Veteran Broadway actor Chuck Cooper, who plays the slave Thomas (becoming later the free Pakuteh) in the new Christopher Smith musical Amazing Grace, captures precisely why John Newton’s 1779 hymn continues to charm hard-boiled New York City audiences onto their feet night after night to join, uninvited, the show’s breathlessly anticipated finale:
This song is so powerful. This song transcends everything[.] It may well be the most powerful song ever written.
I have to agree.
I was one of those New Yorkers drawn in, lifted up, and carried away.
And no, not because Smith’s production heavy-handedly attempted to manipulate and exploit what would become Newton’s raw, emotional, and all-too-obvious, transformation from slave trader to preacher.
It didn’t – though, at times, perhaps bumping up a bit close.
Rather, Newton’s own blood-stained words of confession, repentance, unmerited grace, and overwhelming gratitude somehow always manage to touch me deep within; only then to seek, in haste, their own sweet release.
Yet not before taking complete possession of my own fears, failures, heartaches, and regrets, and of my own unending quest for complete stillness and rest.
In words I more often heard expressed during my evangelical, non-denominational, days:
I stand convicted.
From what I witnessed, I stood not alone.
While we weren’t exactly raising our voices in a halleluiah refrain at some 19th century tent revival, we were set down somewhere beyond the smelly, hot, exploitative mess that once again has begun to overwhelm Times Square.
So yes, that hymn – that 236-year-old ode to Newton’s self-described personal journey from a bloody, cynical, God-denying, merchant-of-flesh and death, to a God-fearing, abolitionist, wordsmith, and prolific composer of hymns – does indeed transcend everything.
It is, indeed, that powerful.
And in what is perhaps the most satisfying, if not the most miraculous, aspect of Smith’s production is that nothing in the build-up to the finale takes anything away from the song’s transformative power.
One part old-fashioned love story, one part poetic 18th century Anglo-Saxon and African history, one part Paul blinded on the road to Damascus, the opportunities for faux emotional manipulation are simply too numerous to pass up. Especially, one would suspect, in the hands of a first-time playwright and composer – and former cop – Christopher Smith.
Yet there is something about Smith’s production, something from within his soft genius, that holds it all together.
It comes, I think, from Smith’s compulsion to tell the story behind the song, and to reveal just how that story, itself, radiates its own transformational power.
Smith was inspired to write the script in 1997, after stumbling upon a biography of slave-trader Newton at his local library.
“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.”
And, fortunately for us, Smith resisted the appeals of those professionals who had forseen something entirely different:
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.
It encompasses, Smith believes, all of those things.
To which we might all add: amen!
While some of Broadway’s critics have been a bit dismissive of Smith’s audacity, all seem to appreciate the staging, the period costumes, the choreography, the flawless voices, and the huge talent of actors Josh Young (Newton), Erin Mackey (Mary Catlett), Chuck Cooper (Thomas / Pakuteh), Tom Hewitt (Captain Newton), and Chris Hoch (Major Gray), among others.
If you are in New York anytime soon, make your way over to the Nederlander Theatre.
I have no doubt that you’ll soon find yourself joining in the finale with your fellow travelers – no pejorative intended – whether you had intended to or not.
You won’t be disappointed.
UPDATE: The producers announced this past week that the show will be closing soon because of disappointing ticket sales. Here is a post by Kathy Schiffer with additional details. I am sorry to hear this news.
Image Credit: AmazingGraceMusical.Com