July 25, 2015
"Amazing Grace" is Far Too Ordinary
Whatever happens to Amazing Grace, the first musical to open in this new Broadway season, Christopher Smith, the main creative force behind the show, should consider himself a winner. For against the odds, Smith a former cop who had never written anything professionally, not only co-wrote the show’s book and composed its music and lyrics (click here to read about how he did it) but got people to pony up a reported $16 million to get it on Broadway (a full-page ad in the Playbill is devoted to thanking his angels).
The resulting show, however, hasn’t been so blessed. The major critics have been almost unanimous in condemning it (click here to read some of what they had to say). Regular theatergoers have been equally unenthusiastic. Nearly a third of the seats at the Nederlander Theatre where Amazing Grace officially opened last week are going empty. And so many folks left during intermission at the performance my sister Joanne and I saw that we ended up with an unobstructed view of the stage when half the row in front of us failed to return.
There are several reasons for all of this—the show's earnest attitude at a time when swagger is more prized, a score that shows some promise, especially for a novice, but that also shows how it takes more than promise to write truly distinctive lyrics and music—but the biggest reason may be the mishandling of the show’s themes of race and redemption.
Amazing Grace tells the story of John Newton, the 18th century British slave trader who was temporarily enslaved himself, later became a preacher and abolitionist and then wrote the titular song, which over the years has become probably the best known and most beloved hymn of all time. Its redemptive power was invoked most recently when President Obama began singing it at the funeral of the black minister shot inside his church alongside eight of his parishioners by a white supremacist.
Smith and Arthur Giron, who co-wrote the musical's book, don't actually say much about how Newton came to write the song. Instead, they have turned his story into a quotidian coming-of-age tale about a callow young man’s quest to win the approval of his disapproving father and the love of the childhood sweetheart who persists in seeing the best in him.
History has been scrambled to suit their purpose. While the show’s young Newton becomes an ardent abolitionist in time to lead an audience sing-along of “Amazing Grace” at the curtain call, the real-life Newton continued to invest in the slave trade until he was in his 60s and only began speaking out against slavery—and writing his famous hymn—after he’d secured his fortune from it.
Like so many others before them, Smith and Giron have also chosen to tell a story about the indignities of racism from the perspective of a white person. They do take pains to include black characters and a few are given backstories as well as stirring anthems to sing but they’re still depicted primarily as loyal servants willing to sacrifice themselves for their masters or mistresses, campy villains or nameless slaves and natives.
To be fair, director Gabriel Barre does make a good-faith attempt to show the horrors of slavery. In a scene set at a slave auction, a small cage crammed with actors portraying slaves is rolled onstage and then, one by one, the actors are yanked out, displayed, bid on and then branded. I knew I was supposed to feel empathy for the characters but I felt more anxious about how playing that scene night after night might affect the actors.
Another scene set in Africa made me equally uncomfortable as black dancers performed stereotypically chest and butt jutting movements that were supposed to represent African dance. I expected more from Christopher Gattelli, the Tony-winning choreographer for Newsies, or I expected the producers to bring in someone who had a better feel for that style of dancing, which can be as nuanced and narrative-illuminating as any other.
The producers did manage to make some smart choices in other areas however and you can see where they spent their money. There are over 30 people in the cast and even though Smith’s music may be unmemorable, all the principal performers, lead by Josh Young as Newton, Erin Mackey as his lady love Mary, Laiona Michelle as Mary’s servant Nanna and Chuck Cooper as Newton’s manservant Thomas sing the hell out of their songs (click here to read an interview with Cooper).
This is also a gorgeous show to look at. Eugene Lee and Edward Piece have designed a set that is elegant and flexible, as is the lighting by Ken Billington and Paul Miller. One scene, set underwater, creates a moment of almost transcendent grace.
The whole show could have used more of that.
Labels: Amazing Grace