Interview by Baz Bamigboye

‘Ali’ Musical Heads To Boxing Icon’s Louisville Birthplace For Pre-Broadway World Premiere


EXCLUSIVE: The Broadway-bound Ali musical, based on the life of three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, will have its world premiere in the late sports superstar’s birthplace in Louisville, Kentucky in Fall 2024, Deadline can reveal.

Richard Willis, the show’s lead producer, told me that Ali will float “like a butterfly” into the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts for a three or four-week run. An opening date hasn’t been set yet but it’s likely to be in October or early November next year.

Deadline broke the news about the musical in September last year.

Willis was speaking to Deadline in London, where he was reuniting with Ali director and book writer Clint Dyer (Othello, Death of England plays), who serves as deputy artistic director of London’s National Theatre, and composer Teddy Abrams, the music director and conductor of the Louisville Orchestra.

“It’s a show about one of the world’s greatest showmen. He’s Ali, one of the biggest icons in the world,” said Willis, merely stating facts about one of the titans of the 20th century.

Going to Louisville is “a no-brainer,” he added. “It’s exciting because that’s where Ali was born. That’s his hometown and it’s a thrill to be able to able to celebrate his life there.”

Abrams said that the fact that the musical has its first run in Louisville “is really significant because Ali was always trying to find ways to promote his city. He was a person from Louisville. That was his identity.”

He added: “This will mean a lot to the city.”

Willis had gathered Dyer and Abrams with other collaborators to sit and work ringside at the tiny Seven Dials Theatre in Covent Garden to workshop music and lyrics with a handful of musicians, plus associate director Asmeret Ghebremichael (the West End’s Dreamgirls) and creative dramaturge Fred Carl, who is associate arts professor in the NYU Tisch Graduate School for Musical Theatre Writing.

Ghebremichael, an actress and vocalist of sublime versatility, “is the female voice” in Dyer’s head as he works on lyrics with Abrams compositions, he said.

Everybody’s energy is focused towards the goal at the end of the road, said Willis — “Creating a kick-ass musical theater piece celebrating Muhammad Ali in the biggest, best, most entertaining way we can.”

Dyer noted how he and Abrams have had to “experiment” in how they communicate considering the physical distance between them — Dyer is based in London, while Abrams resides in Louisville. That’s why Willis has already held workshops, or rather “process discussions” in Los Angeles, and now London to enable them to bat around ideas in person.

For his part, Willis said it was “endlessly fascinating from my seat as the producer watching these people work, and it heartens me. It makes me feel like we’re gonna have something really special here.”

Finding An Ali

So, who will portray the boxing icon, this giant of our age? “We’re on the hunt for our Ali now,” Dyer responded.

What special talents must the actor possess? “Six-foot-two and pretty!” cried Dyer. “He’s got to be able to sing and dance like a dream and also to look like he’s able to box,“ Dyer added.

“It’s a heavyweight lift,” Willis sighed, then laughed when he realized his unintentional pun.

Abram said the actor would need a huge vocal range. “Operatic training more in service of the actual songs versus the style,” he said, adding that classical expertise could be helpful in mastering the array of musical disciplines.

The person they want has to be flexible enough “that it all sounds natural to them, kind of like Ali himself.”

Further workshops are planned for New York in December, and Willis has added more top creatives to the Ali team.

Choreography and fight choreography will be led by Rich + Tone Talauega (MJ The Musical), set design by Olivier Award-winner Anna Fleischle (Hangmen, Once Upon a One More Time), costume design by Emilio Sosa (Sweeney Todd, 1776), lighting design by Jen Schriever (A Strange Loop, 1776), video/projections/media design by Tal Yarden (Network, Sunday in the Park with George) and Gino Ricardo Green (Get Up Stand Up, Othello), and sound effects design by Ben Grant (Othello, Get Up Stand Up). Jim Carnahan has signed on as casting director.

Special boxing consultant and fight coordinator is Liverpool-born Michael ‘Silk’ Olajide, Jr., the former middleweight championship boxer who was trained by Angelo Dundee, Ali’s famous trainer.

Ali is produced by Willis, Brook T. Smith, David and Michelle Campbell and TheTribecaWorkshop in collaboration with ABG Entertainment, in partnership with Lonnie Ali.

Willis and his associates are working with the Ali Center in Louisville to build an education initiative to coincide with the show’s opening.

Willis was mindful of the mass shooting at the Old National Bank in Louisville on April 10. Five people were killed and several others were injured when a former employee, opened fire. Police shot the killer.

On behalf of the entire Ali Musical team, he sent “deepest condolences” to the families of those killed and wished “a full and speedy recovery to those that were injured.”

“We hope that our musical will give the great city of Louisville something to look forward to during this time of mourning and healing,” he added. “I promise all Louisvillians that when we come to your beautiful town we will be bringing great joy and positive energy, as we all celebrate together the life and legacy of one of the world’s greatest unifiers of all time, Muhammad Ali.”

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