‘Up yours, Covid!’ Roger Bart on playing ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown

Great Scott! The DeLorean screeches to a halt, smoke swirling around its tyres, and who should emerge but “Doc” Emmett Brown, with his white scare-cut and goggle-eyed expression. The matinee crowd at Back to the Future: the Musical goes wild. However, this is not Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc in the 1985 time-travel blockbuster, but Roger Bart, known to TV audiences as the creepy pharmacist in Desperate Housewives and as Matt LeBlanc’s agent in the sitcom Episodes.

When I meet the 58-year-old in the Adelphi’s bar, he is no longer wearing Doc Brown’s fright wig, though he sports his own haywire hairdo. Let’s call it the punk dad look. How did he approach playing someone so familiar? “I’m not an impersonator,” he says, “but one of the things Chris has is that particular way of speaking.” He slips momentarily into Lloyd’s hoarse, incredulous tones. “That can set you free, the way any mask or accent does. What made me feel slightly nervous is when Chris said to me, ‘I’m curious how Doc’s gonna sing.’ I thought, ‘Oh God. Me too.’”

Bart has form when it comes to riffing on beloved characters. He won a Tony in 1999 for playing Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, then appeared in Broadway musical versions of two Mel Brooks comedies. In The Producers, he was Carmen Ghia, the prissy “common-law assistant” to a cross-dressing theatre director, who leads the riotous number Keep It Gay; he reprised the part in the 2005 film. In Young Frankenstein, he took on the role of another nutty professor, this one made famous by Gene Wilder. Curiously, Wilder was as cryptic in his comments as Lloyd. “Gene came backstage and when I asked him what he thought, he said, ‘I like … the dancing.’”

Creepy … with Marcia Coles in Desperate Housewives.
Creepy … with Marcia Coles in Desperate Housewives. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

Back to the Future: the Musical alternates between simple karaoke pleasures and the audacious restaging of cinematic spectacle. Certain changes have been necessary. Gone, for instance, are the Libyan terrorists who open fire on Doc at the start of the movie. “The brutality of it was a little much,” Bart says. The scene in which the hero Marty McFly’s teenage mother is sexually assaulted in a parked car by the school bully has also been toned down. “It was borderline disturbing. As the father of two girls, I just didn’t want to see that.”

It was back in October 2019 that Bart first tweeted a picture of himself alongside Lloyd. “It’s about to get real,” he wrote. In fact, it was about to get cancelled. Just over four months later, following a handful of performances at Manchester Opera House, he was on a flight home to the US as the world went into lockdown.

The relief today is palpable, and not only on stage. There is a defiant, even cathartic, moment when Doc, in 1955, speculates on what 2020 will be like – no conflict, he predicts, and no disease. The audience I saw it with were whooping and clapping at that. “It feels important to celebrate the fact that we are all sitting in this room together,” he tells me. “The line is a kind of ‘Up yours, Covid!’ Listen man, I was in The Producers in 2001 and that was trippy, too, though very different.”

He is referring to the closure of Broadway theatres for two days after the 9/11 attacks. Did it feel like the right decision to reopen again on 13 September? “It became the right decision,” he says thoughtfully. “I wasn’t feeling like singing Keep It Gay that day. But it became clear that the public wanted us to provide a little escape.” For several nights, this bad-taste extravaganza, with its high-kicking Nazis and its chorus line of old women on Zimmer frames, ended with the cast soberly singing God Bless America. “That was intense, and frankly a lot for me. We usually sang ‘Goodbye, get lost, get out!’ at the end.”

In the second Hostel horror movie, his genitals were fed to alsatians

The Producers was a turning point in Bart’s career, as well as in the theatrical landscape. As he points out, it was the catalyst for a wave of hits, such as Spamalot and The Book of Mormon, “which asked, ‘How edgy can we be?’” Young Frankenstein received a less enthusiastic welcome, but Bart is under no illusions about the cyclical nature of showbusiness. After all, his uncle is Peter Bart, the former Paramount executive who shepherded The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby to the screen, then edited Variety magazine for 20 years. “He understands the ups and downs,” he says, “and he has often reassured me about the industry.”

From providing the singing voice of young Hercules in the 1997 Disney animation to getting his genitals fed to alsatians in the horror movie Hostel: Part II, Bart has rarely had a drab day at the office. His uncle may have edited Variety. He, on the other hand, personifies the word.