EXCLUSIVE: ALI, a musical about civil rights leader and world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who became a pivotal historical figure of the 20th century, transcending his sporting achievements, is being developed for Broadway, Deadline can reveal.
The show, which has the full support of Lonnie Ali, the great man’s widow, is being created by composer, clarinetist, pianist and conductor Teddy Abrams, the music director of the Louisville Orchestra, based in the city of the prizefighter’s birth, and Clint Dyer (Death of England), the London-based writer and director who is also the deputy artistic director of London’s National Theatre.
Dyer will direct and write the book for ALI. Abrams will write the score, though he also might adapt some of the thematic pieces he wrote for the multimedia rap-oratorio The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, which premiered in 2017 at the Louisville Orchestra. “We were celebrating Louisville’s hometown hero,” Abrams said.
That show was a 90-minute work with acting, singing “and a whole tableau,” said Abrams.
However, Richard Willis (Jerusalem), ALI’s producer and its driving force, said that, essentially, Dyer and Abrams “are starting from scratch” and that “we’re doing a Broadway show about a man who was one of the ultimate showman.
“It’s going to be a show of shows,” Willis added as he cited a roll call of the many highlights of Ali’s life.
”It’s a heavyweight task. It’s Ali, man,” Dyer said, as he seemed to weigh up the mammoth task ahead.
“Right now,” said Willis, “it’s about getting the story going and understanding what we have to do.”
Willis sat up straight in the banquette to make this point: ‘ALI is such an African-American story. We’re very aware of the world in which we are working, and we have to make sure to be smart about it, and we also have to make sure that we do a bang-up job on this because the world will be watching.”
Willis and Abrams are Caucasian, and Dyer is Black.
Later, following a meeting with all three, Dyer emphasized to Deadline that there will be additions to the creative team “to make it work tonally,” adding that there will be some African-American input, whether that be lyrics or in addition to the music. “I’m aware that there’s an African-American component that is missing, but there will be many voices,” Dyer told us.
Deadline subsequently has learned that while Dyer is on board to direct and write the show’s book, the production’s considering hiring an African-American artist as a co-lyricist, with his blessing. We understand also that a Black choreographer will work on ALI.
“There’ll be many voices,” was all that Dyer would comment on the matter
”Obviously this is an important piece for all time, but especially now,” said Willis. “It’s an important piece for anytime; it’s important that the younger generations know about Muhammad Ali and what he stands for and his examples. He’s always going to be an important example.”
Abrams, who was named Conductor of the Year this year for his visionary work in Louisville, first stepped into the world of Muhammad Ali when he wrote the rap-oratorio in 2017. Lonnie Ali saw it, and so did representatives from ABG Entertainment, which controls rights to Ali’s life. “The rights were supposed to have been sorted,” Abrams said. “I thought, ‘I’m in big trouble now!’”
But it turns out they loved what Abrams had created with the Louisville Orchestra and asked if he could take it a step further and develop something theatrical, which they’d never authorized before.
Abrams realized that though Ali died in 2016, his life story became a sort of collaborator. “The mind and the instinct for entertainment that allowed the athleticism to go far beyond the confines of sport,” he said. “I recognized right away: ‘Oh. this guy’s is performing a hundred percent of the time; every moment that he’s interacting he’s always on stage and the theatricality of his life was what gave him access to the whole world.
“Ali said that he’s not just fighting to fight, ‘I fight to save the sport of boxing,’” said Abrams.
The composer recognized that in his own world of classical music, “If people don’t step up and perform and go beyond the normal confines of just playing the piano and conducting onstage, our thing will die in the same way he imagined the sport of boxing might.”
And Abrams believes that Ali is the perfect figure to explore through music.
“In my mind, Ali is like an orchestra that has all the variations and the subtlety of the instrumentation that’s available to you,” he said. “It’s not just a tune played by a trumpet with a rhythm guitar in the background; it’s got to be much more dynamic and subtle and complex than that. The score has to have backbone, Right? And sensitivity, too. It’s not just the Rocky theme.”
If Muhammad Ali was a musical instrument, which one would he be, Deadline asked Abrams. “He would be the orchestra because I consider that the orchestra is an instrument, you know — it’s the combination of the brass section with strings and woodwinds and piano and percussion, drums. … That’s the only thing that can sum up a person as dynamic and as complex and as real as him,” he said.”
“And drums,” said Dyer, “representing Africa. It helped everybody understand the past by him changing his Cassius Clay slave name. He had to move forward, for his future was based in him recognizing his slave history and deciding not to be defined by it. You’ve got to remember he was one of the most famous men in the world called Cassius Clay, and you decide to change your name. There’s a beauty in his defiance.”
Producer Willis said that he and his creative team are hoping to have ALI on its feet and on Broadway by November 2024. “But we have to get it right first,” he said
ALI will be produced by Willis, Brook T. Smith and TheTribecaWorkshop in collaboration with ABG Entertainment in partnership with Lonnie Ali.