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Broadway mission

Following gospel movement at a new-old frontier: musicals

Broadway mission

(Actors Adam Jacobs and Ali Ewoldt)

Chris Smith is 37. His parents divorced when he was a toddler. He lived with his manic-depressive mom. He's worked both as a church youth director and a policeman, sometimes at the same time. So it's not surprising that when he sat down to write a musical capable of getting onto Broadway, he didn't develop one about happy-all-the-time people or with sparkly angels descending on wires: "My show is about a guy who trades in human beings."

I watched that show's first read-through this summer and I've been following its development since then: The musical is titled Amazing Grace: The True Story, and it's the story of slave trader John Newton. With a powerful plot, moving lyrics, and soaring score, the musical has a good shot at success-and, as Smith says, his production "is rare because it's a non-Bible-based story designed to give Broadway-style entertainment while still presenting the gospel clearly and plainly."

That is unusual. From 1968 through 1971 three musicals with quasi-biblical themes made it big in Manhattan: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell. Sometimes they merely used the Bible as their jumping-off point, and sometimes (as with Jesus Christ Superstar) they jumped entirely off the Bible, but in any event that surge soon ended.

Since then several large-scale commercial "Christian theaters" have been successful in suburban and rural areas: Among them are the 30-year-old Sight & Sound Theatre outside Lancaster, Pa., and others in Branson, Mo., Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Orlando. They have staged Bible stories such as In the Beginning, Abraham & Sarah, Ruth, Psalms of David, and Behold the Lamb, often with live animals and special effects so that a stage Jesus could walk on water.

But those locales are all a long way from Broadway, and their audiences are generally people who already identify with Christianity. Chris Smith's goal is a Broadway show that will reach people who, like John Newton for a time, are removed from biblical understanding.

"Music was an escape," says Smith about his youth. He listened to John Williams movie scores and taught himself to play the guitar, then graduated from Eastern College in 1992 and went immediately to Police Academy. He began work on Amazing Grace in 1997 and soon understood that two human conflicts would drive the action: the battle between John Newton and his father, who expected much of his son and was often disappointed; and the tension between John and his eventual wife Mary, the heroine of the story for her willingness to wait, pray, and think about what it means to love someone who is unlovable.

Amazing Grace: The True Story makes a journey of faith part of a coming-of-age drama backed by a setting of slavery, high sea adventure, recovery from isolation and malaria, and corrupting power over other lives. The musical crux of the conflict between God and Newton comes with "Nowhere Left to Run," the seventh song in Act 2. Newton, after spending a year buying and selling slaves-he even sold one African who had saved his life-finally pays attention to a foreboding question: "When your sin and guilt have worn you down,/ where will you go when there's nowhere left to run?"

Smith wrote many of the songs seven years ago by sitting at a keyboard, tapping out melodies, and talking out lyrics like, "For many a man has come before you. / Many a man has passed / and the world keeps on turning just the same. / But you spend your time chasing / after pleasures that never last. / None of them can ever heal your shame."

Many a musical has passed, and the world keeps on turning just the same. But due out next spring is an audio CD of the Amazing Grace music, sung by Broadway stars with a major symphony orchestra: That should prime the pump for a world premiere early in 2009. Smith's goal is to help his audience to see that we need something beyond us to heal our shame-and to encourage more Christians not to settle for an evangelical ghetto, but to give their regards to Broadway.