by Dick Lee
What are the odds that a former policeman from Wyndmoor would wind up writing the music, lyrics and script for a hit Broadway musical? About the same odds as my being picked to play quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. In other words, at least a billion-to-one. However, Christopher Smith has beaten those impossible odds!
Smith, who conceived the show, wrote the music and lyrics and co-authored the script for “Amazing Grace,” grew up in Wyndmoor and attended LaSalle High School. He graduated from Eastern College with a degree in History. His career path included a stint as a Lower Moreland police officer and his own videography business, doing corporate and historical assignments. His interest in John Newton — and thus the impetus for a total outsider to attempt the near-impossibility of creating a show for Broadway — dated from his reading of “Out of the Depths,” Newton’s autobiography; he recommends the book highly to anyone interested in this remarkable man.
In 1997, when Chris was still a policeman, he “was literally wandering through a library and pulled a book off a shelf at random.” That book was about John Newton, a British slave trader in the 1700s. After years of selling slaves to America, Newton (1725-1807) was himself held captive in West Africa. After his escape, he almost died at sea.
“He lived through a hurricane on a sailing vessel, and it was during the dark night he finally cries out and says, ‘God, have great mercy,'” said Smith in a recent interview. “That was the beginning of a great journey.”
It was a journey that led to a religious and philosophical conversion. Newton became an abolitionist and wrote one of the most beloved hymns of all time, “Amazing Grace.”
“To hear the President of the U.S. sing that song, it just really validated for me that this was our time, that this was meant to be,” said Smith, referencing the recent funeral for a victim of the mass murder by a demented racist in Charleston, South Carolina. “It crosses cultural boundaries, age boundaries; it crosses time itself, and this man’s story is the root of it.”
On a recent Saturday, a dozen of us, in a project wonderfully coordinated by Mary Zell, Executive Director of the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment, went to New York for a matinee performance of Broadway’s newest musical, “Amazing Grace,” written by the Wyndmoor native, at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. How it got there is almost as amazing a story as its theme, the life of John Newton, who was a slave trader, ship captain, disgraced Royal Navy officer and Anglican minister.
Fast-forward to a special night at the Sellersville Theatre. I attended a pre-pre-preview of the music, song lyrics and early script of the show. It was good but in retrospect, bore only a modest resemblance to the thrill of the New York production. This is a testament to Chris Smith’s tenacity as a writer willing to rewrite and rewrite again. I felt then that “Amazing Grace” was going places.
A year ago at a rain-damped picnic at Lake Nockamixon, I chatted with Chris and his young family. Chris said that he and others were gathering backers for the show and working toward a pre-Broadway opening in Chicago. Well, the Chicago plan came about this spring. An interesting rarity and one that speaks to how the cast members believe in this show is that the entire Chicago cast transferred to Broadway. Our Chestnut Hill attendees also learned via a rare meet-and-greet with Christopher and many cast members after the performance that they had put in extra time researching their characters and the Newton story; thus, they forged strong bonds to the show and to each other long before the curtain rose in Chicago. (Becoming an “ensemble cast” is a relative rarity in theater. It’s a strength that shows in performance.)
The Nederlander Theatre is an architectural classic well suited to “Amazing Grace.” Its wide stage and high proscenium are perfect for the set, the deck of a sailing ship complete with masts, sails and rigging. Seamless segues and adroit lighting plus a brilliant array of props, explosions, smoke screens, storms and similar “wow” effects created numerous thrilling moments. (For example, the end of Act I, although quite different, rivals the shock effect of the falling chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera.”)
The show’s original music, although pleasantly melodious, does not surpass the signature hymn for stature and memorability. No way could it, and have this show achieve its mission. The songs, beginning with “Truly Alive,” sung by a sturdily impressive Josh Young as John Newton, each carried the action forward, and did so with appropriate musicianship, if not with the “hum-on-your-way-out” strength of “Amazing Grace” itself. (That, as you might expect, is saved for the finale.)
Broadway stalwart Erin Mackey was vocally dynamic as Mary Catlett, Newton’s love (and, eventually, wife). Other performers were equally impressive. Most of the plot dynamics worked well, too. These included John Newton’s differences with his father, portrayed with proper bluster by Tom Hewitt; Mary Catlett’s touching interaction with her slave servant, Nanna (Laiona Michelle); and John Newton’s rough-and-tumble dealings with the African Princess Peyai, played with zest and cunning by Harriet D. Foy.
Only John Newton’s relationship with the slave Pakuteh, aka Thomas, magnificently portrayed by veteran actor Chuck Cooper, was under-written; Newton needs a firmer sidekick connection to Thomas to give full power to Thomas’s Act II lament, “Yes, but who…am…I?”, a phrase that, expressed in context, had the audience in Mr. Cooper’s hand.
The basic issue of slave trading and by extension, slavery, was dealt with in England and Africa. In doing so, coverage of the topic in speech and song was emphatic without being didactic, no easy feat. All told, “Amazing Grace” is a show well worth seeing. The ending brought the entire audience to its feet and this would-be reviewer to tears.
(In 1787, Newton wrote a tract, “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade,” urging that the slave trade be abolished. It was very influential. It graphically described the horrors of the slave trade and Newton’s own previous role in it. In February, 1807, when the act to abolish the slave trade in England finally became law, John Newton, nearly blind and near death, “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news.”)
Does “Amazing Grace” lead a charmed life? I’d like to think so. It’s the vision of a Broadway outsider brought to reality. In the meet-and-greet, the cast members told us they’re unfailingly boosted by audience reaction. (Our audience clearly loved it.) And it opened in July, historically Broadway’s driest time. I think it has the “legs” to get through the August desert and just keep going.
Dick Lee, former writer of the “Facts of Life” column with his late wife, Missy, still lives in Flourtown. For ticket information to “Amazing Grace,” call 212-921-8000.