So, as sportscaster Howard Cosell used to ask great boxers: What went wrong out there, champ?
When the stage musical “Buck White” opened at the George Abbott Theater in New York on Dec. 2, 1969, it had three knockout draws: timeliness, a strong track record and its star, charismatic heavyweight Muhammad Ali.
Set at a meeting of a Black militant group, the show was based on “Big Time Buck White,” a play credited to white actor and writer Joseph Dolan Tuoti that had been developed at Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles and had enjoyed successful runs there, in Philadelphia and off-Broadway.
The musical adaptation had already played to good reviews in San Francisco. The producer was future Broadway powerhouse Zev Bufman, fresh off “Jimmy Shine,” starring a post-“Graduate” and pre-“Midnight Cowboy” Dustin Hoffman.
Among the cast: Ted Ross, a future Tony Award winner for “The Wiz”; Charles Weldon, who would become the Negro Ensemble Company’s artistic director; and actor-producer Ron Rich, who played Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson in Billy Wilder’s film “The Fortune Cookie.”
Making his Broadway debut as composer and lyricist was multithreat artist and activist Oscar Brown Jr., whose songs had been covered by Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson. Lorraine Hansberry, who had earlier worked with Brown on the show “Kicks and Co.,” called him “a startling genius.”
Ali, a devout Muslim, had been stripped of his boxing title in 1967, having refused to join the army and go to Vietnam. Although he still couldn’t fight professionally, he was ripe for a comeback. He saw the play thanks to his friendship with Ron Rich, then hung out with the cast backstage and joined them for some impromptu songs.
“I was amazed at his ability to carry a tune. His voice was as attention-grabbing as his charm as a fighter,” said Bufman, now 89, who added that he came up with the idea to turn the play into a musical and bring Ali on board.
Bufman, who lives on an island north of Seattle, recalled brokering negotiations with the Nation of Islam to let Ali make his Broadway debut. He would play the show’s eponymous, messianic leader, who appears at a meeting of a disorganized group called BAD (Beautiful Alleluia Days) and galvanizes them with fiery speeches and songs including “(It’s All Over Now) Mighty Whitey.” Brown’s wife, Jean Pace, would codirect.
The New York Times published about a dozen articles about “Buck White.” The show made the cover of Jet magazine; the cast was booked on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; Buddah Records signed on for the cast album. Bufman told Jet that Ali would star in a movie version.
“The [last] preview was the most astonishing theatrical event I ever lived through,” said Bufman. “Ali was brilliant. Forget Harry Belafonte. Forget anyone who ever did ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I have never seen anyone or anything like it, the way he captured the stage with a charisma that got people on their feet for five straight minutes.
“We went to the dressing rooms; we hugged; we celebrated,” he added. “We thought we had a hit.”
Several of Brown’s children were in the opening night audience.
“They had these streamers and sirens and rockets that went ‘Aaooooooowww! Boom!’ when Ali made his entrance,” recalled Maggie Brown, a singer and songwriter who comanages the Oscar Brown Jr. Archive Project in Chicago with her sister Africa Brown. “It was like fireworks in the theater.”
Four days later, “Buck White” closed; today, it’s hard to find much evidence the show even existed — no cast album; no movie, either.
And Tuoti never had another script produced. “He became a drug addict and a drifter. He led a very sad life; he was in and out of prison,” his sister Susan DeWaters said recently. “It was an American tragedy.”
Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center holds what might be the one remaining copy of the “Buck White” script. The only songs you can hear to get a flavor of the show are “Black Balloons” on Syl Johnson’s 1970 album, “Is It Because I’m Black?”; “Mighty Whitey,” the B side of a 45 recorded by the show’s musical director Merl Saunders with the Man Child Singers; and the anthemic “We Came in Chains,” which Ali performed on “Ed Sullivan” after the show was already shuttered.
Brown, who died in 2005, kept writing musicals and making albums and TV appearances but never got back to Broadway.
So what happened?
Critical reception had been tepid. Clive Barnes in the Times praised the “brilliant” cast but said the musicalization drowned what had been a powerful play in a “frothy sea of well-meaning clichés.”
Still, the reviews don’t entirely explain why the most-talked about show on Broadway vanished to the point where it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page.
Leigh Montville, author of “Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali Vs. The United States of America, 1966-1971,” devoted part of a chapter of his book to “Buck White.”
“There was a lot more substance” to the show “than people gave it credit for,” he said in an interview.
Was the show “too Black for the Great White Way”? That’s what Brown told his daughter Maggie Brown, she said, noting that producers sometimes revive forgotten musicals but rarely for those written by Black artists who didn’t have the resources or connections of white composers.
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 FBI 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.
It opened and closed on Valentine’s Day 1970. That spring, the wrecking ball arrived on West 54th Street, and soon, the George Abbott Theater was gone, too.