Muhammad Ali in a Broadway Musical? It Happened.


Was it too radical? The show was picketed and subjected to hate mail by white people who considered Ali a draft dodger and black people who called him a sellout. Ron Rich contends the F.B.I. got involved. “Ed Sullivan came to my dressing room,” Rich said. “He said, ‘I think [J. Edgar] Hoover put pressure to shut the show down.’”

Or was “Buck White,” like plenty of ambitious Off Broadway hits, just not ready for the big time?

“Yes, it touched upon the change in Afro-American attitudes in the country, and I’m sure that was unsettling to people,” said Jack Landron, who was fired from the show before opening but had a long career as an actor and (under the name Jackie Washington) as a folk singer. “Had it been a great show, people could have forgiven that. It closed because it wasn’t good.”

Or perhaps, in casting Ali, the producer made a key miscalculation, hiring a star accustomed to training for a different sort of performance.

“The preview was so great, but then came opening night,” Bufman said. “Ali went onstage and he was somebody else; he went through the motions. The cast followed his tempo.” There was no charisma. There was no standing ovation.

“I went backstage and Ali looked at me, and he said, ‘Boss, we’re in trouble, huh?’” Bufman continued. “I said, ‘Tell me what happened.’ He said, ‘I fought my fight yesterday at the preview. I came to fight again tonight but I was done.’”

More than anything, the disappearance of “Buck White” demonstrates the ephemerality of an art form that, after the final curtain call, exists only in the memories of those who’ve seen a show and of others who wonder what might have been or what went wrong.

The show that followed “Buck White” at the George Abbott was “Gantry,” a musical adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel “Elmer Gantry,” starring Robert Shaw and Rita Moreno.


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