From Little Shop of Horrors’ Audrey II, to The Phantom of the Opera’s chandelier, to Miss Saigon’s helicopter, Broadway is no stranger to shows built around a very special, high-tech prop. And now, there’s a new face in town: Back to the Future’s time-travelling DeLorean.
Yes, you heard right. The beloved film franchise’s first entry has become a stage musical that opened August 3 at the Winter Garden Theatre following a 2023 Olivier-winning West End debut.
Bringing the fan favorite film to the stage was a tall order, especially the all-important DeLorean that is the center of much of the story’s action. Of the many things theatre does well, fast action scenes are not one of them—and Back to the Future has several. How do you show a car reaching the all-important 88 miles per hour required for time travel when you only have the width of a Broadway stage?
Enter three-time Tony winner Tim Hatley who, along with designing the musical’s sets and costumes, led the team that created the stage show’s DeLorean. First things first. You won’t see a real DeLorean onstage. But that doesn’t mean Hatley has gone fully rogue—the gull-wing doors are intact, as is that iconic body design.
Though DeLoreans haven’t been in production since 1982, there are still a handful of the cars around the world. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Hatley’s design process started with getting one of the cars into a London studio so it could be 3D scanned. “These lads arrived, one with a laptop and the other with a handheld device, and he just walked the DeLorean up, down, all over,” explains Hatley. What you see onstage at the Winter Garden was molded from that scan, making it a near-perfect replica of the outside.
But the inside is really what made it necessary to tailor-make a car for the production. When lead producer Colin Ingram brought Hatley the idea of bringing Back to the Future to the stage in 2018, the gig came with a laundry list of things this car had to be able to do live on stage. Suffice it to say, this DeLorean is almost as customized as Doc Brown’s in the movie.
“It had to travel, it had to have speed, the wheels had to be able to tilt and move, but it also had to have effects like C02 and smoke. And it’s crammed with lights and speakers,” describes Hatley. “All of that is inside the car, so there’s actually very little room for people.” And that created a casualty. Hatley, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall, can’t even fit inside.
See Hatley with his beautiful creation in the video below:
According to Hatley, that actually is reminiscent of the real DeLorean as well. “I was amazed at how low it was, how small it was, how tight it was inside,” he says of his time inspecting the real deal. “It felt extremely luxurious in many ways, because it was uncomfortable.”
The tricky part of building a prop as complex as Hatley’s DeLorean is that it becomes exceedingly difficult to change course on the fly—at a certain point, the car and the scenic design around it is only going to be able to do the specific movement it’s been designed to do. That means extensive preparation is vital. Appropriately, Hatley turned to a filmmaking technique for that process.
“I did a ton of storyboarding,” says Hatley. “I storyboarded this within an inch of its life. I was all over it right from the word go. Things would evolve and change, and scenes would move around, but we did it with models and photographs and storyboards before we even got into the rehearsal room, so we were pretty prepared.”
Next came the workshop process, where the creative team worked to make sure the book (by the film’s original screenwriter Bob Gale) and score (by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard) were ready for prime time. With so much still in flux, the team used a rough, wooden rehearsal version of the car for these workshops, built to replicate the scale of that 3D-scanned DeLorean exactly. But these rehearsals inspired an unexpected and major change in the car’s design.
“We had to scale it down ever so slightly,” reveals Hatley. Ironically, when they got the car on stage with the actors and set pieces, the life-size DeLorean suddenly looked too big. Hatley also had to worry about the backstage wings, where space is even tighter as the DeLorean waits to make its entrances. “We scaled it down by just under 10 percent, so it’s actually even smaller than it would be in real life.”
As for achieving that 88 mph speed, Hatley quickly learned that the real estate limitations of a West End or Broadway stage would require some outside-the-box thinking. Hatley’s Delorean is not covering ground via its wheels like a real car. Instead it's connected to machinery under the stage floor that allows it to move with pre-programmed precision—more or less the same technique that allows automated scenery to move itself on and off.
Combined with some groundbreaking work from Hatley’s co-creative team members—including lighting designers Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone, illusion designer Chris Fisher, and particularly video designer Finn Ross—they’ve been able to create the illusion of a car speeding through a number of settings. Multiple versions of the car—Hatley declines with a wink to tell us just how many, instead insisting “you’ll only ever see one”—even allows for split-second teleportation.
“I’m really proud that we’ve managed to pull together brilliant video design, brilliant lighting, brilliant direction [by John Rando], and brilliant music that works with it. It comes alive when all the elements come together.” Hatley says he hasn’t used video designs this complex much in his career, though there is a recent and notable exception; Hatley also designed the sets and costumes for Life of Pi, which itself brought cinematic-level action to the stage with innovative video projection work (it just earned Hatley his third Tony Award).
Even with extensive rehearsals ironing out all possible issues, Hatley says watching the show is never a calm experience. “I always hold my breath because it’s not just pressing a button. This show is driven by humans, the calling of the show is human. This show has a lot of elements and they all have to happen in quick succession, nonstop.”
Don’t worry—Hatley’s anxiety is mostly for naught. His DeLorean is a far cry from Doc Brown’s homemade edition. The Doc might be surprised he made something that actually works, but Hatley isn’t. “It’s a honed machine,” Hatley says.
Great Scott, indeed!