If one heard that a musical on Broadway featured a story of a slave trader turned evangelical – who helped end the institution of slavery in England almost 60 years before it ended in the U.S. – one would find the story itself as fantastic as the idea that Broadway would portray the Christian life in any kind of a positive way.
But both the history and the positive depiction of Christian faith are real: “Amazing Grace,” the musical which opened in what’s being hailed as a pre-Broadway run in Chicago, features the story of John Newton, the author of the best known hymn in Christendom. The epic show, at the Bank of America Theater for a short run, is written by relative unknown Christopher Smith (a former police officer) and Arthur Giron, directed by Gabriel Barre, and stars tony-nominated Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar), and Erin Mackey (Glinda in “Wicked.”)
The score is moving – listen for the song “Nowhere Left to Run” and see if you can do it without tears – with a particularly stand-out second act. All throughout, the show transitions deftly between three continents with well-crafted scenery.
The question is not what will Broadway audiences make of the musical – others can guess that better than I. (Okay I can guess a little – with a little tweaking of the show they will likely love it.) But, what might Christians make of this secular production?
First, the front story and backstory. As portrayed in the musical, the historical John Newton really was a slave trader, and along with that he was utterly dissolute to the point, it has been said, he shocked his fellow sailors. After experiencing Christian conversion during a horrific storm in 1748, he really did marry his sweetheart, childhood friend Mary Catlett, a virtuous woman who believed he could be better man than the immorality he had fallen into would indicate. Newton went on to renounce his work in the slave trade (though decades later, not on the spot as the show depicts) and served God well as an evangelical Anglican minister.
What struck me most, and most positively, is the show’s rawness in its treatment of slavery. In contrast Chris Jones, media critic for the Chicago Tribune, said in his review that it was simply inappropriate for the story of slavery to play “second fiddle” to a drama featuring the story of white protagonists. “That just can’t fly in 2014” he wrote. Really? So, he’s suggesting then that the story of John Newton can never be told – because, of course, it cannot be told apart from slavery. (By the way, Newton was himself held captive in Africa for a time after a ship wreck, and this is portrayed in the musical, though with a good bit of story-telling license.)
Whether Jones likes it or not, “Amazing Grace” tells the story of slavery and in many ways tells it well in part because the musical does something very unusual in modern-day treatments of slavery: “Amazing Grace” portrays the slave trade, correctly, as being just that – a trade between white Europeans and black African tribal leaders. This profoundly, but subtly, impacts the power of the narrative:
This very real but oh-so-often-overlooked aspect of the history of slavery speaks to a baseness about human nature that is fundamental to our nature as humans. Gasp – Non-Europeans are sinners too! Who knew? This isn’t just about “Amazing Grace” including a historically accurate point when it comes to the slave trade in general, it’s a note about the depravity of all souls that transcends culture, time and place. And isn’t it true that the more we focus on how much we were saved from, the more we can marvel at the God we were saved to?
I have no idea if this was a conscious treatment by writers and director, or the extent to which this seeps into the subconscious of audiences. But it’s powerful, and it gives a depth to the story that could easily be overlooked in a narrative that makes light of slavery by pretending it was unique to the white European world of the 18th century.
This backstory makes the front story not just about John newton, but about all of us.
Now how about that “front story” and redemption as far as “Amazing Grace” treats it. I find it fascinating that it seems to depend, at least a little, on the reviewer. As a Christian, I felt it was clearly depicted who saved Newton, even without the word Christ being mentioned. Chris Jones of the Tribune wrote that one “could leave the theater without knowing that the change in Newton was religious.” In between, the “Broadway World” reviewer who refers to himself being “religious” felt that the conversion needle was better threaded than Jones did, though he still thought more emphasis on the Christian God would be helpful to the narrative.
In other words when it comes to the central message, much of how we receive it depends on what (and Who!) we are bringing to it, which may suggest the writers and director managed it fairly well after all. Remember, “Amazing Grace” will be competing in a Broadway world in which the aptly named “Kinky Boots” is one of the hottest tickets in town right now. As a Christian, I have no problem with the writers, deliberately or not, being wise as serpents but gentle as doves with their portrayal of Newton’s conversion.
I do though whole-heartedly agree with reviewers who said that we need a little more understanding of how the famous hymn “Amazing Grace” itself came to be penned, and perhaps a note about his impact on William Wilberforce, the British member of parliament who led the campaign to end slavery there.
Still, this epic story of transformation deserves a wider Broadway stage, and I believe it will find one there in audiences thirsty for a powerful and beautifully told redemption story. One based on God’s extraordinary, real life work of turning a dissolute slave trader into a man who could write from the heart,
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Despite the creative license of the show, it’s a redemption story that even (the fictional) “Les Mis” can’t touch. Never mind “Kinky Boots.”
I believe that when professing Christians consider how to think of this particular show, or any similar offering in the popular culture, we would do well to remember that these things are not meant to be a Sunday morning sermon stand in. But as the Apostle Paul encourages us, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable-if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise-dwell on these things.”
The show is in Chicago through November 2. And I hope soon in New York too.