You know the sweet sound, but do you know the story behind it? “Amazing Grace” is estimated to be sung 10 million times annually, yet few know the meaning of those beautiful lyrics. John Newton, the song’s composer, lived a life that is worthy of headlines. A former slave trader, he would eventually leave the barbaric trade and find new meaning in a life following God. His faith journey was made into a movie, a book, and now, will be brought to the stage. Carolyn Rossi Copeland spoke with Townhall about why now, in the midst of racial tension across the country, is the perfect time to bring “Amazing Grace” to Broadway.
“The most important thing was that as I heard the first strains of music for the show I said ‘Why don’t I know anything about this man?,’” said Copeland. “I thought it was the most compelling story about a man that the world should know about. Very few people know about him. When you find out about him, you go ‘My goodness, he is the man that began the abolitionist movement in the world, why don’t we know about him?’”
Newton’s life started at a boarding school before being impressed into the Navy. In 1744, his ship was wrecked and he became a slave to an African princess. He escapes, only to face another brutal storm on his voyage home. On that trip, he makes a promise to God that, if He saves him from disaster, he'll forevermore use his hands for good.
It’s an epic story - and Copeland said it’s all there on New York’s Nederlander Theater stage.
“Our set designer Eugene Lee is one of the best in the business,” she said. “We have the most beautiful transitional set. It takes you from England, to the ship, to Africa, to Barbados and back to England. The costumes are period pieces and they’re very true to the period. Our costume designer is a woman by the name of Tony Leslie James and the research she did for this period, for the sailors, for the African slave traders, to the slaves. Every part of the cast has been really researched to the finest detail.”
Although “Amazing Grace” is one of the world’s most popular and well known tunes, Copeland assures that this play breathes new life into it.
“When you see the play, and at the end when the audience joins in just spontaneously, they sing the song in a new way because no one ever really knew the story behind the song,” she explained. “We all know the song but we all just didn’t understand what the journey of John Newton was that gave him the ability to write those lyrics.”
“Amazing Grace”’s Broadway arrival comes in the midst of shaky race relations in the United States. Such a hostile environment requires some kind of conversation, and this live show can help ignite the dialogue, Copeland argues.
“It’s the most important conversation we can be having now because it’s been a conversation people have been afraid to have,” she said. “We have to have it now and I think our show is really a healing balm in that conversation. It allows people to talk about the horror of slavery and the horror of racism and then through John Newton’s encounter with God and his faith, he sees what God has called him to be and called him to do and that is to change the course of history. And we’re still looking to those leaders, we’re still in need of those leaders.”
It’s difficult to witness the show’s grand opening without reflecting on the larger role religion and faith have played on Broadway in recent years. Plays like “Sister Act” and the return of “Jesus Christ Superstar” seem to be putting faith back into musicals. Is this a sign that faith is making a Broadway comeback?
“Call me in a couple of months and I can give you a better answer,” Copeland said. “I can tell you that if it’s great theater, it will have a place on Broadway. The story has to be compelling, it has to be excellently portrayed and it has to be entertaining, otherwise we’re not getting an audience.”
John Newton’s story is certainly one that has the potential to sell tickets.
“You just can’t make this up,” Copeland said. “It’s better than any fiction.”
“Amazing Grace” opens at New York City’s Nederlander Theater on July 16.