It was August 25th, and I had begun my afternoon by watching a man douse himself with petrol.
As I watched him lift a lighter slowly towards his sodden shirt, seven people in a euphoric frenzy formed a ring around him, singing and dancing and having far too much fun for people in the presence of a man about to light himself on fire. This was the moment, I thought. The finale to the London revival of Pippin had begun.
I left Charing Cross Theatre thoroughly moved after having watched this matinée revival of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 metatheatrical classic, which is among my favourite musicals, in person for the first time. So stylistically different to anything else that had come before it, the original production won five Tony awards while it explored love, life, and the futility of seeking fulfilment in illusion and spectacle. It was only slightly ironic then that I was now on my way to an evening performance of what the Guardian had billed as ‘the new standard for spectacle’ – Back To The Future: The Musical.
Sceptical of the show, and certain now that the West End had run out of original ideas, I arrived intrigued as to what the show had in store, since reviews for the original Manchester production had been positive, lauding the special effects and entertainment value, but I wondered whether the musical, in pandering to nostalgia, would bear any real substance. They had opted for a publicity approach that did not expose the show’s score and staging, and it had only opened in London five days prior, so there was little to go off. What excited me was that this was clearly a high-budget show – and I was overdue seeing a megamusical. The form can be loosely defined as a musical engineered for commercial success, where spectacle takes precedent over substance, songs are melodramatic and bombastic, emotions are described rather than shown, and there is an emphasis on extravagant staging and special effects. Think Les Misérables, The Phantom of The Opera, Miss Saigon – often pithy, always entertaining.
This is a musical best appreciated, unsurprisingly, with prior knowledge of the first film, but with no knowledge of the stage show, so this article will continue without giving too much away; many of the show’s best moments are where it successfully translates moments from the film into the medium of theatre where it seemed there could be no way. Its strongest elements are its technological feats, which was evident immediately upon entering the theatre – even the stage curtain was an innovation. Big set pieces and a heavy dosage of pyrotechnics were expected, and won the audience over, but the show’s stellar moment comes at the end, where it stages the flying car from the end of the film in what may be the most remarkable piece of stage mechanics in West End history, surpassing Phantom’s chandelier and even Miss Saigon’s helicopter.
Back To The Future: The Musical, however, is far from faultless. The megamusical’s ability to lull spectators into a stupor with its bells and whistles (and flying cars) lets poor writing fly under the radar. Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard’s score, though energetic, feels somewhat lifeless beneath the surface, with lazy rhymes and punchlines that lack the sharpness of those in other musicals that the score bears similarity to. But this is typical of megamusicals, who churn out genius lines such as ‘Finally for this one night / I’m about to have a fun night’ (Wicked) and get away with it.
Despite their flaws, I think that over the next few years we are going to see a resurgence of the megamusical. The minimalist approach to staging has been hugely popular in the last couple of decades, but this will naturally lead to a reaction the other way and now makes sense: the last two years have deprived people of live entertainment, and so entertainment value and escapism is what consumers are looking for in theatre more than ever. A struggling industry, theatres must stage shows that audiences want to watch, and megamusicals (though costly investments) have proven to pull in revenue: the top 7 highest grossing Broadway shows, for example, are all megamusicals.
Critics, including myself, are often quick to disregard the megamusical as a substantial or valuable form of art, but perhaps too quick. In today’s context, though these shows are designed to please the masses for commercial gain, the masses need pleasing. We need escapism, gatherings and interactions, and we need to encourage exchanges between humans, of which the exchange between actor and audience is a special one. In a talk by playwright and theatre director David Greig about post-pandemic theatre, something he said particularly stuck with me. As actors, we are deprived of the audience. But we are also deprived of being part of an audience: there’s something about laughing at something and seeing others laugh too that reminds us we’re not alone.