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

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

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