New musical chronicles surprising history of “Amazing Grace”

SHARE New musical chronicles surprising history of “Amazing Grace”

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‘AMAZING GRACE’ When: Through Nov. 2 Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe Tickets: $33-$100 Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com

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This is the story of how Christopher Smith, a self-taught writer-composer-lyricist who has spent much of his career working as a police officer and Youth Outreach and Education Director in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, was not only driven to write a grand-scale musical, but is now watching as it makes its way to Broadway.

Call it beginner’s luck, or the stuff of storybook legend. Either way, it is a rare phenomenon, and you really have to ask: How did it all happen?

The show in question is “Amazing Grace,” which opens Oct. 19 in its Chicago tryout at the Bank of America Theatre. And in a sense it is the biography of both a song (perhaps the most popular of all Christian folk hymns, which gained a whole new life during the Civil Rights era) and a man — John Newton, the 18th century English slave trader-turned-clergyman and poet, who gradually saw the light,and penned the song’s lyrics after a long period of self-questioning.

As it happens, this is not really Smith’s first musical; he wrote one at at the age of 17, based on “The Prince and the Pauper,” and it was performed at the University of Delaware when he was a senior in high school.

“I was always interested in music and dabbled in it with a folk-rock band,” said Smith, who has collaborated on the book for “Amazing Grace” with playwright Arthur Giron, former head of the graduate playwriting program at Carnegie-Mellon University and a founding member of New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre. “I also loved musicals and sang in shows in high school. But I never had any formal training. I just picked things up and found my own way, which is sort of my personality.”

Smith spent one semester at Allentown College, a small school where he thought he would pursue acting, but transferred out and went on to study history and “to find different ways of using the arts, working with teens and young adults in church and community settings, and doing small-town community policing, which I loved.”

It was while seeking out an air-conditioned room in a children’s library between hockey games that he pulled a little blue book off a shelf that told the story of Newton. Only when he got to the end of the story did he realize this was the man who wrote the words for “Amazing Grace.”

“And it struck me: ‘This is a musical.’ So I went home and talked to my wife, and she said, ‘Do it!’”

Newton’s story is a complex tale of sin and redemption that spans three continents — from England to Africa to America — and many decades.

Born near London in 1725, Newton’s mother hoped he would become an Anglican clergyman, but she died of tuberculosis when he was 6, and at the age of 11 he joined his father, a shipping merchant, as an apprentice.

Renowned for his disobedience, swearing and many close calls with death, Newton often examined his relationship with God but continually relapsed into bad habits. Eventually pressed into the Royal Navy, he deserted to visit Mary “Polly” Catlett, a family friend of great moral virtue and compassion with whom he had fallen in love. But he then began a career in slave-trading, ultimately being punished at sea and turned into something of a slave himself on a plantation in Sierra Leone. Eventually rescued, he was put onboard the Greyhound, a ship that almost sank in a violent storm in the North Atlantic in 1748.

When Newton finally reached Ireland, his long, slow “spiritual conversion” began, as did his plans to marry Polly. Yet he continued his slave-trading activities until he was 30. In the mid 1750s he began studying Christian theology, and in 1764 he was ordained in the Church of England. “Amazing Grace” was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year’s Day of 1773, and was published in 1779.

The hymn became hugely popular in early 19th century America as the Second Great Awakening, the Protestant revival movement, took hold. And though over the years it has been associated with more than 20 melodies, in 1835 it was set to a tune called“New Britain” — and this is the tune we have come to know and that has been sung by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin, and been famously played on bagpipes by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.

But back to Smith’s story.

After getting the nod from his wife, he bought a $99 keyboard, plugged it into his computer, borrowed some software from his brother and started to “hear all the characters” in his musical.

“I had a loose idea of where I was going — I knew I wanted an epic sound for the show that was something like ‘Les Miz,’ or the great Bernstein scores, or the movie soundtracks by John Williams. And the first song for the show popped right into my head — ‘A Mother’s Prayer,’ about the early death of Newton’s mother. “It’s not there now, but many of the songs I wrote early on are still in the show.”

It was in 2007 that Smith found himself under what he calls “a providential star.”

“I met the owner of an art gallery and I mentioned my musical. He immediately said he would talk to everyone he knew, and one of them was a local bank president. I sang my songs to a back track for them, and within three months they’d raised $250,000 from local Bucks County business owners who had never invested in entertainment before.”

A couple of showcases were planned, and Smith put up a few posters in local churches and supermarkets announcing them. To his amazement, 1,200 people showed up to one of them. He knew he was onto something.

Eventually a recording of the score was sent to Carolyn Rossi Copeland, the veteran producer who founded The Lambs Theatre Company in New York and has previously nurtured such composers as Andrew Lippa and Jason Robert Brown. She quickly tagged “Amazing Grace” as a Broadway show and teamed Smith with Giron and other collaborators.

“I knew the song but not the story, and I don’t think many people do,” Giron admitted. “And I sensed that not only is Chris’ heart in the right place, but he has the music in him.”

The production (which has undergone many changes since it was first staged at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House in 2012) is directed by Gabriel Barre and stars Josh Young as John Newton and Erin Mackey as Polly.

“The goal has always been to tell the dark side of the story without losing its pathos,” said Smith. “I think all of us on some level want to be completely known and loved, in spite of our faults, and this show taps into that human yearning. It’s a story that says you can go in wrong directions in life, even hurt people you love, yet still rise above things and find the light.”

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