A Musical Written by a Local Man Tells the Amazing Story Behind the Hymn
By Samantha Melamed, Inquirer Staff Writer
In 2007, Brian Middleton, a businessman in Bedminster, Bucks County, received an awkward phone call from a friend.
“He’d met a guy at his church who’d written a musical, and he asked if I would come over to listen and consider investing,” Middleton said. “In all candor, I thought it was going to be a really uncomfortable meeting.”
The aspiring composer, Christopher Smith, was an amateur who didn’t know how to read or even write music. But Middleton thought he couldn’t say no – so he listened to Smith sing love songs for two hours.
“What should have been the two most uncomfortable hours of my life were really moving,” Middleton recalled. “I called my wife and said, ‘I think we’re going to throw some money down the drain here.’ ”
This week, he’ll get an indication of whether that quixotic investment will pay off.
On Thursday, the musical, Amazing Grace – written by an ex-police officer from Warwick, backed by a coalition of Bucks County investors, and starring an actor from Wallingford – opens on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre. It tells an equally unlikely story: that of John Newton, a British slave trader turned clergyman and abolitionist who wrote the famous hymn in 1772.
The idea came to Smith, 45, as if by divine providence.
Though he’d studied history at Eastern College – before serving, variously, as a police officer in Bryn Athyn and Upper Moreland, a private investigator, and a church education director – Smith hadn’t heard of Newton until one day in 1997, when he was killing time in a library.
At random, he picked up a biography of Newton. As he read, he saw latent potential in the dramatic arc of Newton’s story, and the power of the hymn.
A fan of mega-musicals, he imagined a show along the lines of Les Misérables: an epic with a large cast and sets to transport them from England to Africa to Barbados.
“I immediately envisioned it as a huge musical,” Smith said. “But I didn’t know how to make it huge. I didn’t know anybody in the industry.”
There was one more problem: “I had no training or experience that would lead me to think I could do this.”
Smith explained he has crazy dreams all the time: for books, inventions, and businesses.
Amazing Grace could have been just another fantasy. But his wife, Alana, pushed him: “She said, ‘You tell young people all the time, ‘Follow your dream. Dream big. You have to do it yourself.’ ”
So, Smith tinkered. During breaks from police work or downtime on lonely night shifts, he’d sing tunes into a small recorder he carried with him. Song ideas came to him, fully orchestrated.
“I just emoted,” he said. Then, he used a computer program to tap in the instrumental parts.
About a decade into the project, Smith mentioned it to a friend, Rich Timmons, an art gallery owner in Doylestown. Timmons and his wife, Julie, asked to hear a few songs.
Timmons said they were moved to tears, and to action. Smith needed funding and connections, so Timmons began making calls. He arranged dozens of meetings, and Smith sang for prospective investors in their homes, at cookouts, and in the offices of bank presidents across Bucks County. Many backers were involved in churches, and found the messages of faith and family inspirational.
That year, Bucks County businesspeople chipped in $500,000 – enough for Smith, a father of three, to focus full time on the project and to begin producing staged readings.
They held a reading in borrowed space at the Empire State Building. Only one producer attended, Carolyn Rossi Copeland – and she was skeptical. But Smith persisted.
Eventually, Copeland agreed to put together a team, including Gabriel Barre as director and Arthur Giron as cowriter. They would help rewrite the narrative structure – which ballooned to include the tangle of a fraught father-son relationship; the love story of Newton and his wife, Mary Catlett; the travails of the English abolitionist movement; and Newton’s redemption – and translate Smith’s computer-based music notations into full orchestral arrangements.
It would be the largest production Copeland had undertaken. She thought about paring it down, but couldn’t make it work. Instead, she had to raise a great deal of money.
That’s when Alexander Rankin, founder of Telford-based Vulcan Springs, stepped in. He provided seed funding for a developmental production with Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut. Then, he and Copeland drummed up support for a trial run in Chicago, and, finally, $16.4 million for the Broadway run with a cast of 32.
Those funds helped pay for a lush production, including elaborate period costumes by Toni-Leslie James and clever choreography by Christopher Gattelli (who, incidentally, grew up in Bristol) – not to mention impressive special effects, including gun fights and a memorable underwater scene.
In Chicago, critical praise was tempered by concerns about addressing slavery through the lens of a white slave trader, with black roles limited to familiar tropes: loyal manservant, wise nanny, and fierce African queen.
Still, Smith was encouraged by the audiences.
“The industry didn’t know how people would respond. But when you get 1,800 people in Chicago standing up and singing at the end of the show, crying, and coming back three or four times, that’s when they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you a shot.’ ”
Smith said he responded to the Chicago critics by creating a more central role for a slave character who now narrates the introduction and conclusion of the musical.
And during New York previews, he’s been using skills he honed on the beat to observe audiences and adjust the script.
“Audiences will tell you everything you need to know: sitting back, sitting forward, gasping, opening their mouths, the way they breathe,” he said. “Ever since being a police officer, I’ve been a real student of human behavior.”
Josh Young, who plays John Newton, said the response so far has been unlike anything else he’s experienced.
Young – who grew up in Wallingford and trained at Media Theatre, Upper Darby Summer Stage, and the Players Club of Swarthmore – has been with the show since that first reading for Copeland in 2009.
He still worries about how the show will be received, with its raw portrayals of slavery. But, he added, “It’s the only show I’ve ever done where the audience is on their feet before the show ends.”
Smith, whose police certifications have lapsed, is expecting great things. And he has more musicals in his head: one set in ancient Ireland, another about Thomas Edison.
As for Amazing Grace, a great deal depends on opening-night reviews, which will inform decisions like how much will be spent on marketing the open-ended run.
But when President Obama began singing “Amazing Grace” in June at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., it affirmed for Copeland that the show’s time had come.
“People want to have a serious conversation about race relations and about the brutality that is continuing in our country. So I think it is the perfect moment,” she said. “People want to have hope.”
Editor’s note: This July 14, 2015 article is reprinted by permission of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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