The musical Amazing Grace has now officially opened at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater (208 West 41st Street in New York City). The play is inspired by the epic true story of John Newton, the British slave ship captain who want on to become a major Christian proponent for the abolition of slavery and the author of the timeless spiritual Amazing Grace.
While Newton’s conversion journey is indeed amazing, the story of a how a Pennsylvania cop took it upon himself to write a large scale musical is also a story of God’s grace. Somehow, Christopher Smith reached down inside himself and found the talent and courage to take on the challenge of seeing his seemingly impossible dream through to reality. Lingk2Us recently spoke with him about his personal journey to Broadway.
Lk2US: I know you were a Pennsylvania cop before taking it upon yourself to turn the story of John Newton into a musical.
Christopher Smith: I had two careers. I was a police officer and I was also a youth counselor and education ministry (director)… One day I was in the library just sort of wandering about. I literally pulled a book off the shelf at random. And that was it. I read the story of a man I’d never heard of and I just couldn’t believe that. I consider myself fairly well educated. I’m a history major (but) I had no idea who he was.
Lk2US: You know, it’s one thing if you were in the business to begin with. But you had nothing to do with Broadway or show business. I mean what possessed you to take on a pro ject like this?
CS: I felt called to do it. The long and short of it is that when I heard the story (and) found out that no one had done it as a musical, it just called (out) to me. If involved leaving my careers. It involved great risk to myself, my family and our economic future. I don’t know what made me think that I could do it. I had a band. I wrote folks songs and songs for praise and worship but nothing like this.
Lk2US: So, you had some background in music.
CS: I taught myself to play the guitar. I’m like a troubadour kind of guy. But what I had to do was I had to develop an understanding and a language to communicate complete orchestral ideas to a Broadway professional.
Lk2US: Even given your background in music, you would think someone coming from where you were – and fascinated by John Newton – might decide to write a book or a screenplay about him. Deciding to write a Broadway musical was very ambitious to say the least. Why’d you go that route?
CS: Because it cried out for it…. The life that he had, the twists and turns, the fact that (John Newton) was an artist himself and had written one of the iconic songs of all time, just seemed to me to say “This is a musical.” And I love musicals. I acted in musicals when I was in high school and a little (in) college. So, I’d put myself in the “dedicated fan” category.
Lk2US: What musicals had you acted in?
CS: My first musical was Grease when I was in high school. And then I was Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat also when I was in high school.
Lk2US: When did you realize “Hey, I’m going to have to leave my jobs to do this?”
CS: One of the things I had to do was go out and raise money for this. I knew if I came into New York with just an idea, no experience and no training, there was a very good chance the idea would get taken and given to people that were in their comfort zone.
So, what I did was I went and I decided to raise money right in my hometown through business leaders that were right in my area. As I did that, we raised $350,000 in the first month…In people’s backyards and in their offices, I would tell (the investors) this incredible story and sing them the songs that I was working on. Eventually, when it began to gain momentum and people really started getting behind it financially, they said “Look, we’ve got a lot invested in this. We really can’t have you getting run over in the street or anything.” So, I had to leave police work for that reason.
Lk2US: How did you fellow cops react when they learned what you were doing?
CS: I still don’t know that they know what it is I really do…They knew I’ve always been an artistic person but I don’t think they knew I had this in me. I didn’t.
Lk2US: How long were you a cop?
CS: I was in law enforcement a total of 10 years in different capacities. I was a Pennsylvania State constable. I was a municipal police officer in two different departments, one full-time, one part-time. I was also an undercover investigator for a private agency for a while too.
Lk2US: So, you would actually go undercover and infiltrate places?
CS: Yes. I would go in any my cover would be the janitor – which is a great cover, by the way. If you ever have to infiltrate anywhere, the janitor is the best way to go. You put some headphones on but you don’t plug them into anything. You just wander around and
people will say anything around service professionals.
CS: There you go. I gave away my secret…. So, I kind of skipped from career to career and all the time I was working at churches and volunteering when I wasn’t being paid. When I was being paid, I always found some way to keep my hand in both.
Lk2US: How did your wife and family take to the idea of you leaving your work to pursue the Broadway dream?
CS: I have three children and my wife is the reason the project actually got made. When I went home and told her what I discovered, you know, the subject came up that somebody should do this. She was the one that said “You should do it!” Basically, the challenge she put to me was “You say all the time (that) God made you for a reason. Don’t put yourself in a box. Don’t limit yourself. Accept the challenges you’re given with faith and courage.” So, I had to put up or shut up. That’s the reason why I started it.
Lk2US: And your kids are on board?
CS: My 19-year-old daughter is my assistant in New York. She is with me every step of the way. I have a 22-year-old who is now off writing his own stuff at college. And then I have a three-year-old!
Lk2US: Nice and spread out there! How long are you married?
CS: Since 1992, so a long time.
Lk2US: How did you get the play to Carolyn Rossi Copeland (Godspell), the executive producer?
CS: She came out to an event. We produced little concerts, sort of reading events in several places. One of the places we did was in the Empire State Building…We did a presentation just to sort of test the waters. We had several people from Les Misérables from when it was on Broadway the last time that really believed in the show and wanted to come out and help us. They would come out and work for us during the day and they would go and do their shows at night.
Lk2US: What was it like to with an established playwright like Arthur Giron (Emilie’s Voltaire) on the show’s book?
CS: He’s great. Arthur is my co-author on the book which means that he helped with story issues, dramaturgy, big picture issues, continuity and things like that. Most of the words you hear in the show are mine…One the most important and selfless decisions that Arthur made early on was he did not want to completely gut the show and rewrite it. There was a lot that was working. What we needed to do was to sharpen the focus. We needed to deepen the story and we needed to go further. I think I was playing it safe in some ways and he really had to say “No, it’s okay to go further in these areas.”
Lk2US: What areas did you push a little further than you
CS: I think one of the things was I was not really investing much as much myself in the show as I should have been. It was coming off autobiographical. It was coming off a little documentary style. I was very rooted in the history – I was a history major – but, basically he taught me that shows are of the heart. You have to bring everything that you are. You have to be willing to follow the story wherever it leads and follow the characters and what their discoveries lead you to…Every musical, if it’s based on history, is an adaptation. There’s no such thing as an “accurate” historical (play). Even Shakespeare’s plays were not. (His) history plays were not…accurate. There were entertainment – but they’re entertainment with a heart and a core and a historical basis.
Lk2US: What was it like seeing the show open in Chicago and then later begin previewing in New York City?
CS: Well, Chicago was wonderful! What a great theater town! We learned so much because they just really understand theater. They love great entertainment. The closest you can get to a New York audience is Chicago. So, seeing 1800 fill the Bank of America Theater (and) watching them weep and laugh taught us so much about what was working and what we needed to do more of. And now that we’re in New York, we’re continuing that process.
Lk2US: How does it feel to be on Broadway?
CS: It’s incredible! I mean it’s totally not something that I deserve or expect or anything. It’s just a real blessing.
Lk2US: I guess I know the answer but would you like to see the musical Amazing Grace adapted into a film?
CS: I’d love to see it adapted to a film. I’d love to take it on tour and have it go to other countries in translations. Hopefully, someday it will be performed at high schools and colleges and those sort of things. I really want it to be out there for young people
memorize and act in themselves – do what I did!
Lk2US: And the audiences have been responding well.
CS: Oh, yeah. The audiences are great!
Lk2US: I guess you’ve gotten the showbiz bug, at least a little bit. What’s next?
CS: I do have another show. It’s set in Ancient Ireland. But that is a story for another time.
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