By Retta Blaney
Thanks to Christopher Smith, John Newton’s 18th-century hymn of redemption is now part of the canon of Broadway show tunes. Smith is the creator of Amazing Grace, the musical that ran on the Great White Way last year and is being prepared for a North American tour. He gathered recently with cast and crew in the downstairs party room of a bar in midtown Manhattan to celebrate the release of the original cast recording.
“I was hearing things I never heard before in the big theatre,” Smith said of the recording, which was co-produced and engineered by six-time Grammy Award winner Frank Filipetti and co-produced and arranged by Joseph Church for DMI Soundtracks. “It’s a different sound from a lot of Broadway albums now, more old school and romantic.”
Smith was a policeman in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with no musical theatre training — he did not even know how to read music — when he happened upon a young-adult book about Newton’s journey from slave trader to Anglican priest and abolitionist. Feeling a call to dramatize such a powerful story, Smith pursued this quest for 17 years, writing the music, lyrics, and (with Arthur Giron) most of the show’s book.
The musical opened in Chicago in 2014 to mixed-to-good reviews before moving the next year to Broadway, where critics were less enthusiastic. It closed after four months, but Smith sees a bright future not just in the national tour, still in the planning stage, but in colleges and universities around the world. The musical’s first international (and first post-Broadway) production occurred in early March at St. Mary’s School in Nairobi.
“It feels so right to have this story have its first student production in Africa,” Smith said.
Laiona Michelle, who played Nanna, worked with students, and Smith said tribal chiefs from around Nairobi attended.
“They’ve never met anybody from Broadway,” he said, adding that he has no idea how they heard of his musical except that word of mouth was strong. The show’s script will not be published but will be available for production through private arrangement with Smith or the show’s producer, Carolyn Rossi Copeland. (Smith may be reached through Amazing Grace’s Facebook page.)
Smith’s musical is a tale of romance, rebellion, and redemption. It follows Newton, a willful and musically talented young Englishman, through the age when Britain sits atop an international empire of slavery. Newton is torn between following in the footsteps of his father, a slave trader, or embracing the more compassionate beliefs of his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett. Accompanied by his slave, Thomas, Newton embarks on a perilous voyage on the high seas. When that journey finds him in his darkest hour, a transformative moment of self-reckoning inspires his blazing anthem of hope.
Smith’s next creation will be Island in the Mist, a Celtic epic about a teenage Irish girl who is the daughter of a warrior chieftain. One day her father brings home a young aristocratic boy who has been abducted in a raid in England and who will be their slave. The two develop a friendship and she teases him by calling him Padraig (or “rich kid”). He will become St. Patrick and she will become the most important woman in Ireland and eventually mother to Ireland’s other patron saint, Brigid.
By working with a university, Smith would gain financial support as he creates the show. Students, who usually work on established musicals, will learn the development process from scratch.
“I want to involve the students in every aspect,” Smith said. “Most students only see shows after they’ve been done. I want them to see every step of what works and what doesn’t and learn to make something commercial.”
He has begun taking speaking engagements on “Communicating Faith in a Skeptical World.”
With plans for the future taking shape, Smith enjoyed the reunion with his cast and crew to celebrate the CD, which is available on Amazon. The sheet music will be out in another month from Hal Leonard Co., the world’s largest music publisher.
For cast members, the party was a chance to catch up and reflect on their experience with the show. Michael Dean Morgan, a member of the ensemble, said he had been in The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and other large musicals, but his time with Amazing Grace was different from his previous work. He especially liked the show’s ending, when the audience rose to sing “Amazing Grace” with the cast.
“There was this moment like everyone was breathing at the exact same time,” he said. “I’ve never experienced such a group emotion, because people came to the play not knowing what to expect. At the last moment all the pieces come together in the individual experience and the history behind it. People were all singing together, with strangers, because they knew the song. It was a communal moment in the world, … an authentic moment with strangers.”
Allen Kendall, another ensemble member who had been with the show since its early reading stages in 2009, had a similar reaction.
“It was thrilling to see how the audience responded,” he said. “The reaction was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was incredibly emotional for us.”
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.