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Fifty years ago this week, “Buck White” opened, and very quickly closed. What does this footnote to theater history still have to tell us?

So, as the 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 on Dec. 2, 1969, it had three knockout draws: timeliness, a strong track record and its star, the 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 the 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 the future Broadway powerhouse Zev Bufman (and later Zev Buffman), fresh off “Jimmy Shine,” starring a post-“Graduate” and pre-“Midnight Cowboy” Dustin Hoffman.


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