John Newton‘s life is the story of a great sinner, and a Savior who was greater still. Born in the 1700s, Newton rose to prominence as the captain of a British slave trading ship. During one of his
voyages, Newton found his ship in a violent storm.
Although the shrewd sea captain had long ago disavowed any religious conviction, he earnestly cried out for God to save him in the midst of imminent death. After making it to safety, Newton proclaimed that God had indeed spared him, and marked that day as the moment of his conversion. Years later, Newton apologized for his role in slave trading, and actively sought to end the practice. He ultimately saw the abolition of the British slave trade during his lifetime.
Newton’s story is now being told on Broadway, of all places, due to the vision of self-taught musician and writer from Pennsylvania, Christopher Smith. Additionally, and as part of the broad scope of his concept, Smith co-wrote the companion book for Amazing Grace alongside author Arthur Giron. The epic is an exhaustive story of the 18th century slave trader, most known for writing the enduring hymn that has been sung in churches, pubs, and everywhere in between the world over, for over two hundred years.
“I actually found a book about John Newton in the library of a church,” Smith remembers. “At the time, I did not know who he was… In a flash, however, I envisioned this incredible story of a wretched slave trader being transformed by God’s grace as an epic musical saga.” Smith, who is a retired police officer and former youth director, had never written anything professionally. Despite being intimidated by the scope of the project, he knew he had to find a way to share his vision, and to retell Newton’s inspiring story in this unique way.
Furthermore, Smith was especially convicted to share this story, as he directly related to Newton’s spiritual awakening. “I used to be a very staunch atheist. I was first motivated to read the Bible so I could point out to others that what they believed was wrong. But the more I sought to break the Bible down, the more it broke me down. I began to see how the Word fit into my own life, too well to just be a coincidence. I experienced God’s grace then, as I still do to this day.”
That transformational experience took place for Smith around the age of seventeen, interestingly, Newton’s conversion happened at a similar point along his historical timeline. Deriving even more inspiration from that parallel, Smith began to wholeheartedly work on the script, tirelessly approaching the Amazing Grace project as a calling over just another work of art.
Smith then invested hundreds of hours—he pored over Newton’s biographies, letters, and other songs, and consulted cultural and historical experts to confirm his play would accurately portray the time frame. According to Smith, the self-taught musician worked diligently to weave musical scores together with a freeware MIDI program and keyboard interface. “It took a few months to master the software, and my own unconventional approach to music,” Smith humbly recalls.
The genesis of realizing that Amazing Grace could actually come to fruition on-stage began when Smith and his first business partner, Rich Timmons, worked to raise over $350,000 from entrepreneurs and investors in and around his home of Bucks County, PA. The success of this initial support also allowed Smith and Co. to maintain creative control over the project.
Supplied with funds, Smith had the ability to surround himself with a talented and winning team to help push Amazing Grace into the home stretch. “Those earlier recordings I worked on at home were what I used to pitch the show to early investors. Now, I work directly with music director Joe Church and orchestrator Kenny Seymour.” Still creating the parts from scratch, Smith recalls, “I used to make voice memo recordings of the vocals, and sometimes even chord structures and instrumental lines, and would then send them along. Joe Church developed the arrangements and road maps for each piece, Kenny Seymour then implemented those plans for full orchestra.”
Smith was not alone in the process, however. It was the early encouragement from his wife, Alana, who helped Smith to pursue his passion full-time. “The idea behind the song, “I Still Believe,” actually springs from the very real way that God uses others to see in us, those things we cannot see in ourselves. Alana brings this truth to life for me,” he says.
Smith then met executive producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland, a fellow believer, when she attended a reading of the show in the basement of the Empire State Building in New York City. At the time, most industry professionals did not believe Amazing Grace could be a Broadway hit. Unlike other shows, the play is not based on a film, novel, or modern work of art—there are no celebrities, performers, or musicians associated with the show.
Fully embracing its underdog status, Copeland believed that the story’s message would resonate with theater enthusiasts of all ages, saying “We are all in need of redemption, even in our daily lives. ‘Amazing Grace’ is a healing song that brings people to the point of recognizing we are all in the room of grace together. People can change. There is hope for even the most wretched of human beings.”
Bolstered by her belief in the show’s timeless message, Copeland worked tirelessly to assemble a Broadway team, secure a theater, and raised over $16 million for the production. She also worked with Smith in enhancing the original story, so that it would better connect with audience members on a more personal level.
“I was a bit of a ‘voice in the wilderness’ for a long time. Almost no one in the industry believed that a show about the spiritual and moral redemption of a main character was something that would draw an audience,” Smith admits. “But I firmly believed that statistics were on our side. People, regardless of their background or beliefs, want to be inspired.” If Amazing Grace‘s initial run in Chicago is any indication, Smith is right. The show frequently received standing ovations from audiences inspired by the show’s stirring and emotional message.
Josh Young, a more-than budding actor, having previously held lead roles in productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, plays the role of John Newton. Erin Mackey plays Newton’s long-time love interest.
Mackey, noted for making her Broadway debut in 2009 as “Glinda” in Wicked, takes on the role of “Mary” in Smith’s Amazing Grace. Encouraging her to think deeply about the way faith impacts her life, she says, “One line that always strikes me in the show is when Mary asks, ‘Aren’t we accountable if we could help others, but choose not to?’ Playing Mary reminds me to ask that of myself. Can I truly say, ‘I love God,’ if I don’t take care of others?”
When asked her hopes of what audiences will take away from the historical epic, Mackey emphatically states, “Hope. Ultimately, I think that’s what the song ‘Amazing Grace’ inspires in people. And, I think by gaining a deeper understanding of the man behind the song, it will bring even more hope and depth to its meaning. No one is ever beyond forgiveness and redemption.”
The vaulted hymn does surface during the play, when Young (Newton) begins it in a cappella, and is then brought into crescendo by the rest of the cast. This culminating point in the story is a must-see moment, a signature mark for the production.
“From the time I read Newton’s autobiography, I began to view ‘Amazing Grace’ differently than many others. The song is often performed with solemn reverence, but I hear it as an anthem, a celebration. And at the end of the night we sing it as just that, an anthem,” Smith continues. “I hope that [audiences] find in this musical a portrait of hope in a desolate and desperate world. There are many voices of hopelessness in our culture and we desire to present an uplifting and empowering vision of redemption and reconciliation.”
Amazing Grace officially opened on Broadway on July 16, 2015. For more, please visit AmazingGraceMusical.com.