A new musical comedy by a Portland writer is headed to the Franco Center, exploring Lewiston’s most famous fight, the community’s interaction, and its pride in the face of national scorn. 

For anyone who has been around Lewiston a while, this cast of characters will feel mighty familiar.

There’s Rita, the wisecracking but warm owner of a local cafe.

There’s Phil, a neighborhood barber who embraces his French-Canadian heritage, and his crabby wife, Germaine.

There’s a shy news reporter, an irrepressible city politician and even a sexy stripper named Boom Boom Vavoom, each a hyper-local character populating the script for “Come Out Swingin’,” a musical comedy slated to premiere in Lewiston in late spring.

On its face, the musical, written by Portland native Brian Daly, simply retells the story of the 1965 bout between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. But it’s much more than a story about a fight, according to those who have read the script. It’s about a crucial point in American history. It’s about an event that galvanized the country and it’s about the place where that event went down.

“It takes place in the 1960s during the Muhammad Ali fight,” says Richard Martin, program director at the Dolard & Priscilla Gendron Franco Center. “But it’s more a story of the people of Lewiston and their reaction to that event. It’s really a story about Lewiston.”

Hence the full title of the play: “Come Out Swinging: A Lewiston Story,” a production scheduled to make it’s world premiere here May 31. Efforts are underway to have a Clay vs. Liston statue created and unveiled in time for the show opening, although details about the project are still evolving.

The famed bout, with its “phantom punch” and dubious first-round knockout, became one of the most controversial moments in sports history. It put Lewiston, the smallest city to ever host a heavyweight title match, right at the center of boxing lore.

But outside the realm of heavyweight fighting, there was a lot of deeper stuff going on in the world when the two brawlers bobbed and weaved, briefly, into Lewiston. Just a few months earlier, Malcolm X had been assassinated. Cassius Clay, who would later become Muhammad Ali, had publicly embraced the Nation of Islam. Racial tensions were high and there were fears of violence everywhere – including at Lewiston’s Central Maine Youth Center where the fight took place.

The city of Lewiston, just a humble mill town with a sizable French population, braced itself for worldwide attention. And with all that going on, it was kind of ironic – and maybe even a little bit funny – that the fight itself lasted less than three minutes.

Daly, a teacher and veteran writer, found plenty of fodder in all of that for “Come Out Swingin’.”

“It’s a musical comedy with lots of laughs, and it’s set against the tectonic shifts happening in America in the 1960s,” he says. “But beneath the fun on the surface, it invites the audience to recognize our common humanity. The Franco-Americans and the African-Americans of the story discover that their cultures – their faith, music, food and values – fortify them in the face of discrimination.”

MOTIVATED BY ALI, PREJUDICE

The musical is being presented through a joint effort between the Franco Center and Community Little Theatre. Martin will direct the show while Mitchell Clyde Thomas, executive director of the Franco Center, will serve as music director.

The performance was originally scheduled to run in early 2017, but production problems set presenters back a year. Currently, producers hope to have all the roles filled by January so that rehearsals can begin in March.

“Come out Swingin'” is not the first show to be produced about the infamous fight that ended so abruptly and under such suspicious circumstances. Movies have been made, books have been written and songs have been sung about that crazy night in Lewiston, Maine.

Daly’s creation, though, is very likely the first and only musical comedy about the fight and it will feature more Lewiston-brand characters than the whole lot of them. And if there’s a certain excitement about the fight to be found within the script, Daly came by that excitement honestly.

“I was an 11-year-old Muhammad Ali fan at the time of the fight and I was excited about having the championship rematch here in Maine. This was a big deal. This was huge,” Daly said.

“I kept following Ali through his career, and as I got older, I read about how he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River because he was refused service at a lunch counter in Louisville. That stuck with me.

“Then a friend of mine wrote about the fight for a history course, and I read his essay and got interested in how the top sportswriters in the world loved Lewiston until the fight went down in the controversial way that it did. All of a sudden, they changed their minds about Lewiston. According to them, the people of Maine – and the people of Lewiston in particular – were a bunch of dummies who couldn’t do anything right.

“And as I thought about 1965, I remembered that jokes about ethnic groups became popular at about that time. Good people ran into discrimination and prejudice, and too many still do.

“So that’s how the broad strokes of the story came together,” Daly said. “As for the details, I didn’t want to deal with real people’s lives so I made up characters and imagined what they would do when the fight came to town and how they would feel in the spotlight. Then I imagined the story as a musical and wrote the dialogue and the music and the lyrics. My neighbor Hans Indigo Spencer, a wonderful musician and composer, wrote the orchestrations.”

LEWISTON TAKES A ONE-TWO PUNCH 

In the show, according to a sneak peak at the script, Mickey St. Pierre, the second assistant deputy city manager of Lewiston, sees the Ali-Liston fight as his hometown’s one and only chance to take its rightful place among the world’s great cities. By dint of his boundless enthusiasm, he gets the colorful characters of Lewiston fired up to play host to celebrity jet-setters and the world’s top sportswriters, according to a play synopsis, only to find out that professional hit men may be on their way to Lewiston to murder Ali in the ring.

All of that is set to 20 pieces of Daly’s original music and lyrics.

“It’s great music,” says Thomas. “It’s going to be a really fun show.”

A show that maintains its Lewiston flavor throughout, as it happens, even when crazy turns of events threaten to spell disaster for the city.

“Then the big night comes and everything goes wrong,” according to the synopsis. “Robert Goulet forgets the words to the national anthem, Liston appears to take a dive, the referee botches the count, the fans holler ‘Fix!’ and the fight is over so fast that Boom Boom never gets a chance to strut her stuff.

“The sportswriters who had nothing but praise for Lewiston turn on the community – the people of Maine are bumpkins who had no business hosting a world championship fight. What a disaster. Even Mickey is down in the dumps . . . until it occurs to him that nobody from Lewiston was responsible for the fiasco. Other people blew it and blamed the locals.

“That’s when the people of Lewiston stand up for themselves and declare that they’re just as good as anybody. Even Germaine finally embraces her heritage – and her husband. In the end, after the media circus has left town, Mickey and his friends are prouder and happier than ever to live and work and love in Lewiston, Maine.”

The show will be presented at the Franco Center over three days – May 31 and June 1 and 2 – and Daly couldn’t be happier with the setting.

“The mission of the Franco Center is to ‘celebrate and preserve Franco-American heritage while welcoming the cultures of our neighbors,'” he says, “so it’s the perfect venue for this show. There are even a couple of scenes set in St. Mary’s Church, which is now the Franco Center!”

Brian Daly

August 2018 Sun Journal Aerial photo of downtown Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Meet the playwright

Portland native Brian Daly has written a lot — books, screenplays and stage productions , including music and lyrics. So why not be the first to bring the controversial boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in Lewiston to the musical stage?

Among Daly’s credits:

He wrote “Big and Hairy,” a middle-school-grade novel published by Minstrel Books, an imprint of Pocket Books.

He also wrote the screenplay adaptation of that book for a Showtime Original cable feature of the same title, starring Richard Thomas.

His screenplay “Salt Hay” won the Maine Screenplay Contest.

For the stage, he wrote “Cauldron Bubble,” a comedy that premiered at The Theater Project in Brunswick and is now licensed by YouthPLAYS.

He wrote the book, music and lyrics for “Laughing All the Way,” a musical comedy that premiered at Broadway Kids In The County in Presque Isle under the title “Kooky Christmas.” Related, Amy Torrey has recorded “This Time of Year,” a song from that show. Listen for it on the radio this holiday season.

Daly is an ed tech at South Portland High School and lives with his wife, Laurel Daly, in Portland. Their daughters, Hannah Daly and Nora Daly, are actresses.


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