From ‘The Producers’ to ‘Back to the Future’: Roger Bart on Playing Beloved Characters

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Roger Bart is speeding onto the stage—DeLorean and all—as Doc Brown in Alan Silvestri, Glen Ballard, and Bob Gale’s “Back to the Future: The Musical.” The adaptation of Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film hit Broadway in August. But the Tony-winning actor earned plenty of applause both on stage and screen long before he donned the white coat and wig. Here, Bart discusses earning his “Doc”-torate and reflects on his most formative roles.

What’s it like to act in a show of this scale?

I love big, giant shows. Playing to [both] large houses and small ones [is] fantastic. But something large in the sense of notoriety—[“Back to the Future”] being a known entity and beloved thing—that’s fantastic. I have a lot of love coming at me, just from coming out of that DeLorean and doing what Christopher Lloyd did, what he created. And then it’s up to me to make it my own and, hopefully, entertain people. 

How did you put your own spin on the role of Doc Brown?

All of these scenes are subtly different from the movie, so you can’t help but play things differently, because you’re presented with different situations. I was trained in the Meisner technique, so we try to talk and listen and understand our situation and the stakes. You just kind of let it fly; and if you’re trying to be honest from your unique perspective, then inevitably, you’re going to make it different. 

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You and Casey Likes have this wonderful dynamic as Doc and Marty McFly. You’ve been in this business a long time, and Likes’ career is just getting started; does that affect how you play your characters?

I think it does, a little bit. It was enhanced even more by the fact that I had done 520 performances [in the London production] before I started rehearsal with Casey. So not only was there a maturity of experience and age, for me, but in addition, I had the experience of the show. Some of it was replicating our life dynamics, and it’s been very helpful. But there’s a genuine fondness between the two of us…and it’s so fun to bring that to the stage. 

There are a few moments in the second act where Marty helps realign Doc’s thinking and gets him back on track, particularly as it relates to his self-confidence. And so he wears the adult pants in the relationship a couple of times, and I find that very sweet. So it’s much more than a relationship between a mentor and young student. It’s also the beautiful thing about relationships and wisdom and old souls—friendships sometimes can transcend the disparity [in] age.

Roger Bart & Casey Likes in Back to the Future - Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Roger Bart & Casey Likes in Back to the Future - Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Speaking of adaptations of beloved films, you were also in the Broadway productions of “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein.” What was it like to play with those stories—and to work with Mel Brooks?

Working with Mel is so extraordinary. He’s extremely well-read and incredibly sophisticated—not only in wine, but also in music. And he’s also a great family guy. So to spend time around him and also watch him go onstage and write lines that were so perfect… 

I remember that once we were in the audience just hanging out, and he came up onstage. [There] was a line that just wasn’t working quite right [for] Matthew [Broderick as] Leo Bloom, when [he and another character are] reading terrible scripts. And [Brooks] gave a line to him that said, “ ‘But how could you see me? The glass was frosted.’ Wait a minute. I’ve read this before. I know I’ve read this before. What’s it called? ‘The Frosted Glass.’ ” To watch him put that little funny bit together was so great. 

He would always wait till we were just done with a song or rehearsal, and he would come down pounding through the door and say, “You’re ruining my masterpiece!” He would also do things like, I’d say, “How was the show?” And he’d give a thumbs up and say, “It sucks!” He was always really funny, and often you didn’t quite know where he stood in those instances. But he was so delicious and amazing and just the greatest. I loved our time together, and I was quite spoiled between [director Susan] Stroman and Mel and everybody else around those projects.

What’s a formative lesson you’ve learned as an actor, whether through formal education or on the job? 

When I was doing “Falsettos” at Hartford Stage, it was the first time they put “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland” together in one evening. But what I remember about it was that in 1991, because of the crisis with the amount of people we had lost to AIDS at that point, the audience was having such a deep experience. 

Through this show, I learned for the first time that there are moments—and sometimes the best, most pure moments as an actor—where you just have to get out of the way. You have to get rid of your ego and keep things simple. I was singing a song, “You Gotta Die Sometime,” and I remember thinking, Just get out of the way; don’t do anything. I felt that the audience was channeling something greater; that was the emotion of the room, so I just had to not interrupt that flow. 

When [I’m] really having an artistic moment, the ones that I’ll remember forever, it’s when the writing and the audience and the piece and the music and the atmosphere and the time and the context all line up. You do your work at the beginning, you say who you are, and then you get out of the way. 

How did you first get your Equity card, and what do you remember about that project?

I was with the first national [tour of] “Big River,” and like all of us in 1985 when we got out of college, our task was twofold: Get an Equity card, get into unions, and get an agent. I really, really worked hard on “Big River”; and as a result, it was one of those dream things. I didn’t have to go through the points and the hours; they just kind of said, “Who’s new to Equity?” And I got to raise my hand. And then I wrote a check for, I remember, quite a few hundred dollars at that time, and there it was. That was January 1986, and I’ve been a proud member ever since.

Roger Bart and the Cast of Back to the Future

Roger Bart and the Cast of “Back to the Future” - Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman 

What performance should every actor should see and why?

I remember one performance I saw—it was a clown in Cirque du Soleil, and he animated a coat and a hat that was on a hanger on a fence next to him by sticking his arm through. He was extremely abstract, and I found it incredibly powerful and moving. 

What’s your worst audition horror story?

I was auditioning for “Little Shop of Horrors” in some small place somewhere, probably around 1987, and I made this choice where I was going to dress up [as] Seymour. Really nerdy—like, I glued down my hair and I wore funny glasses and I had a bunch of pens in my pocket. They paired me with a girl, and I watched her face when she saw me. It was tough because I felt like I took somebody else down—you know what I mean? 

Which role shaped you most as an actor?

Playing Carmen Ghia in “The Producers” was so great, because I had such great lines and I could be so extreme. The wonderful thing about playing smaller roles is that the writers don’t typically explain…who you are and why you are the way you are. So I got to make pretty outrageous choices. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t worry quite so much about what other people think of your work. If you’re pleasing absolutely everybody, then you’re probably not doing anything particularly interesting. So do what makes you happy, and go with your instincts.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of Backstage Magazine.