Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Voyage of the Saved. How slave ship captain and self-described wretch John Newton was saved by God’s grace and went on to become a force in the fight to abolish slavery is the epic story told in Amazing Grace. The new Broadway musical, that draws its title from the timeless hymn written by Newton, begins previews at the Nederlander Theatre on June 25th.
The original songs (including music and lyrics) were written by Christopher Smith who co-wrote the book with playwright Arthur Giron.  Smith also created the concept for the show. Amazingly (there’s that word again), Amazing Grace is Smith’s first work of professional writing. He first came up with the idea while working as a cop in Montgomery County, PA.
As I wrote in this space recently, I had the opportunity to attend a showcase of songs from the show and I was impressed. Afterward, I had the opportunity to speak with the show’s executive producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland — whose resume includes stage productions of Cotton Patch Gospel, Painting Churches, The Boys Next Door, the first revival of Godspell and Freud’s Last Session. 

JWK: You’re a very successful producer and Christopher Smith is a first time writer. How did his work find its way to you? 

CAROLYN ROSSI COPELAND: Christopher Smith actually read a book in a library about John Newton and he was totally fascinated by it — and then at the end, as a last sentence, they said “Oh, and John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.” And so he become TOTALLY fascinated by it. He began working on (the play) and invited me to a concert in 2oo6 or 2007. At that point, I was so taken by the music — as you can imagine after what you heard…We brought an entire theatrical team around it and began to develop it.

JWK: And I know the show was very well-received during its test run in Chicago.

CRP: Yes. We actually went to the Goodspeed Opera House (in Connecticut) first, then to Chicago’s Bank of America Theater which has 2200 seats.  It was no small feat and now into the Nederlander Theater.

JWK: How closely does the show follow the true story of John Newton?

CRP: Some things…are a fictional embellishment for the drama but we follow his life story pretty accurately. His mother died. His father sent him off to boarding school. He was abandoned. He worked on a slave ship. He was enslaved in Africa. He ended up escaping, having his conversion on the ship. He heads back to England and marries Mary Catlett and becomes a minister. He writes the hymn much later in life. We compressed the time on all of that but we follow that storyline. The princess who enslaved him is a real character. Thomas, his slave, is not necessarily a real character but he’s indicative of slaves of the period. But we follow his story pretty closely. The highlights of his life are all there.

JWK: What did you find to be most interesting and surprising about his life?

CRP: (laughs) That I didn’t know anything about it!

JWK: What do you hope people take from his story?

CRP: I’m thrilled that we’re introducing (audiences to) John Newton who is as important a figure in history as Abraham Lincoln — in terms of emancipation…That’s a really important part of it and then there’s (the idea) that, with God, people can change. John Newton was a wretch — thus the lyric “saved a wretch like me.” He was able to go from a wretch to a man who changed the world.

JWK: Amazing Grace is, of course, widely regarded as one of the greatest songs ever written. Was it a daunting task to create additional songs to stand beside it in this play?

CRP: The finale is Amazing Grace.  By that time people are cheering and weeping and up on their feet…The storytelling (and original music) brings it to the point where when you hear that song it just really does it justice.

JWK: There was, of course, the film Amazing Grace in 2006.

CRP: But that was about William Wilberforce. Eric Metaxas who wrote (the book about his life) is a dear friend of mine. He actually came to see our show in Chicago and gave us the most amazing quote about how much he loved it.

JWK: So, the stories of William Wilberforce, the British politician who pushed for an end to England’s participation in the slave trade, and John Newton are related — but they are two different stories.

CRP: John Newton was his mentor…William Wilberforce picked up John Newton’s work (and took it to) the British Parliament.

JWK: Do you see Amazing Grace — the musical about John Newton — being adapted into a movie?

CRP: Oh, my goodness, we would love that. First we have to be a success on Broadway. We just have to get people to buy tickets.

JWK: This is not the first faith-themed play you’ve produced. There was, for instance, Freud’s Last Session.

CRP: It was a dialogue between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud based on the book The Question of God by Armand Nicholi. It’s a beautiful play that ran for a couple of years in New York.

JWK: Does your own faith influence the productions you choose to tackle?

CRP: Yeah. I really believe that we’re responsible for the words we put out into the world. When you’re a producer and you’re putting on a play eight times a week, you have some responsibility as to what it is you’re putting into the world. So, I’ve chosen things that enhance and embrace who I am.

First and foremost, (the productions I do) have to be really good and, secondly, they have to able to be commercial. Like for example, taking a production like Amazing Grace, it’s really important to me that the message in the play is worthy and it also has to be excellent theater.

JWK: Your resume also includes the first revival of Godspell.

CRP: I did Godspell in I can’t remember what year. I (also) was Vice President (of Creative Affairs) at Radio City. So, I’ve been involved in theater for the last thirtysomething years. I worked at Radio City on the Christmas show.

JWK: What personally inspires you?

CRP: You know, I have raised four of the most fabulous daughters in the world. They inspire me. My husband inspires. And, I think, my calling has been my inspiration…to put one foot in front of the other and walk through the doors that God opens for me and always know that it’s the message and the way in which you make the message. It has to be excellent. You can’t sugarcoat things just because you want to tell a story like John Newton. It has to be as excellent as any piece of theater out there.

JWK: So, you consider storytelling a calling.

CRP: Yeah. I was raised Catholic. I spent my early years in Catholic schools — and all the pageantry involved in the Catholic Church. It’s very theatrical. I loved all of that. And then when I was thirteen, I went to a Baptist summer camp and somebody gave me a Bible and it was sort of like “Oh, I see how this all works together.” I felt God really gave me a vision very early in life that I wanted to be in the entertainment industry but in the way in which I felt responsible to the words that I wanted to put into the world.

JWK: I know you’re very involved with Amazing Grace right now — but any thought to what’s next?

CRP: Yeah, I’m actually working on a brand-new musical. You know, these things take years.  With Amazing Grace, I put in all my effort into that over the last (few) years….A young Tony-nominated actress (Elizabeth A. Davis) wrote a one-woman show that I thought would make a beautiful small musical. It’s called Indian Joe. We’re doing that at Goodspeed in the fall. It’s about (a Texas beauty queen’s) relationship with this homeless man. It’s really a beautiful story.

JWK: Anything else you’d like to say about Amazing Grace?

CRP: We’re trying to get the word out. This is not the easiest sell on Broadway. This is a departure from what is traditionally on Broadway — but it is a big Broadway musical. People will be entertained and uplifted.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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