By Retta Blaney
Christopher G. Smith and his wife, Alana, stood in front of an empty theater on West 41st Street. Everyone else had gone and soon the marquee would be darkened. Amazing Grace, the musical that Christopher created and nurtured all the way to the Great White Way over a dedicated 17 years, was closing, its Broadway run concluding after only four months.
“It was the end,” Smith said. “Obviously we were very sad, because it was the end of a dream as far as we knew.”
What they didn’t realize was that another dream was heading their way. A woman who recognized them from the show’s publicity and had read that Alana was recovering from breast cancer approached to tell them her story. She was being treated for cancer and, when her energy allowed, she went to see Amazing Grace. That closing matinee, Oct. 25, 2015, was her eighth time.
“It was such a transformative moment,” Smith says, recalling that encounter during a phone interview from his home office in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania.
While it seemed the transformation was just for their low spirits that Sunday afternoon, in time they would realize a seed had been planted for their next show.
The couple had heard similar accounts of how the musical inspired by the life of John Newton had touched people deeply. They wondered what it was about this story of a slave trader turned abolitionist and Anglican cleric that had such a healing effect. They turned to the Internet and found the research of Antonio Damafio, a University of Southern California professor who had studied how stories of gratitude change the brain, enabling people to better handle stress and depression.
“We were like, ‘Wow. This really heals people.’”
About this same time they were hearing more news accounts of the near-epidemic proportions of anxiety, depression, and cyber-bullying affecting young people, much of it brought on by the disconnect created by over-reliance on video games and social media. They wanted to help.
“We decided to create a musical into which we could build actual mindfulness and neuroscience techniques into a story they would like,” said Smith, 52.
They believed the key was to catch these young people through what mattered to them, so they created a show based on the popular world game genre that would be instantly familiar. They developed the idea together, with Christopher writing the script, the electro-pop score, and 17 original songs.
The result is Lykz, a high-energy musical about finding friendship and self-worth in the lonely digital world. The title, pronounced likes, refers to a feature of several social media platforms and games. In the musical, likes are a metaphor for the labeling that occurs when people judge themselves by the opinions of others. Many young people become obsessed with earning multiple likes as a source of self-esteem.
“Our goal is to transport the audience into a game world where characters never touch and all anyone cares about is getting and giving likes,” Smith says.
The story centers on Clarence and Clara, two social outcasts. Clarence desperately wants approval but he’s awkward, speaks with a stammer, and is not good at the dance and gymnastics the popular kids use to gain approval. Clara intervenes by teaching him coping techniques involving breathing, movement, and visualization.
Soon they will set out on a quest to unravel the mysteries of their universe and stop a cataclysm they alone acknowledge. On the journey, the audience sees them grow through adversity and self-discovery, finding the tools they need to overcome a legacy of labeling and rejection.
Smith says this is done subtly, through song, so young audience members won’t realize they are being taught techniques. But they will absorb these techniques through the music and, he hopes, apply them automatically.
“It’s part of the story. We never say, ‘This is a technique.’ They get it in a deeper level so they won’t have to think about it.”
The Smiths have consulted mental-health professionals and done extensive research into mindfulness and other psychological and neuroscience practices used to fight anxiety and depression.
“That’s the way we want to help young people,” Smith says. “We basically model how to make a friend and connect to overcome the negativity. It’s about the core, the community. We have to get everybody back to the core.”
Smith sees no better way to do this than through theater.
“Theatre is one of the oldest communication techniques and one of the most powerful.”
The show will be a multimedia production with gymnastics and dance. He envisions a set that will transport audiences into game world — very boxy with primitive shapes and lots of projections. The story will intensify as Clara realizes she and Clarence have to teach the other characters how to connect, or they will all be destroyed.
“It’s kind of a nail-biter,” Smith says.
Now that the script is complete, Smith is ready to send it to directors and is looking for a developmental theater to stage a production. The Smiths have put up their own money to bring the show to this point, but Smith will not disclose how much they have invested.
Besides this theater angle, the show has an educational component, for which a nonprofit has been created. In time this element will create programs to teach the techniques in schools and eventually develop Clarence and Clara as characters in graphic novels and TV shows.
“It’s not just making a show to go on stage and it’s done when it’s done. We want to build relationships with young people that will continue.”
They have been doing this throughout the show’s progression, visiting local high schools to invite feedback.
“They’ve been involved in every step,” Smith says. “We let them read it (taking part in table readings) and we hear their questions. When you’re building something for young people, you’ve got to listen.”
That outreach is set to grow wider.
“We’re working on a plan to have a national, or possibly worldwide, contest where young people could submit a demo for a chance to actually be a part of a virtual reading of the work this summer,” he said, adding that interested students can find out more by visiting the show’s website, lykz.live.
Gabrielle Greene has been involved with the show’s growth since last summer. The 17-year-old high school junior now plays Clara as part of the developmental cast.
“I love the message the show is trying to present about mental health and speaking up for yourself,” she said during a phone interview from her home in Oreland, Pennsylvania. “I wish I had had that as a kid.”
Greene already has a Broadway musical credit to her name; she was one of the children in School of Rock for a year when she was 12 and 13. She says people her age who have grown up with technology “think too much about getting validation from other people and not themselves.”
She says “a new innovative musical” like Lykz will fill an unmet need by creatively presenting themes young people may not want to address.
“We need something to bring us together to face adversity with strength and perseverance. This musical will do just that.”
Smith shares Gabrielle’s high expectations for the future of Lykz. He believes Broadway is a possibility.
“A lot of people thought it would be impossible that Amazing Grace would go all the way to Broadway.”
But it did, and after that on to a national tour of nearly two dozen American cities. It has also been performed in Nairobi and England and was the show that opened the theater at the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., where it played for more than 100 performances. It is now available for licensing.
“I have a powerful belief this is the right story, and we’ll see how far it goes.”
Retta Blaney is a nine-time journalism award-winner and the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. She wrote for TLC about Amazing Grace in our January 4, 2015, issue.