Amazing Grace musical inspires Broadway audiences with biography of hymn composer

by Kelly Ledbetter |

(amazinggracemusical.com)Josh Young as John Newman performs in Amazing Grace.

NEW YORK CITY (Christian Examiner) – Chris Smith was just killing time in a library when he opened a history book that would change his life. Before he began to read John Newton's autobiography, Smith had never heard of the ex-slave trader abolitionist and hymn writer.

But he'd heard "Amazing Grace" before.

Amazing Grace opened at the Nederlander Theater on July 16 after a sold-out premier the previous year in Chicago. The show's arrival on Broadway marks the fulfillment of Smith's and many other cast and crew's goals to share John Newton's moving story with thousands.

"We have some of the theatre's most incredible actors of this century on-stage living out this story, bringing their own passion and history to everything. It all started with the spark of an idea and the faith to follow it through," Smith wrote in the musical's study guide.

Smith quit his job as a police officer to learn how to write a musical in order to show others the inspiration he found in Newton's life.

JOHN NEWTON, ABOLITIONIST

Newton penned numerous hymns, but none is as widely known as "Amazing Grace." The musical seeks to provide a context for the composition of the song by telling Newton's story and revealing his personal trials and convictions.

Born in 1725 to a shipmaster, John Newton began to work at sea from age 11. He was pressed into service in the Royal Navy and then, when he proved unruly, was sent to work on a slave trading vessel. At age 19, he was given to his captain's wife as a slave for four years, many of which he spent chained.

On his return voyage to England after being rescued, his ship encountered a great storm. He cried out to God for mercy for the first time in his life, although he would continue in the slave trade for many years after being one himself.

Gradually Newton repented his sins and involvement in slave trading. He trained to become a priest and was finally ordained in 1764. After that, he became instrumental in supporting abolition in Britain. He died just a few months after slavery was officially abolished in 1807.

The biography of the hymn writer gives depth to Newton's claim that he was a "wretch" who has come through "many dangers, toils, and snares" and whose hope lies in the promises of God.

Working on the musical for ten years, Smith believed it filled a need for productions that were inspiring, appropriate for families, and epic in scale. He was himself inspired by larger-than-life plays and films that had "romance, humor, adventure, and pathos." Newton's life story contained all that and more.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE

Broadway audiences have embraced the musical and the story of the author of one of the world's most famous hymns.

Gabriel Barre, the director, explained the goals of the production: "It is my goal and hope that the audience will ultimately become, not just engaged in the action of the show, but see themselves in these characters, and realize the undeniable relevance of this piece for our times."

Those who know only the song are as amazed as Smith to discover the powerful testimony of the man who wrote it.

In an interview with Billboard.com, Smith described what it was like to watch the audience during a performance. "They are coming out [of the production] singing. They are coming out crying and they are all standing up with us at the end and singing 'Amazing Grace.'"

The cast always gives a choral performance of the title song at the end of the play.

"I've never seen anything like 1,200 people on 41st Street in the heart of New York standing and singing 'Amazing Grace,'" Smith said. "It's just an incredible experience for everybody there."