'Amazing Grace' Writer Shares Story Behind New Broadway Musical: 'It's Just a Great Journey'

Joan Marcus
Laiona Michelle and Rachael Ferrera in "Amazing Grace." 

You don't have to be in a pew on Sunday mornings to be familiar with the classic hymn "Amazing Grace."

Regardless of ethnicity and religious background, the song is a cultural touchstone that often surfaces during trying times, including President Obama's rendition during the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the recent Charleston church tragedy.

Amazing Grace extends beyond church walls to Broadway and opened Thursday, July 16, at the Nederlander Theater in New York. Josh Young, Erin Mackey and Tony Award-winner Chuck Cooper star in the musical, with music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, and book by Smith and Arthur Giron. The play chronicles the life of John Newton, the slave trader turned abolitionist, who wrote the hymn.

"I just stumbled across the story of John Newton in a library," says Smith, a former police officer turned songwriter/playwright. "I just pulled a book out and there he was. I had never even heard of him, and it just changed my life. I knew that whatever else I was going to do with my life, I needed to find a way to tell this story."

Born in London in 1725, Newton was a sailor involved in the slave trade. He himself became a slave when the crew of the ship he was serving on left him in West Africa. He was given to Princess Peye, an African duchess who abused him along with her other slaves. Newton was rescued in 1748 and on his voyage back to England converted to Christianity.  He eventually got out of the slave trade and became a leading voice  in the English abolitionist movement. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1764 and penned "Amazing Grace," "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken" and other classic hymns.

Smith thinks audiences will connect with Newton's story of struggle and redemption. "There's something within the human heart that we want to be loved in spite of ourselves," he says. "We want to know that we can go back, that we can change. There's not a whole lot in our culture that seems to support that message yet it's a very deep yearning inside people and I realized that John Newton could be a great portrait of that."

Smith sees Broadway providing a framework for that portrait. "Musical theatre is the most immediate entertainment in the world and I wanted people to see it," he says. "I want people to see real tears and hear real laughter. When people get into fist fights I want to hear those punches landing."

Smith discovered Newton's life story in 1997 and spent 10 years writing the musical while working as a police officer outside Philadelphia. He started seeking support to launch the play around his Pennsylvania hometown.

"I started raising money in Bucks County," he says. "I would go to small entrepreneurs and businesses owners and people in the area and I would actually sing the songs and play the music. I would sell them on the idea that this is something that the market had overlooked and that it was something we really needed. They would come in for $5,000 here, $100,000 there. In fact we raised $350,000 in there first three months just doing that. And then we went on and raised the balance of half a million dollars."

Smith began producing events and inviting the public. Producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland, who founded the Lamb's Theatre Company in Times Square in the 1970s, came to an event in the Empire State Building and Smith began trying to convince her of the play's potential.

"She wasn't completely convinced right off the bat but my investors in Bucks County never wavered," Smith says. "I set up an organization with them so that if I succeeded, they succeeded. If I failed, they failed. So we were really in it together from the start. We hired Carolyn Copeland as our producer and then she went out and she worked the connections that we had and took those connections to the next step."

Copeland and 82-year-old manufacturer Alexander Rankin raised the $16.4 million to bring the show to the Nederlander Theatre, and plans are in the works for a touring production, a cast album and possibly a film.

"A lot of the songs within the show have crossover potential into other markets so we want to explore all of that and then make sure that we're having the widest footprint that we possibly can, because it's not a message for just one theatre and one town," Smith says.

Smith has been encouraged by the audience reaction during the show's previews. "I sit in one of the opera boxes off to the side and I watch," he says. "The audience watches the show and I watch the audience. They are coming out singing. They are coming out crying and they are all standing up with us at the end and singing 'Amazing Grace.' I've never seen anything like 1,200 people on 41st Street in the heart of New York standing and singing 'Amazing Grace.' It's just an incredible experience for everybody there."

And Newton says audience members don't have to be Christian for the play to resonate.

"We put it together in such a way that people walk in with absolutely no faith tradition whatsoever -- and have no idea of who John Newton is -- and we give them a great journey that they can relate to," Smith says. "For people like myself, there's obviously a much bigger dimension, a spiritual dimension. For other people, it's just a great journey and that's what it should be."