Muhammad Ali Sings in Broadway’s First Black Power Musical (1970)

The Great White Way is lit­tered with flops.

Crit­ic Frank Rich evis­cer­at­ed a 1988 musi­cal based on Stephen King’s Car­rie, lament­ing that a poten­tial camp mas­ter­piece wound up as “a typ­i­cal musi­cal-the­ater botch.”

Pro­duc­er David Mer­rick pulled the plug on a 1966 musi­cal adap­ta­tion of Break­fast at Tiffany’s star­ring Mary Tyler Moore long before its offi­cial open­ing night, thus spar­ing the dra­ma crit­ics and the pub­lic “an excru­ci­at­ing­ly bor­ing evening.”

And then there is 1970’s Big Time Buck White, activist Oscar Brown, Jr.’s adap­ta­tion of Joseph Dolan Tuotti’s play. It fea­tured Muham­mad Ali—tem­porar­i­ly benched from box­ing for draft evasion—in the tit­u­lar role of a mil­i­tant lec­tur­er, deliv­er­ing a Black Pow­er mes­sage to a char­ac­ter named Whitey.

The pri­mar­i­ly white Broad­way-going audi­ence that embraced the coun­ter­cul­tur­al “Trib­al Love-Rock Musi­cal” Hair two years ear­li­er with­held its love. In a col­or­blind world, we might be able to chalk that up to the champ’s sub-par singing chops or some clunky lyrics, but it would be a mis­take to turn a blind eye to the polit­i­cal cli­mate.

(Eight years lat­er, Ain’t Mis­be­havin’, a trib­ute to Fats Waller and the Harlem Renais­sance was a bonafide hit.)

Big Time Buck White ran for just sev­en per­for­mances, post­ing its clos­ing notice well in advance of its Jan­u­ary 18th appear­ance on the Ed Sul­li­van Show, above.

These days, the pro­duc­ers would prob­a­bly scram­ble to find a replace­ment, but Sul­li­van, a staunch sup­port­er of Civ­il Rights, hon­ored the book­ing, com­mand­ing his stu­dio audi­ence to give the cos­tumed play­ers “a fine recep­tion.”

After­ward, the champ thanked Sul­li­van for invit­ing him and “the group” so that view­ers who didn’t get a chance to could see “what type of play i was par­tic­i­pat­ing in.”

A bit of triv­ia. Play­bill cred­its actor Don­ald Suther­land, in the role of Black Man. He may be a movie star, but he’s some­thing of a Broad­way flop him­self, his only oth­er cred­it that of Hum­bert Hum­bert in 1980’s Loli­ta, Peo­ple Magazine’s Bomb of the Year.

Above is anoth­er scene from the musi­cal, shared by Ali’s admir­er, Mike Tyson.

via Messy N Chic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of The Black Pan­thers: A Short Doc­u­men­tary on the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Artist Emory Dou­glas

Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lyn­de & the Orig­i­nal Cast of Bye Bye Birdie Appear on The Ed Sul­li­van Show (1961)

Leonard Cohen’s 1983 Musi­cal for Cana­di­an Tele­vi­sion: I Am a Hotel

Watch Stephen Sond­heim Teach a Kid How to Sing “Send In the Clowns”

David Byrne Dis­cuss­es Here Lies Love, His Dis­co Musi­cal with Fat­boy Slim on the Life of Imel­da Mar­cos

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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