Young John Newton was familiar with the sea: He was only 11 years old when he first set sail with his father. By the age of 18, he’d accepted a position as a slave master in Jamaica; but before he could assume his new post, Newton was pressed into service in the British Navy. He became a midshipman, but he tried to desert his ship — so he was severely beaten and, at his own request, was transferred to a slave ship bound for West Africa.
While he was aboard the slave ship, Newton was forced to become the personal servant of the cruel slave master. Finally, in 1743, he was rescued by a British sea captain, who agreed to transport him home to England.
But alas, as the ship sailed homeward, it encountered a storm at sea. As the wind roared, as the waves washed over the bow, as lightning split the sky into two, Newton and his fellow sailors feared for their lives. As the ship filled with water, the panicked Newton called out to God.
Did John Newton, reliant upon his Creator for the first time, turn his life around before the skies cleared?
No — it took several more years before the change that began in Newton’s heart that night resulted in genuine conversion.
But changed he was.
And later, after he was stricken by a violent fever on a slave vessel bound for the West Indies, he prayed for God’s mercy.
Newton later claimed that that was the turning point in his life. He became an evangelical Christian, pastoring an Anglican church. He gave up his work aboard the slave ships, instead working to bring an end to the slave trade in England.
But the thing for which Newton is most remembered is the song Amazing Grace. The lyrics are reminiscent of the ill-fated voyage during a violent storm when he, clinging to the rails for his very life, realized for the first time his own mortality and prayed to God for deliverance.
The time-honored and much-sung church hymn has been a mainstay for Protestants and Catholics alike, even prompting a feature film.
Now, Amazing Grace is a major Broadway musical, opening July 16 at the Nederlander Theater, thanks to Christopher Smith, a first-time playwright and former police officer.
Smith was inspired to write the script in 1997, after stumbling upon a biography of slave-trader Newton at his local library.
“I’d never heard the story,” Smith recalled for the Register. “So I experienced it the way people experience the show: ‘Here we are — we’re in England! The girl he loves is longing for him, but he can’t get to her! Now he’s deserting! Now he’s captured! In Africa! Storm! Escape! Dangerous toils and snares!’”
The song Amazing Grace is the punctuation mark on the story.
Story to Stage
By the end of the tale, Smith realized that the story was an epic — and should be a musical. With help from his uncle, a copyright attorney, Smith learned that in the 260 years since Newton’s conversion, no musical production has told the poignant story.
And he knew it would resonant with modern hearts.
“When I found the book,” Smith explained, “I said to myself, ‘This is a story that could really tap into everyone’s need to rise above their past. No matter who they are, what culture or age group, everyone wants to believe that he can rise above his failures. ... Everyone has it written on his heart to want to be forgiven.”
Although Smith had written a few short stories and composed music for the worship team at his Presbyterian church, he had never undertaken a project of this magnitude.
But with his wife Alana’s encouragement, in 2008, he set out to create a full-length play that would bring the story to Broadway.
A local businessman caught his vision and became his sponsor, introducing him to prospective backers and accompanying Smith to living rooms, back-yard picnics and bank presidents’ offices to seek funding.
Smith would sing a few songs; then he’d turn on his CD player and play the music, telling the story — after they’d caught the vision, he’d ask the potential donors for $100,000, pitching the religious element of his composition.
For the past 40 years, he explained, there has been a hole in the marketplace — with the exception of the blockbuster Les Misérables: Professional theater had not talked about religion in a positive way, despite the fact that faith is a large part of the majority of Americans’ lives.
Smith’s first-ever financial campaign was successful. In three months, he raised $350,000; by the end of the year, the total was $500,000.
Above all, Smith wanted to let audiences take away the message they wanted.
“One of the beautiful things about Newton’s story is that it has everything,” Smith explained. “It has romance, adventure, a strong social message. There’s a slave trader who became an abolitionist. There’s a powerful spiritual message: a committed atheist who then dedicated his life to the Lord. With all those different messages, a theatergoer could latch onto any one of them and think that it’s the main theme.”
Throughout the writing process, he fought against efforts by theater professionals to pull the play away from his core values. Some wanted to make it so spiritual that it wouldn’t resonate in the mass market. Some wanted a play about slavery, without the spiritual direction. Some imagined a romance, without the father/son story. Some thought it should be only a two-person show, suitable for a small, church dramatic reading.
But Smith stood firm: His play would encompass all of those things.
Some who saw early productions of the play confirmed Smith’s vision: One woman wrote to tell him that, after seeing Amazing Grace, she had called her son, from whom she’d been estranged. One person checked himself into rehab because of what he’d seen.
And that wasn’t all.
Smith grew especially reflective as he recounted the story of one woman who told him, “I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight. I pulled in, not really knowing what this was. My doctor told me that I have just three weeks to live — and what you said here tonight convinced me that there are things I need to get right in my life and people I need to get right with.”
Such stories spurred Smith to prepare the script for final production, enlisting the help of Arthur Giron, the founder of the master’s dramatic writing program at Carnegie Mellon University, as a mentor.
While Newton himself was not Catholic, the show delves into the Catholic character of the woman he loves.
“It’s all about how Johnny’s journey was for a reason,” Smith explained, “and he can rise above all that happens to him: the idea that someone believes in you when you really can’t see it yourself.”
Smith’s wife had shown the same confidence in him, so the story had a poignancy for the novice playwright. At times throughout the play-writing process, when he grew discouraged, his wife always said, “You can do this.”
Smith adds that many of his investors are Catholic and that Catholics who attend the show are deeply moved. They deal with the information differently, he believes, than does a Baptist or an atheist, yet the play will have something to say to each playgoer — perhaps even to the Pope.
The production will be ongoing during Pope Francis’ visit to New York in September, and Smith hopes that the Holy Father will accept an invitation to visit the theater, even if just to bless the space.
No pope — not even Pope St. John Paul II, who loved theater — has ever attended a Broadway play.
“If the Pope will come to the show,” Smith said, “we will find one of the opera boxes on the side and set it aside for him. After his visit, we’ll rope it off forever. It will be the ‘papal box.’”
For now, Smith enjoys the message of his work as much as when he first read about it.
He loves to speak publicly about the story.
“It’s like coming home for me,” he said, “which I love to do — encouraging people, helping them to realize their own experience.”
He hopes to write a book about the making of the Amazing Grace musical.
But that’s not all that’s on his plate.
Because of his love of Celtic music, his next musical will take place in ancient Ireland — fittingly telling the story of St. Patrick.
Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.