Abrams ‘hit the books’ to create ‘The Greatest: Muhammad Ali’

Teddy Abrams. Photo by Chris Witzke.

By Bill Doolittle

Growing up in California, Teddy Abrams was a bit of a boxing fan and aware of Muhammad Ali. When Abrams arrived in Louisville in 2014 as the new music director of the Louisville Orchestra, he got the chance to meet the former heavyweight champion and instantly decided he would compose a work honoring Ali.

But the young conductor’s plan soon changed.

“The modest tribute I had in mind became a more urgent priority to me after his death,” says Abrams. “My intention had been to write a 15-minute portrait piece about Muhammad Ali. But it became clear to me that to condense a life of such incredible impact into a single work of art required a format on par with the a scale of the man himself.”

The result is “The Greatest: Muhammad Ali,” a full-scale musical production of the Louisville Orchestra that premieres Saturday night in Whitney Hall at the Kentucky Center. Abrams, the composer, conducts the orchestra with baritone Jubilant Sykes singing and directing the staging, which includes, poetry, songs, narration and dance. Jecorey Arthur is cast as Ali with Rhiannon Giddens in a lead singing role. Rosie Herrera creates choreography for the show and Olivia Dawkins is the narrator.

It’s a big production for a big story – and very much in the Teddy Abrams style.

“Ali is so much more than a boxer and even more than a man,” says Abrams. “Around the world he has become a symbol – the embodiment of many potent issues. His story leads into much broader implications.”

Of which, Abrams knew he needed to know more.

“I decided I would not compose any music until I learned more about Ali and the time period he lived in – no notes, not even themes.”

He began with the Ali biography “King of the World” by David Remnick, which Abrams calls a gateway book into the era.

“Remnick puts boxing into context so that he’s not so much describing the bouts, but explaining who these fighters were and what they meant to people during that era,” Abrams says.

The composer, born in the 1980s, found himself drawn magnetically into the ‘60s and ‘70s. He studied extensively until Abrams the music director decided it was time for Abrams the composer to stop studying and start writing. He began with a script and then the music flowed.

“I’ve written the lyrics to most of my own songs, but I didn’t have to write the key parts of this libretto because so much was already written,” Abrams explains in interview notes for the production. There are lines from Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise,” but also words from writers far less known.

“I found this heartbreaking poem about the 1965 riots and protest in Selma, Alabama,” he says. “It was written by a 16-year-old black student who was trying to interpret what was going on around him. It was perfect, and I knew it was his voice that needed to be heard.”

Abrams believes Ali’s story reflects some of the best, and some of the worst, of America.

“He didn’t have it all figured out,” he says. “As he matured and learned, Ali changed and evolved in his thinking. You can see the progression from Cassius Clay, the 18-year-old boxer to Muhammad Ali, the activist who confronted the standards, even trying to break them in a dangerous way. Then growing into the internationally respected humanitarian.

“That’s what I loved,” Abrams says, “the incredible journey of his early career and life based on fighting that transformed into a life of celebrating and spreading peace and harmony.” VT