“I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I hope to be. But by the grace of God, I am certainly not what I was.”
The life story behind these words of John Newton is being told in a new musical in development by Christopher Smith. I spent Monday afternoon and evening in Bucks County, PA, attending rehearsals and a concert/reading of this show, “Amazing Grace: The True Story,” and was immensely impressed by the work and richly blessed by the experience of the day.
What a beautiful place Bucks County is, and what loving, welcoming people at Hilltown Baptist Church who hosted the event. Chris had told me the community had been tremendously supportive of him and his effort and, boy, did it show -- in the church people who volunteered and the 1,225 people who turned out, overflowing into two side rooms with video setups.
I had ridden out in the morning on the train with Adam Jacobs and Ali Ewoldt (Marius and Cosette in “Les Miz”) who were playing Newton and Mary Catlett, the love of his life. We were met at the station in Trenton by Rich Timmons, a sweetheart of a person if there ever was one. In the hour’s drive out to Hillside he told us much about the area and pointed out things of interest. Now I know why I’ve always heard that Bucks County is so scenic. It is. It was a nice treat for a New Yorker to get a lovely ride in the country with such a knowledgeable tour guide.
The afternoon of rehearsals was interesting, getting to watch the behind-the-scenes process. Rich’s wife, Julie, made sure we were well fed at lunch and dinner. I enjoyed getting to know the other cast members, especially April Woodall who played Mrs. Catlett, Mary’s mother. She has a gorgeous voice that closed the concert on a soaring note to the heavens.
One of the biggest treat’s of the day was meeting Karen Burgman whom I had done a telephone interview with for her beautiful CD “The Impulse of His Love” (posted Sept. 5). What a warm, loving, joyful young woman. Karen was the pianist for the event and also wrote some of the music. Hearing her play in person was a gift. In addition to the eight soloists, she accompanied a 60-member choir made up of high school students from the Central Bucks High School and West Choirs under the direction of Dr. Joseph Ohrt.
The concert/reading of 11 songs was moving and leaves me with no doubt that Chris has a viable musical in the making. And why not, with a story with so much drama -- the death of a mother at a young age and exile to boarding school, the troubled relationship between father and son, romance, slavery, storm at sea and the dramatic conversion into profound faith. It’s epic, and Chris has captured it all, which actually is a story in itself. A former documentary video producer and police officer, he is completely self-taught and still can’t read music; he composes by ear. But over nine years he has followed his passion and his call and brought the work this far. He thoroughly researched Newton’s life and the history and culture of his time, creating the book, music and lyrics for the show. His next step is to record a concept CD early next year in Prague or London, where costs are a third to half what they are in New York. He will then work on mounting productions outside Manhattan, possibly in Branson, MO, or Lancaster, PA. Then, if his dream comes true, and I believe it will -- Broadway!
The audience response was overwhelmingly positive, but the most touching comment came from a woman who told Adam she had been diagnosed with cancer that day and that the performance had given her great comfort and strength. That’s what a good faith story can do, and that’s why a show like this needs to be out there in the world. As Rich pointed out at the start of the concert, “It’s a true story that’s been waiting 230 years to be told.”
Please pray for this musical and all those involved. If you can, send a contribution or tell a producer. The web site is www.amazinggracethetruestory.com.