" Fisher said.

But the pièce de résistance is definitely the car flying at the end. At first, Rando wasn't sure what the car would be capable of — but then set designer Tim Hatley invited him to his studio. He held a model of the DeLorean in his hand.

"And he said, you know, 'It's going to go up in the air and then it's going to turn and then it's going to come towards the audience and then it's going to go out over the audience,'" Rando said, laughing. '"And then it's going to do a 360 and then it's going to turn around and go on its merry way.'

And that's exactly what the DeLorean does. How does it work? Nobody was telling. But it's quite a trick. As Lula Angelo said — it's amazing.

Audio and digital story edited byJennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.