To see President Obama break into “Amazing Grace” at the June funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney was to witness the continuing force of a hymn written more than two and a half centuries ago. This would lead us to expect a show entitled Amazing Grace about its songwriter John Newton to move us emotionally and spiritually.
Amazing Grace, which has opened at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater, tells the story of John Newton, an 18th century English slave trader who underwent a religious conversion and became a popular preacher, writer, and (eventually) an influential abolitionist. It is an amazing story, but it is told on stage mostly in less than an amazing way. The new musical combines a coming-of-age tale, love story, slave narrative, costume drama, and Saturday morning adventure serial. It tries to do many things at once, in other words, in what winds up being the theatrical equivalent of an unstable alloy.
For all that, we don’t actually learn much about the song (for which Newton only wrote the words; the familiar melody was attached to it decades after his death.) This is true even though its marketing campaign promises the “true story behind the world’s most beloved song.” What they must mean is the story of the “wretch” John Newton, who learns to see.
The musical begins in 1744 with the teenage Newton arriving back in England after spending a year as a merchant marine, having dropped out of school in defiance of his father. John is callow, callous and arrogant (portrayed by Josh Young, who made his Broadway debut as Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar.) Straightaway we meet Mary (Erin Mackey), who has loved John (and he her) since they were children, and Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), John’s father, with whom John has been in a testy relationship since his mother died when he was young. Captain Newton owns a huge successful company that traffics in slaves. As an act of rebellion, and an assertion of his manhood, John immediately presides over one of his father’s slave auctions, without his father’s knowledge.
It’s a jarring, uncomfortable scene, as it’s meant to be; the slaves are brought out dressed in dirty rags and chains from a crate, auctioned off and branded with a hot iron. Scenes such as this, as well as the stories that the various slave characters tell, offer the strongest moments of the musical. They are enhanced immeasurably by the presence of Chuck Cooper, the versatile, Tony®-winning actor of some dozen Broadway productions, such as The Life, Finian’s Rainbow and Caroline, or Change. He portrays Thomas, abducted from Sierra Leone and bought to become John’s servant and, in effect, surrogate father. Now as always in fine, deep voice, Cooper helps us see Thomas’s innate dignity and intelligence but also the way injuries and humiliations big and small wear him down.
Director Gabriel Barre has said that Cooper’s contribution goes way beyond his performance; his improvisations during rehearsal helped shape what audiences now see on stage.
To its credit, the musical’s treatment of slavery occasionally goes beyond scenes of brutality. At one point, John tries to justify his involvement in the slave trade to the disapproving Mary:
“Do you think cotton picks itself? Or that sugar just appears on your table? The coffee in your cupboard, the indigo in your dress, even the teak in your church pews depends on the trade. This is the world we live in; we don’t have to like it.”
But such brief, subtle explorations of the repercussions of slavery must compete with a high quota of swashbuckling and melodrama. The scene that begins with the slave auction ends with caped and masked abolitionists attacking John and his cohorts, staged like an action sequence borrowed from the movies – complete with a bizarre freeze-frame effect. There is also: a shouted confrontation between John and his rival for Mary’s affection, an effete red-coated Major Gray (Chris Hoch), an extensive gun fight, John’s kidnapping and whipping and seduction by an exotic African princess, and not one, but two shipwrecks, with some attention-grabbing special effects — loud booms, flashing lights, billowing stage smoke, and an admittedly impressive bit of stagecraft involving an underwater rescue.
There is a scene where we see the sexy, ruthless slave-trader Princess Peyai (Harriett D. Foy), scantily dressed in gold and surrounded by her warriors, scantily dressed in feathers, dancing around in a circle to African-inflected music. This struck me as a jaw dropper on the level of The Producers. Is this an effort at authenticity (Christopher Smith, the musical’s conceiver, composer and co-book writer, says the princess is based on a historical figure), or is this a scene out of an updated Tarzan movie?
Much time, talent and money has gone into this well-meaning project to tell the story of John Newton. But it’s a musical hobbled by a misunderstanding of what makes good theater. The moment that is supposed to mark the beginning of Newton’s spiritual reawakening gets lost among all the derring-do and special effects. The extraordinary true story is presented in such a transparently calculated way to win over the widest possible audience that much of the drama seems pat and unpersuasive.
What about the music in this musical?
There is nothing to object to in the nearly two dozen newly composed songs, even less objectionable than might otherwise be the case thanks to the strong voices of the cast. But the power ballads they pull off so adroitly suddenly fade into oblivion when Josh Young very quietly and so, so sweetly sings:
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see
And then one by one the rest of the cast join in, until the entire company is singing the song, and then they sing it again, and everybody is standing and cheering and singing and waving their arms in the air, and some fool in the audience is weeping, and that fool is me.
Amazing Grace is on stage at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre ( 208 West 41st Street, New York, NY 10036, west of 7th Avenue) Tickets and details.