Christopher Smith was a cop in Pennsylvania in 2006 waiting for a meeting to begin at a local library when he casually picked up a history book and read about John Newton, an 18th century British sailor and Anglican clergyman who was involved in slave trade and then fought for its abolishment.
Interesting story, thought Smith who was also a musician. “Someone should make a musical about this,” he thought.
Then he finished reading the story and learned Newton also wrote the classic hymn “
Smith was hooked. He had the musical in his mind.
On Thursday he saw the fruits of his labor to turn that historical tidbit into a stage production when his Amazing Grace” had its world premiere at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester.
“It is amazing,” said Smith, who co-wrote the book with Arthur Giron and then went on to write the music and lyrics for the play that tracks Newton’s tumultuous young adulthood to his moral conversion and penning of the “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” best known as “Amazing Grace.” “I had no formal training in writing musicals or doing anything like this, but I could hear it in my head,” he said. “I have written a musical.”
The response was encouraging and overwhelming from audience members at the opening night, as entranced by the history as they were the music.
“I just never put two and two together,” said Amos Greene, a New London resident who said he was curious when he read that the play was about slavery. “Amazing Grace always brings my congregation to its feet, and to find out its roots come from the fight against slavery, makes it just more powerful.”
The storey also tracks the long and bumpy romantic relationship between Newton and his eventual wife, Mary Catlett, played by Whitney Bashor.
“I couldn’t tell for sure but she must have waited for him for 10 years,” said Westbrook resident, Rebecca Landerman, about the on again, off again relationship between the two characters as Newton sailed the seas before returning to England. “That’s love.”
Catlett and Newton weren’t the only ones celebrating love.
The longtime Goodspeed supporters will be celebrating their 60th anniversary in a few days and they are going back to where it all began, their honeymoon room at The Pierre Hotel in New York City.
“My uncle drove us there from our wedding on Long Island,” recalled Dave Viola. “The room cost a lot more now than it did back then,” he joked about the suite that overlooks Central Park. “But it was wonderful,” chimed in Lucille Viola, who has a surprise for her groom as the celebrate six decades together.
“I still have the white nightgown from our honeymoon night,” she said, noting that it too will be making the anniversary trip to The Big Apple.
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