New musical ‘Amazing Grace’ recounts the story of perfect storm that redeemed a slave trader
Preview: Historically based show was brainchild of Pennsylvania police officer inspired by changed life of hymn’s author, John Newton. Broadway in Chicago run opens Oct. 19 at Bank of America Theatre.
By Nancy Malitz
I first became aware of the strange history of the song “Amazing Grace” in 1990, when I attended an interview that the soprano Jessye Norman was taping with TV journalist Bill Moyers in New York City. The African-American diva extraordinaire had a voice of extreme range, majesty and finesse, and she was wielding it that day on behalf of a hymn that had become a touchstone of the civil rights, folk and evangelical movements of the 20th century.
The acute historical irony is that this religious poem — which is the subject of the Broadway-bound musical “Amazing Grace” that opens Oct. 19 at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre — was written by an English sailor, John Newton, who had prayed in terror during a storm at sea while engaged in the evil of the triangle slave trade.
As had his father before him, Newton was transporting Africans to the Americas like so many sardines in a can in exchange for cotton and rum. His Christian conversion came as a result of his survival from the storm and it led to a career in the ministry back in England as well as his eventual support of Britain’s abolitionists. But he would continue in the slave trade for several years.
What a marvel that his poem “Amazing Grace,” originally married to a tune of unknown provenance, has become such a universal spiritual balm. Few who heard it will ever forget Norman’s mesmerizing performance, alone and unaccompanied, at the conclusion of a Wembley Stadium concert in 1988 designed to pressure South Africa’s apartheid government to free Nelson Mandela. The concert itself was a singular event filled with A-list stars such as Sting, Harry Belafonte and Stevie Wonder, and when Norman stood there alone at the end of it, singing “Amazing Grace” unaccompanied before a rock crowd of 70,000, plus another 600 million in 67 countries where the concert was being broadcast, there was a sense of unsurpassed union of spirit that extended to all humankind.
The birth of the new musical “Amazing Grace” is also the story of Christopher Smith, a police officer and history buff in Montgomery County, Pa., who came across a book about John Newton while wandering through a library 18 years ago. “I didn’t know who John Newton was or that he had written ‘Amazing Grace,’ but when I read about the storms and battles and the great human drama of his own life, I was smitten,” said Smith when I caught up with him by telephone during the Chicago ramp up.
“For me, as for most people I suppose, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been a part of my life since before I can remember,” Smith said. “The first time I recall having heard it was at a funeral for a family member when I was about ten. It’s sort of a sound track through life for a lot of people because they hear it at such emotional times. I didn’t have the maturity to connect with what John was saying until I was older, but once I started to read more about the man’s life and think about what was going on in other people’s lives, and what the concept of grace really means, I knew I had to do something with it.”
Smith began writing some songs inspired by the story on a keyboard his brother loaned him. With extraordinary singularity of purpose for someone who had no connections or experience in the theater world at the time, he outlined the concept for a soaring epic as he saw it, made a demo and lucked into a couple of readings that led to some early positive feedback. He even quit his job to devote himself to the project, with his wife’s blessing.
His idea gained traction when Carolyn Rossi Copland, founding producer at off-Broadway Lamb’s Theatre, which has introduced many original American works to the New York stage, became intrigued. She joined as the show’s producer very early on, finding Smith the collaborative support and professional know-how he needed in director Gabriel Barre and playwright Arthur Giron, to help flesh out the concept and book. That led to their 2012 collaboration at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, which has a reputation for grooming musicals, with 72 world premieres and 19 productions that were exported to Broadway.
“Chris’s music is very inspiring,” said collaborator Giron by telephone, as the show went into the final stages of preparation at Bank of America Theatre, with Josh Young as the young John Newton and Tom Hewitt as his older self, Captain Newton. “One of the signs that happened early at Goodspeed was the audience cried openly, they were so touched by it, which underscores that the music is major major major. I’m an opera nut and Chris doesn’t believe me but I think this is a big opera.”
Barre said that he was drawn to the score and the breadth of the story when Copland shared it with him. “I knew right away that it was a rare opportunity, based on true events and a real person in John Newton, but also one that hardly anybody knew about,” said Barre during a break at one of the Chicago orchestra run-throughs. “I immediately signed on and when we got it to Goodspeed it was with a cast of 27, told on a scale somewhat smaller than what we have now, but in a way that allowed us to build a theatrical vocabulary for the ship and Newton’s journey, and that allowed us to learn what was resonating and what wasn’t so that we could continue to work on the script and the score.”
Barre had worked with many artists early in their careers, among them award-winning composers Jason Robert Brown (fresh out of theater camp) and Andrew Lippa, so he was unfazed by Smith’s beginner status. “Chris is gifted, there’s no other way to put it. He has been wonderfully open yet passionate about his own vision as well.”
What has been going on the last few weeks of rehearsal and preview performances Barre described as “a lot of clean-up, as in any musical. We’re now at 34 in the cast, with an orchestra of 13, and while it’s a beautiful, elemental set there are still things to deal with in terms of transitions and more importantly the beginning and the ending, making sure we are picking up the audience the way we want to for the ride, and delivering them safely home.
“Once we get the audience involved, we learn a lot about where it’s too long and where it’s too short, where we need to be spending more time. The cast bears the brunt of the communication in the theater, breathing life into the story, making it happen before our eyes.”