By Retta Blaney
“I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I hope to be. But by the grace of God, I am certainly not what I was.” — John Newton
Christopher Smith had never heard of John Newton when, with a little time to spare and in search of some air conditioning, he browsed through the children’s section of a library in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, looking for inspiration for his church youth groups.
The police officer and religious education director had no idea that this experience of “just killing time” would be his life-changing moment, one that would lead him from small-town life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to the Great White Way. As it turned out, he was the one who was inspired.
Reading through a book about Newton, Smith was fascinated by the story of the British slave trader, the shipwreck, his enslavement, then his religious conversion and new life as an Anglican priest and outspoken abolitionist. Smith was so captivated by the story that he had skipped the foreword and had not realized the man he was reading about had composed one of the world’s most beloved hymns, “Amazing Grace.” It was then that Smith felt the beginning of his own conversion.
Although he did not have a theatrical background, unless you count the one semester in college when he was a theatre major before switching to history, and although he cannot read a single note of music — he had taught himself to play guitar — he felt called to dramatize Newton’s life.
“I thought, This is epic. Why haven’t I heard of this guy?”
He sought help from his uncle, an attorney specializing in copyright law, to see if anything had been done. This was before the 2006 movie Amazing Grace. Smith learned that in the 230 years since Newton’s death, no one had dramatized his life.
“I thought, I’ll give it a try. I’m always telling the kids, ‘Don’t limit yourself. Don’t put yourself in a box and say this is what I am. You’ve got to transcend.’ I’ve got this in my lap. I thought, I’ve got to take my own medicine.”
That was in 1997. Amazing Grace opened in October in a world-premiere run at the 1,800-seat Bank of America Theatre in Chicago before heading to Broadway in 2015. The 17 years between that first sense of calling to the opening night have been hard at times — writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, putting together readings, auditioning actors, and raising the nearly $15 million needed to mount a show on Broadway. But Smith, who admits he is not a patient man, sees now that the timing might be just right.
“The world seems to be taking a turn to the dark end,” he said, adding that violence and cruelty also surrounded Newton in the 1700s. “There’s bad news all over the world, not just in one place. Things seem to be spinning out of control. I’m hoping that all the delays that brought Amazing Grace to this point make it shine brighter at a time when people need to be challenged and empowered and uplifted.”
Smith, who is married and the father of three, is 45 but could pass for 20 years younger. He shares his story during a lunch break at the New 42nd Street Studios, where Amazing Grace is in rehearsal before heading to Chicago. This is a rarefied world where those making their living through the Broadway stage spend their days. Rehearsal rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlook 42nd Street, freight-sized elevators ferry loads of chorus girls and boys, and stars roam the halls freely. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, two of Broadway’s hottest headliners, were rehearsing for their next musical as Smith spoke. Bucks County seems far away.
But Smith is quick to say that without the support he received from Bucks County, he would not be sitting in a Broadway studio. Back when a musical story of Newton’s life was just an idea, Smith mentioned it to Rich Timmons, his guitar student and a fellow church member. Timmons, who owned a marketing firm in town, immediately saw potential in a story that had gone untold, at least dramatically, for more than 200 years. “Amazing Grace” also happened to be his favorite song.
“He said, ‘If you put it in a form I can use, I will take it to every business owner in town,’ and he did,” Smith said.
Timmons raised $500,000 in three months, and went on to raise another half-million. With that money Smith was able to quit his job and devote his time to writing and fundraising.
By October 2007 he was ready to gauge audience response. For the first public concert/reading, he put together a cast headed by Adam Jacobs as Newton and Ali Ewoldt as his love interest, Mary Catlett. Jacobs and Ewoldt were on Broadway at the time playing Marius and Cosette in the revival of Les Misérables. They spent October 15, when their show was dark, at Hilltown Baptist Church in Bucks County rehearsing for that evening’s concert, backed by a 60-member choir of area high-school students.
Smith had hung only two posters, each in an area church, announcing the free concert and “word of mouth just exploded around Bucks County.” On the night of the event more than 1,200 people showed up, requiring Smith to set up two overflow rooms with speakers and screens.
At the end of the concert, the actors asked the audience to stand and led them in singing “Amazing Grace.” It was a powerful experience that left many in tears, but for one woman her tears continued even as she greeted cast members in the receiving line. She told Jacobs she had not known about the concert but had been driving by, saw all the excitement at the church, and decided to go in. She had been told by her doctor that morning that she had cancer and had only three weeks to two months to live.
“What you have said and done here tonight showed me the things I have to get right in my life and the people I need to get right with,” she told Jacobs, who then began to cry as well.
Hearing that, Smith realized his play could touch people in ways he had not considered.
“People were coming and bringing all their pain and struggles,” he said. “I thought, I have two and a half hours when our paths will cross. I wanted to honor that. My purpose shifted from just wanting to write a good show to wanting to live up to what we can do in people’s lives.”
Following the Hilltown success, Smith set his eyes on a commercial run, envisioning his show making the rounds on the Christian circuit in cities like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Branson, Missouri. But then he hired veteran New York producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland and she determined the show should go to the top. She raised the rest of the money for the venture. Now all that stands between opening night on Broadway is finding a theater of the right size.
Copeland has put together an experienced team that includes Gabriel Barre as director and Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and brought on Arthur Giron to help shape the show’s book. Smith worked on the book, and wrote the music and lyrics for the 17 songs, as well as incidental music. Three-time Tony winner Eugene Lee created the sets. Josh Young plays Newton and Erin Mackey is Catlett, heading a cast of 34.
Smith developed his script largely from library research because the Web was fairly limited when he started. While some characters have been consolidated and others invented, the story runs close to Newton’s life and times, he says. Three period consultants have given advice on the manners and gestures of the 1700s, on dialects and translations for African scenes.
The show “doesn’t pull any punches,” Smith says. “We’re not afraid to show the depths of the struggle. We wanted to make sure we never gloss over what slavery was, as much as we can onstage.”
But it’s not an “issue musical,” he said. “It’s an action/adventure/romance with deep character struggle. We don’t want to tell the audience what we think they should get out of it. We want to present the story with honesty and in a forthright way and let the chips fall where they may.”
The chips have fallen pretty far for Smith. As the lunch break ends and he heads back into rehearsal, he laughs as he considers the unexpected — and long — adventure that brought him to that studio.
“It’s like being on the moon. I was driving a beat and directing traffic and now I’m walking into the 42nd Street Studios and people know who I am. It’s surreal.”
Image from the Chicago premiere of Amazing Grace, courtesy of Noreen Heron & Associates
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, and others.