Oscar-Winning Muhammad Ali Doc 'When We Were Kings' to Become Stage Musical (Exclusive)

Columbia Pictures / Photofest
Muhammad Ali

The 1996 feature covered the heavyweight championship clash between title-holder George Foreman and underdog challenger Ali in Zaire, Africa in 1974.

The "Rumble in the Jungle" is headed to the stage.

Producer David Sonenberg is developing a musical version of When We Were Kings, Leon Gast's Academy Award-winning 1996 documentary about the historic heavyweight championship clash fought in Zaire, Africa, in 1974 between title-holder George Foreman and 32-year-old underdog challenger Muhammad Ali, who was believed to be past his prime.

The book for the musical has been adapted by Shelley Marcus, while the score will be comprised of R&B classics sung at the Zaire music festival organized around the fight, which included performances by James Brown, B.B. King, The Pointer Sisters, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and The Fania All-Stars.

The Fugees song "Rumble in the Jungle," which was written for the film and recorded in collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes, will also be included.

Along with Ali and Foreman, characters featured in the musical will include promoter Don King; civil rights organizer Stokely Carmichael; author Norman Mailer; journalists George Plimpton and Howard Cosell; South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba; and Mobutu Sese Seko, the military dictator and president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which he renamed Zaire from 1971 through 1997. 

King offered both fighters $5 million apiece for the match, finding a backer in Mobutu. The event remains one of the most talked-about boxing matches of all time. Gast took 22 years to edit and finance the documentary, which was released by Gramercy to strong reviews, grossing $2.8 million domestically.

"Muhammad Ali was called 'The Greatest of All Time' for good reason," said Sonenberg in a statement. "Ali went toe to toe with everyone from Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier to Howard Cosell, Norman Mailer and the Supreme Court of the United States. Ali remains an indisputable cultural icon. Not only was he an extraordinarily gifted athlete, poet, spiritual and political leader, he was certainly one of the most charming, disarming, controversial and electrifying personalities of all time."

"The details of Ali's life are as relevant today as they were 45 years ago," added Sonenberg, who produced the film with Gast and Taylor Hackford. "Ali's story, as depicted in When We Were Kings, fuses sports, music, dance, politics, race and culture in a way that should be compelling to a broad global audience." 

A workshop of the developing musical is scheduled for spring 2019, with plans for a full stage production the following year.