August 20, 2015 ALEX NAGORSKI
Amazing Grace

Now Playing on Broadway
@ NYC’s Nederlander Theatre

Amazing Grace is a new original musical based on the awe-inspiring true story behind the world’s most beloved song. A captivating tale of romance, rebellion and redemption, this radiant production follows one man whose incredible journey ignited a historic wave of change.

John Newton (Tony Award® nominee Josh Young), a willful and musically talented young Englishman, faces a future as uncertain as the turning tide. Coming of age as Britain sits atop an international empire of slavery, he finds himself torn between following in the footsteps of his father – a slave trader – or embracing the more compassionate views of his childhood sweetheart (Erin Mackey). Accompanied by his slave, Thomas (Tony Award® winner Chuck Cooper), John embarks on a perilous voyage on the high seas. When that journey finds John in his darkest hour, a transformative moment of self-reckoning inspires a blazing anthem of hope that will finally guide him home.

Brimming with emotion and adventure, Amazing Grace is an unforgettable musical saga that captures the spirit of history’s sweetest and most powerful sound: freedom.




In June, President Obama ended his eulogy at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, with a stirring rendition of the classic hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It was a profoundly moving moment in reaction to the disturbing rise of racial violence and intolerance in our country.

“Amazing Grace” is a timeless song that is very often associated with the fight of African-Americans for equality in the United States. And while it’s one that is widely cherished and holds significance for countless people, the story of how it came to be is not one that many people are familiar with.

That is the focus of the new musical Amazing Grace, now playing at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre. With music and lyrics by former police officer and theatrical newcomer Christopher Smith, choreography by Christopher Gattelli (Newsies; The King and I) and direction by Gabriel Barre (The Wild Party), the show explores the genesis and history of the iconic song and the man who wrote it – a Caucasian British slave trader whose journey transforms him from a brutal human trafficker into a passionate abolitionist and pastor.

It’s not often that the central character in a musical is someone the audience hates. Yet John Newton is a selfish, spoiled, racist brat whose actions are beyond inhumane. As the titular song explains, Newton “once was lost” and the disgusting behavior he exhibits until he is “found” near the end of the production is difficult to stomach. Newton brands slaves at an auction and forms a business partnership with an African princess to imprison her own people. Little wonder that the audience roots against him for most of the show.

“With his hands John Newton enslaved thousands, but with his words he helped to free millions,” says Pakuteh, Newton’s slave, as the show’s curtain rises. “You have heard the song, though you may not have known it was his. How could something so beautiful come from someone so wretched? I will tell you, because I was there and it is a story that must be told.” And while Newton ultimately does find humanity hidden deep within himself, it’s the harrowing stories of the characters whose lives are impacted by his cruelty that command the audience’s attention.

As Pakuteh, Chuck Cooper’s scene-stealing performance is simultaneously poignant and heartbreaking. After raising Newton and saving his life during a shipwreck (in a jaw-dropping and visually magnificent scene at the end of act one), Pakuteh is sold into slavery simply so that Newton can show off his power to those who question him. His song “Nowhere Left to Run” is a devastating cry of betrayal and defeat. When Pakuteh points out that Newton spent his life calling him Thomas because he doesn’t even know his real name, it becomes quite challenging to remember Newton as a man who ultimately sought atonement instead of as the abusive monster he once was.

Newton’s love interest, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), has lived a sheltered life and it’s not until she witnesses firsthand the horrors of how slaves are treated during the auction Newton is conducting that she realizes the reality and severity of the world she lives in. This inspires her to secretly join the abolitionist movement and spy on a British major who thinks she will one day soon be his wife. Like Newton, Catlett was brought up by a slave who showed her more caring and compassion than even her biological parents did. But unlike Newton, Catlett needs no convincing or life-or-death experiences to do all that she can to better the lives of those around her.

In order to more fully understand the treatment of Africans, Catlett turns to Nanna (Laiona Michelle), the woman who brought her up. As an adult, she for the first time in her life asks Nanna questions about her past prior to her arrival in England. She learns that Nanna had a daughter in Africa from whom she was viciously separated when she was traded into slavery. Since Nanna has not seen or spoken to her child in years, she has no idea what happened to her. This makes Catlett the closest thing she has to a daughter in the new life she was forced into. But as Catlett and Nanna’s bond intensifies, those who suspect that she has a hidden agenda with the British major capture Nanna as a way of preventing her from aiding the abolitionists. Can Catlett follow through with her plan of exposing the brutality of the slave trade to the Prince and still manage to save her friend?

As Newton, Josh Young is a vocal powerhouse. Songs like the catchy opener “Truly Alive” seem custom built to show off the golden and resounding classical-meets-pop tenor voice that earned him a Tony nomination in 2012 for his Broadway debut as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Young has been attached to Amazing Grace since its first reading in 2009, and bringing Newton’s story to life on the stage has proven to be an incredibly rewarding experience for the actor.

“It’s actually amazing that it’s never been made into a musical before. As far as I’m concerned the source material, his life story, is like musical theater gold. It’s the stuff that musical theater is made for,” Young told Time Out of the show’s epic scale. “I don’t think any of us would be exactly where we are in terms of the butterfly effect of one person – what he did really rippled throughout. He actually planted the seeds for the abolition of slavery in Europe and over in America.”

By the time that Newton finally has his literal come-to-Jesus moment and realizes how repugnant a person he has been, the audience anxiously awaits his crafting of “Amazing Grace.” The show closes with a gorgeous arrangement of the song. The number of people who get up from their seats to stand and sing along with the entire company on stage is a testament to the song’s everlasting power—and to the power of its inspirational origin story.

Click HERE to purchase tickets to Amazing Grace, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City’s Broadway district.

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.