Director, Don Stephenson

By Linda Feagler
It’s been almost four decades since Broadway actor and director Don Stephenson saw “Back to the Future” for the first time on the silver screen — an experience he describes as “unforgettable perfection.”
He wasn’t alone in that assessment. The Academy Award-winning sci-fi comedy quickly became a box-office smash, leading to two movie sequels, along with board games and theme park rides. That series of heartfelt homages continues with Broadway’s musical version of the story — which opened at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre last year — taking center stage at Playhouse Square’s KeyBank State Theatre June 11 through July 7.
Stephenson portrays eccentric scientist Doc Brown, who accidentally sends teenager Marty McFly back to 1955 in a time-traveling DeLorean automobile — an excursion that prevents Marty’s future parents from falling in love and threatens his own existence unless he can reunite them and return to then-present-day 1985.
It’s a role Stephenson relishes.
‘If someone comes to you and says, ‘Do you want to play Doc Brown in “Back to the Future: The Musical,” you’d immediately say ‘yes,’ right?” the Tennessee native says with a grin. His previous credits include starring on Broadway as showman Leo Bloom in “The Producers” (a part he reprised on HBO and Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), passenger Charles Clarke in “Titanic” and members of the D’Ysquith family in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
“I was earning my bachelor of arts degree at the University of Tennessee, and getting ready to graduate and move to New York to work in theater when the movie debuted,” Stephenson recalls. “I remember being blown away by the screenplay; the fact that every loose end was tied up; and the brilliance of Michael J. Fox, Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson.”
“Christopher Lloyd’s performance as Doc in the film is unforgettable,” he adds. “My goal on stage is to honor his work and, at the same time, add my own touches to the part. It’s a little bit of a different task than what I’m used to, but I’m enjoying it.”
Adapted for the stage by the film’s creators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, “Back to the Future: The Musical” retains the enduring charms its predecessor is adored for: The score was penned by the movie’s composer Alan Silvestri (in collaboration with Grammy Award-winning Glen Ballard); and timeless tunes that were incorporated into the movie soundtrack — “The Power of Love,” “Earth Angel,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Back in Time” — are seamlessly complimented by dazzling 21st-century special effects. The production is directed by John Rando, who won a Tony Award for Best Direction (Musical) for “Urinetown: The Musical.”
“An argument could be made that this is the greatest time-travel story ever,” Stephenson says.
“If you’ve seen the movie, you’re going to love the musical,” he adds. “And if you haven’t seen the movie, you’re going to get [the story] fresh because it’s right there on stage. Audiences are in for a magnificent treat because this show is spectacular.”
Creating a show-stopping rendering of the story’s iconic DeLorean for the stage presented its own set of conundrums. Production and costume designer Tim Hatley tackled each with aplomb.
“Nothing excites me more than a challenge,” says Hatley, whose Broadway honors include winning a 2023 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play for “Life of Pi”, a 2009 Tony Award for Costume Design (Musical) for “Shrek the Musical”; and a 2002 Tony Award for Scenic Design for “Private Lives.”
“I knew ‘Back to the Future’ is a beloved story that had the ability to become its own entity on stage, in front of a live audience,” he explains. “My approach is always to make sure the design assists and supports the telling of the story. If I do not help and push the arc of the story, then I have not done my job properly.
“I consider the design to be,” Hatley adds, “another member of the acting company.”
A combination of lighting effects, digital projections and hydraulic rigging enables the DeLorean time machine to emit jets of smoke, tilt, tip, turn, rotate, be drivable and danced on, reach speeds in excess of 88 mph — and fly.
“The key to the success of ‘Back to the Future: The Musical’ is, I believe, that it exceeds audience expectations,” Hatley says. “The questions of ‘How on Earth will they do that on stage?’ are answered visually in spades.”
And, like the trio of “Back to the Future” movies generations have come to revere, the endearing plot explores the true meaning of friendship and courage, the dynamics of family and the importance of charting the course of one’s own destiny.
“It’s a heart-warming story,” Hatley reflects, “that we need to have in our lives right now more than ever.”