Roger Bart knows a little something about being animated. He won a Tony Award in 1999 playing Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, two years after providing vocals for the title role in Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules. And that same quality abounds in his current role, starring as the wild-haired and arm-flailing Doc Brown in Broadway’s new hit musical Back to the Future at the Winter Garden Theatre.
“These parts that are animated and yet rooted in reality are good fits for me, particularly ones that allow me the opportunity to be smart and zany,” Bart told Playbill recently over the phone.
Bart’s had his fair share of zany. Aside from Snoopy, Bart has played Carmen Ghia, eccentric “live-in assistant” to director Roger De Bris in The Producers; and Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. Together with his Back to the Future role, you could also say he’s got a knack for bringing iconic screen performances to the stage.
“I’m not an impersonator,” Bart says. Some of his characters are so beloved that their screen versions are imprinted on the brains of fans, but Bart says trying to recreate that same magic is a fool’s errand. By way of example, he recalls how years ago, as he was preparing to go on tour with a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he went to see the same production on Broadway, which then featured Brooks Ashmanskas in the role Bart was to play on the road.
“I spent the entire tour trying to do this one bit that Brooks did that was so funny,” he remembers. “It killed me—the whole tour, I could never get it. It felt like a failure.” It was an important lesson that his time would have been far better spent coming up with the Roger Bart version of the bit. “For your own sanity, you want to make it your own.”
But that can be a bit of a high-wire act, because fans of the movie franchise might be disappointed if they don’t get the Doc Brown they know and love on stage. “I try to lift certain qualities of [Back to the Future film star] Chris Lloyd’s voice and of his expression that will manifest physically,” says Bart. “But the thing I most try to do—that I see in Chris Lloyd when he’s in anything, whether it’s Taxi or Roger Rabbit or Back to the Future—is that sense that there’s an actor who is rooted deeply in truth even while doing a performance that is animated. And the sense that anything can happen.”
Rooting Back to the Future—in which Bart plays a slightly mad amateur scientist who turns a DeLorean sports car into a time machine that activates when you add a little plutonium and reach the precise speed of 88 miles per hour—in truth might seem like an odd exercise. But actually, Bart says it’s everything when it comes to comedy and, particularly, musical theatre. “I’m already in a medium where we burst into song, where everyone in town knows the words and the steps to the number,” he explains. “We’re asking the audience to buy into a lot. The more honest you are, the better it is. I feel like a kid playing good guys versus bad guys—totally committed to the fantasy.”
Bart’s able to focus on that because the comedy part comes pretty easily. “It runs in my blood,” he says, referring his grandmother’s brother who was a whistling comedian on the vaudeville circuit and toured with George Burns and Gracie Allen. Combined with a childhood obsessed with Looney Toons and the likes of Art Carney, Jackie Gleason, and Groucho Marx, Bart says the art of getting laughs feels ingrained. “I’m a musical person, and a very mathematical person,” he explains. “Both of those things are intrinsic to good comedy. How to land a joke—it’s math. It’s these rhythms, this sense of delivery.”
Performers love to talk about applause, but Bart thinks that’s a little overrated. For him, it’s all about laughter. “It’s so gratifying,” he says proudly. “I don’t want to be too much of a downer, but we’re in a world that has a lot of suffering. It can be tough. When people come into a room and I get to make them laugh in a communal way for a couple of hours, there’s really nothing better.”
Well, that and getting to ride in a flying car. Bart admits that’s pretty cool too. “There are times I wish I had not had Indian [food] between shows. But it’s, for the most part, very fun.”