When Muhammad Ali Made His Broadway Debut
The thing Lee Mueller remembers most about the Broadway musical “Buck White” is watching as Muhammad Ali did his signature “Ali Shuffle” across the George Abbott Theatre stage. Strobe lights flashed as his feet rhythmically bounced and blurred.
“That was exciting, it sort of gratified and excited the crowd,” Mueller says.
“Buck White,” an Oscar Brown Jr. musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play “Big Time Buck White,” is the story of a militant black lecturer who addresses a meeting organized by a black political group. It was produced in December 1969, with Ali playing the titular role. It was Ali’s first and only Broadway acting credit.
“Buck White” took place at a time when Ali wasn’t boxing. As the original playbill puts it, Ali (who was billed as Cassius Clay) was “appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White Role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off-stage in reality.”
This wasn’t Ali’s only experience in the arts. In 1963, Ali released an album of spoken word on Columbia Records titled “I Am the Greatest,” and in 1964, he recorded the song "Stand by Me." He had roles in several films and television shows, and also worked on a collection of paintings. At the Ali Center in Louisville, there are dozens of portraits of Ali by a range of artists, both famous and not.
But it was Ali’s performance in “Buck White” that had a lasting effect on Mueller.
The Kentucky-born journalist was living in New York City at the time. He attended the show’s premiere with an entertainment editor from the Newspaper Enterprise Association; he still has the original playbill.
“The cover of it just shows Ali -- it’s a sort of painting or a negative look of him giving this Black Power salute with a chain necklace around his neck,” Mueller says. “I never saw his hair that long -- his hair is sort of a semi-afro.”
The show had a short run -- it was performed for one week -- though opening night was a success.
“At ‘Buck White,’ I think there were mostly curiosity- seekers, the place was full,” Mueller says.
His only complaint? That Ali didn’t have more of a speaking role.
“It was more like they put him up for a cameo appearance,” Muller says.
Years later, when Mueller was working at the Lexington Herald-Leader, he had the opportunity to speak with Ali in person.
“They sent me to the Derby in ’80 and assigned me to Millionaire's Row to write about the swells up there, and it happened to be the first Derby that Ali ever went to,” Mueller said. “He was sitting at a table sort of by himself with his head down.”
That memory of Ali remains vivid to Muller, who counts himself lucky to have seen Ali’s sole foray from ring to stage.
“It was a great musical,” he says, “really powerful, with some songs that were almost too powerful to be considered songs.”