A couple of years ago I reconnected with one of the leaders from my high school youth group on Facebook. He’d been a good friend, but after he graduated from Eastern and gotten married we’d lost touch 1. Much to my surprise, when we reconnected I discovered he had written a show which he hoped to bring to Broadway!
Last Fall, I was ecstatic to read the news that the previews shows, held in Chicago, had gone well and they were actively pursing a theater for a Broadway production. This past Spring I nearly jumped through the roof when it was confirmed that Amazing Grace would open in New York over the Summer.
The story centers around the journey of John Newton, who penned the eponymous song as an auto-biographical reflection on his own salvation journey2.
Newton was a headstrong and bitter young man, traits which the musical highlights nicely, and his inability to temper himself led him down a road of self-destruction and depravity. Again, the show highlights this nicely. Newton eventually became a slave ship captain, until a fateful night were he came to peace with God in the midst of a violent storm. The real-life John Newton didn’t immediately give up slave-trading3, but he did radically alter his practice 4. In the show the timeline is compressed, as it had to be, and his conversion to abolitionist was near-instantaneous. Compressed timeline not-withstanding, the tenor of Newton’s journey is very much kept in tact. That Amazing Grace successfully accomplishes this is quite an achievement.
The musical follows also the parallel journey of Newton’s future wife, Mary Catlett. While her direction connection with Newton’s story is her own struggles with the pain caused by his depravities, her story arc is a wonderful compliment to his own. Catlett is not portrayed as the pining damsel, but rather as a woman of conscience and a worker for social change. Her story follows her into the ranks of the early abolitionist movement, where she is compelled to risk everything in order to speak for the enslaved. For those who have read the Bible, there is everything but a large flashing light over Catlett’s head blinking the message, “She is our Esther.” The resonance might be a bit heavy, but is played well and allows the character to loom appropriately large 5.
The show itself is excellent and, as a good drama should, takes the audience on an incredibly emotional ride. Tears can flow at almost any moment — joyful at moments of love and overcoming, profoundly sad at moments which reveal the depth of suffering we humans can inflict on one another, and awe-filled in moments of sublime beauty.
In John’s story there are two moments which continue to stick in my mind. The first is the sudden appearance of a slave auction in the first act. Amazing Grace pulls absolutely no punches about the horrors of slavery, and the way the auction is brought to stage feels like a sudden punch to the gut. The second is the scene which closes the first act. This scene is an acrobatic display which is, I have no problem saying, one of the most beautiful things I’ve even seen on stage. While it is infinitely more subtle than the appearance of the barricade in Les Miserable, this final scene in act 1 is every bit as immersive and epic in scope 6.
Mary Catlett’s story also has two moments. The first is when she is brought to meet with the abolitionists for the first time, and we get to see the character grow into the courage of her convictions during the course of a stirring number. The second is a scene where she meets with her imprisoned handmaid, and is encouraged to stand up for what’s right, no matter the consequences to a woman who had become her closest companion.
Of course, the final stirring performance of Amazing Grace left me weeping tears of joy.
The main theme of the show is the possibility of redemption. Redemption for the “infidel” 7 John Newton. Redemption for his Father who drove John away. Redemption for the slaves, who learn to take back their stolen identities. Redemption for an empire which declared “Britons never will be slaves,” while simultaneously enslaving millions. Even Mary Catlett follows the path of redemption, by refusing to hide from suffering and working to see it alleviated.
For a period piece set in the 1700’s, this story depicting the power of repentance, redemption, and love is wonderfully contemporary. In a world where the ugly legacy of the slave trade is still very much felt, Amazing Grace holds out hope that there is a a path forward — if only we will allow love to convert our bitterness into compassion.
Yet, sadly, the show is closing on Broadway today. There are plans under-way for the show to go on tour, a prospect for which I am incredibly excited. There will also be a recording made by the original cast next month, and it will be released in 2016. The show’s first run in New York, however, is coming to an end. And that’s a shame. I know many people are lamenting the lack of support from churches for such a show, or wondering at a business model which didn’t lean on churches more. I say it’s closing is a shame because I wonder what it says about our culture when a story of redemption is no longer widely appealing, no mater what religion people practice.
When this show goes on tour, if it comes anywhere near you make sure to go see it. The music is splendid, the writing excellent, and message is truly timless.
- The pre-Facebook world was weird that way. ↩
- The show couldn’t go into the details around the writing of the song, which are nearly as touching, and tragic, as John Newton’s journey. ↩
- Something he later regretted. ↩
- Yes, I know to 21st Century ears that sounds stupid. But in the mind-set of the 19th Century, slavers would typical over-crowd their vessels knowing they’d end up having to toss some “cargo” (what a disgusting euphemism) overboard. After his conversion, Newton never took more than his ship could hold, and he never lost a life during the middle passage. Of course, those who survived ended up being worked nearly to death, and Newton did feel that sting the rest of his life. ↩
- Sadly, I don’t know all the much about the real-life Mary Catlett, I will have to try to rectify this. ↩
- Spoiler Alert: The Navy vessel on which Newton was serving was sunk in battle, and his slave swims into the depths to save his life. This a all done on wires, and should win an award. ↩
- That’s actually his own word for it, he used it in his self-penned epitaph for his gravestone. ↩