An “Amazing” Journey to Broadway
An interview with the cop turned playwright, Christopher Smith
In 1977, Christopher Smith saw Star Wars 32 times in the theater. What drove him back again and again? Was it the special effects, the creatures, or the lightsabers? The chemistry among the cast that helped drive that franchise? Nope. It was the music. Smith obsessed over the John Williams score, would often becomes lost in soundtracks– especially the ones that seemed to transport him somewhere entirely new. Smith loved the stage, the theater. He obsessed over his favorite musicals– Les Miserable, Man of La Mancha, West Side Story. Smith dabbled in acting, songwriting and folk music and he graduated from Pennsylvania’s Eastern University in 1993 with degrees in history and youth ministry. From there he joined the police academy. He got married, started a family, and in 1997– a story of redemption changed his life. It was the story of John Newton.
Newton captained a slave ship in the 18th Century, but eventually renounced the practice. He became an Anglican minister and composed, quite possibly, the most famous hymn of all time: Amazing Grace. Christopher Smith felt the power of Newton’s transformation. Encouraged by his family and his community, he wrote a musical based on the life of the former slave trader. In his head, Smith envisioned the passion and vast scale of his beloved Les Mis with the accessibility of Andrew Lloyd Webber– and in 2015 Amazing Grace, the musical, debuted at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. His first time out, Christopher Smith got a hit show on Broadway.
Do you think being an outsider, out of that “New York” musical scene actually helped you? Because you weren’t hung up on any preconcieved notion of what your play was supposed to be?
CS- Absolutely. If I had continued my theatre education and gone into the professional theatre out of college, what I would have learned is what you’re not allowed to talk about, what you’re not allowed to like– and it would’ve been a disaster, because I would have realized very quickly that doing a show about “Amazing Grace” was a loser right at the start! It has to deal with faith. It has to deal with personal transformation. It’s a very heavy subject… In 120 years of broadway history no one has ever dealt with the issue of slavery like we have. No one’s ever portrayed a slave auction on stage.
That’s done live, on stage– the actual slave auction?
Oh, yeah, yeah– and it’s disturbing.
Were you watching from the wings the first night that debuted? Yes! And it was… In fact, after the first preview, I never really watched the show again because I was watching the audience. I sit in those little opera box seats that are kind of off to the side, and I watch the audience because the audience tells me everything I need to know. A lot of writers in the theatre seem afraid of the audience, because the audience hurts you, they tell you what you don’t want to hear– but I love ‘em because they’re honest. And they don’t have to say a word. It’s not like you have to do a survey or a talk-back. You just watch ‘em… And when that moment came, when they realized that this happy, sort of “Jolly-old England” scene that they were seeing was built on a foundation of slavery and human misery… It spreads like cold wave through the room… And you feel the air just get sucked out of the room as they realize this. And they sort of go… ‘Cause I think they think a show called Amazing Grace is gonna be happy! They don’t realize that the joy that’s gonna come through this is through, deep reget, and repentance, and transformation– and that’s what makes it a powerful piece. We do not gloss over what a wretch John Newton was.
Your first time out… Your first play, your first musical– you strike gold that very first time going to Broadway. It’s a hit. What are you working on now?
What I do now is… I have an organization that I founded called Lights on Broadway, lightsonbroadway.org, and what we do– our tagline is: Virtue needs a voice in entertainment. We’re trying to raise up a new generation of composers, lyricists, songwriters, directors, and actors… All professionals in the theatre who want to do works that honor God, or even just celebrate virtue, and give them a place to grow, a place where they will be supported in that rather than set to the side as outcasts. We want to encourage and facilitate them writing and developing new works that run against the stream of what the culture is doing. ‘Cause our entertainment industry is just a wreck right now. From the choices that individuals make, choices that the industry as a whole has made… We really think that a dose of virtue is what the country needs and also what the industry needs.