Roger Bart’s Broadway Journey Takes Him ‘Back to the Future’

With a custom built DeLorean and a flux capacitor, Tony winning actor Roger Bart is taking Doc Brown to Broadway in 'Back To The Future: The Musical.'

Christopher Lloyd and Roger Bart at the June 25 gala performance of Back to the Future: The Musical benefitting the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Andy Henderson

The first Broadway sighting of Roger Bart was in a bit part (Tom Sawyer) in Big River, the late Roger Miller’s Huckleberry Finn musicalization, Big River. That was in 1985. In a bit of a time loop, it’s still 1985 at the Winter Garden Theater, where Bart is currently ruling the roost as Doc Emmet Brown in Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard’s musical version of Back to the Future.

Weird, wired, and wild-haired, Bart looks, sounds and acts almost exactly like Christopher Lloyd, who originated the part in the 1985 movie. But then Bart has made an almost-studied career of goofy disguises.

He received a Tony Award as Snoopy in the 1999 revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, going canine again two years later in 2001 as the singing voice of Scamp in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp II. That same year he originated the role of Carmen Gihia, the epicene “common-law assistant” to stage director Roger De Bris, in the musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, later inheriting the lead role of Leo Bloom from Matthew Broderick. And then in 2007 he was re-teamed with Brooks for the Broadway musical version of Young Frankenstein, in which he was Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of you-know-who.

Bart feels twice-blessed to have done double duty with Brooks. “Not only is Mel a legend,” he tells Observer, “he is extremely warm—a kind, smart family man. It was both wonderful and amazing to work with him as an artist, but, to get to know him as a person and become a friend, was the most special and rewarding thing. And much of that took place during Young Frankenstein.”

Roger Bart and Mel Brooks at the opening night party for Young Frankenstein at the Seattle Space Needle on August 23, 2007 in Seattle. FilmMagic

During his teens, Roger hung out a lot, between waiter jobs, with the late composer, Jonathan Larson. He was part of early versions of  Larson’s Tick, Tick . . . Boom and Rent, and the two were close enough that the Roger in Rent is named after Bart.

Craving an acting career at an early age was a bit of a novelty for the Bart family tree—but only a bit. Roger’s uncle, Peter Bart, was a producer at Paramount, president at Lorimar Productions, and editor-in-chief of Variety from 1989 to 2007. “He’s still at it, too—at 91,” Roger beams. “He works for Deadline now.”

At 60, Bart finds that he has aged into a perfect fit for the scattered, somewhat dippy Doc Brown. “There’s so much to do in terms of just explaining to the audience about how it’s going to work, how time travel works,” Bart says. “It’s a lot of exposition, but I go at it in a way that is hopefully entertaining and animated and fast—all of that, I think, is really important to do.” 

His Doc Brown is at the center of the show without being the hero of the plot. “I’ve often played comic villains, so to play someone who’s above all that is refreshing—and a challenge,” Bart says. “I really like being on the sidelines. There are few heroes in this show. Marty McFly qualifies as one, and so does his father, George McFly, because he finally stands up to his schoolyard bully and defends the woman who will become Marty’s mother.”

Roger Bart and Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical at the Winter Garden Theatre. Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The Marty in question is Casey Likes, seen briefly last season as the lead in Almost Famous but better placed here. Marty McFly, of course, was a star-making role for Michael J. Fox—although it nearly wasn’t. Fox was always first choice for the part but couldn’t extricate himself from NBC’s Family Ties, so director Robert Zemeckis went with Eric Stoltz, shooting seven weeks of footage before deciding his first choice was right and spending $4 million to reshoot it with Fox. Money well spent—Zemeckis ended up with the number-one movie of 1985, with estimated earnings topping $210 million.  

Bob Gale, who wrote the book for the Broadway musical, co-authored the original screenplay with Zemeckis. The story goes that he came across his dad’s old high school yearbook by chance one day and started wondering if the two of them would have been friends. The only way to find out was to put them on the same teen level. Thus: a time machine grafted onto a DeLorean that backs up from 1985 to 1955.

Specifically, November 5, 1955. November 5—which just happens to be the birthday of Gale’s father—is quite a date for cinematic time travel. In 1979’s Time After Time it’s the arrival date for Malcolm McDowell’s H.G. Wells as he chases Jack the Ripper (David Warner) into the 20th century; and in 1982’s Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann it’s the day the titular time rider arrives in the old west of 1877, riding a motorcycle. 

That’s nothing compared to tooling around the Winter Garden stage in a DeLorean though. “My entrance is really, really spectacular,” Bart says. The DeLorean in question comes from Holland and was specially made for this production; John DeLorean personally thanked the show’s creators “for immortalizing my car.”

The producers opted to give Back to the Future a test run in London. It was Bart’s first time back on British soil since 1996. “I did The Who’s Tommy for about a week over there, replacing an actor who was injured during previews. My TV series, Episodes, was also shot there and in L.A.”

Hitting London first before Broadway proved to be a smart move. Now the show comes to town with seven Olivier nominations and the actual award for the Best New Musical of the Year. 

“These last five years have been a bit of a personal struggle for me,” Bart says. “So doing this show is pure joy, and it brings joy to so many other people. If I had to say what was the one thing I love most about playing Doc Brown is that he brings so much joy to people. I love that.”

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Roger Bart’s Broadway Journey Takes Him ‘Back to the Future’