New musical 'Amazing Grace' inspired by true story of adventure, redemption
Most theater composers are told to start small when writing a first-time musical. But songwriter Christopher Smith ignored that advice with "Amazing Grace," a world premiere musical that plays in a Broadway-scaled production at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago starting Thursday, Oct. 9.
"Amazing Grace" is about the life of Englishman John Newton (1725-1807), who is credited with composing the show's namesake song. Initially from a wealthy slave-trading family, Newton's views changed and he became an ardent abolitionist.
"I'm a history major, and I had never heard of this person," said Smith, who first stumbled upon a book about Newton's life in 1997 when he was working as a police officer and coaching a youth roller-hockey team in Montgomery County, Pa.
Smith didn't discover Newton's relationship to the song "Amazing Grace" until the book's end -- after it had detailed dramatic events from Newton's life in countries like Sierra-Leone, Barbados and England along the slave-trade triangle.
"It was this life and this experience that led to one of the most well-known and loved songs ever," said Smith. "And there was something about the fact that he was a songwriter and a poet, and that just screamed to me that it's got to be an epic musical."
As Smith began composing "Amazing Grace" in earnest in 2007, he tried to interest financial backers through a series of readings in unconventional places ranging from friends' backyards to a bank manager's office. It was producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland -- best known locally for the acclaimed off-Broadway drama "Freud's Last Session" at Chicago's Mercury Theater -- who championed the potential of "Amazing Grace," pairing Smith with playwright Arthur Giron and off-Broadway director Gabriel Barre to refine the material.
"(Newton) really changed not only England, but our world as well in the United States by helping to begin the abolitionist movement, which came from his own personal redemption story," said Copeland, adding that slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1833 -- long before the Civil War. "The British largely know about John Newton, but Americans really don't know much about him."
The musical received major financial backing help from producer Alexander Rankin, a Chicago native.
Copeland notes the lavishness of "Amazing Grace," which features historical period costumes and a large cast of 34 performers.
There's also a number of Broadway veterans in the ensemble, including Tony Award-winner Chuck Cooper ("The Life"), Tony Award-nominee Tom Hewitt (seen locally in tours of "Urinetown" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") and Erin Mackey (seen on Broadway and in Chicago as Glinda in "Wicked").
Starring as John Newton himself is Josh Young, a Tony Award-nominee for playing Judas in the 2012 Broadway revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"His life story kind of changed my life," Young said, "and in the process of rehearsal, I've come to realize that his story will hopefully change the lives of all those who come to see the musical and that's kind of the greatest gift that can be given an actor."
Smith, who cites the works of Leonard Bernstein and "Les Misérables" songwriters Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil as major influences for his own songwriting style, is happy to have the chance to dramatize and musicalize John Newton's life. And Smith is eager to get feedback from Chicago audiences.
"This is an epic, adventurous and romantic musical," Smith said. "It's got to be huge to be worthy of the great events of Newton's life."
"Amazing Grace"Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: Thursday, Oct. 9 through Sunday, Nov. 2: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Sunday, Oct. 12); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday (no matinee Oct. 19; official press opening at 6 p.m. Oct. 19)