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Amazing Grace - The Voyage to Goodspeed

Amazing Grace - The Voyage to Goodspeed

By Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron

Crafting Amazing Grace: A New Musical
Amazing Grace
is an adventure/romance musical set within a backdrop of 18th century England, Africa and the Caribbean. We believe that people of all backgrounds are hungry for uplifting experiences that have relevance and authenticity. So, within all of the storms, battles, laughter and tears we hope to deliver a story of love conquering adversity and of characters awakening to a world in need.

The Accidental Playwright
Writing Amazing Grace has been an adventure in itself. Our journey began when Chris, quite by accident, came across the story of a deeply conflicted Englishman named John Newton. A chance stroll through a library led Chris to find the story of this little-known English boy whose world was ripped apart by the loss of his mother and his father’s insistence that he join the family business, which included slavery. John’s moral and spiritual decline is all the more fascinating when viewed in light of the fact that he would later confront his own conscience and go on to help dismantle the vile institution he once served. Chris immediately felt that this story could become something unique in the Broadway pantheon and began to hear in his mind a triumphant, largely symphonic score which would match the epic nature of the story and harken back to the stage and film scores of the past.

The only complication was that Chris had never written anything professionally. His experience of the theatre had only been through high school and college productions, and though he loved the art most of his amateur compositions were folk songs which didn’t require him to read or write music. Despite a lack of credentials to support his dream, Chris decided to ignore the voices of doubt and proceed on faith alone. He wrote five songs and an outline of the story he wished to tell, then made a demo recording, playing the orchestra instruments one at a time through a keyboard and into a computer program he borrowed from his brother. He would then sing along in the best British accent he could muster.

These private efforts took on an entirely different tone when Chris mentioned his part-time mission (he was a police officer at the time) to a local business leader named Rich Timmons. Rich became so taken with the idea that he offered to go with Chris to other business leaders in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. What followed was a scenario as unlikely as the plot of the show. Chris would sing the songs and act out his vision in a variety of places, including the head offices of wealthy potential investors.

Despite a climate of intense economic fear (the Great Recession of 2008 had already begun), it worked. People found the vision so compelling that they invested in the fledgling enterprise and pulled in others.

Encouraged by this response, the team decided to test the material on the public. Chris partnered with several area musicians who helped arrange and copy the music into a form that could be taught to others. A chance encounter led him to meet and explain the show to several cast members from Les Misérables, which was then in its second year of a Broadway revival. The first event, which featured three stars from Les Miz, drew 1250 people in a venue designed for only 600. Even more impressive than the size of the audience was the outpouring of emotion which followed. This convinced the team that more was at work than simple theatrics;, the story had tapped into something deep in the hearts of people. Chris left police work to write full time.

New York, NY
The team decided to place the business of the show into professional hands. They hosted a reading in borrowed space inside the Empire State Building. The room was filled and the reception was very positive but only one producer actually attended. But that one was impressed. Carolyn Rossi Copeland, who has brought almost 30 musicals to the stage and served as Producing Artistic Director of the highly successful Lamb’sTheatre in New York City, began to build the team which would take the show to the next level. Gabriel Barre was brought aboard as the director and Arthur Giron came in as both mentor to Chris and co-author of the book. Over the next two years the script underwent revision. It shed some of its more documentary-like aspects and deepened emotionally. It was during this time that the story transcended the life of John Newton and became a wider saga of humanity’s fight against the darkest parts of its own nature.

Chris had always envisioned the musical as a love story between John and his childhood friend Mary Catlett (who would become his wife). The problem was that almost nothing was known about her. Carolyn, Arthur and Gabriel encouraged Chris to stretch beyond the limits of the historical record and pull in his own experiences of love, failure, and forgiveness. Mary became the one character who always believed in and prayed for John, even when he had rejected his faith and surrendered to the darkness within him. These reflections of Chris’ own life experiences opened a floodgate which led to the creation of other characters and the crafting of story elements which made the musical applicable to the struggles and desires of people everywhere. The show began to grapple with the true nature of freedom and slavery both in the world and in the human heart. Arthur began to teach Chris from his experience gained through decades of crafting compelling stories for the theatre.

Over the years Arthur has written numerous works which explore the lives of historical figures. Upon joining the team, he set out to probe what becoming an adult really means and how misunderstanding society’s expectations can lead the young into a host of evils. Chris had always felt that the story of John’s relationship with his father was pivotal to understanding his deeper issues of faith. Arthur now encouraged the team to return to this focus, which had been minimized because it seemed to compete with the love story. Chris and Arthur worked for months to find the balance between the two.

Preparing For The Goodspeed Premiere
Gabriel Barre guided the entire Amazing Grace development process and tested the results through a series of staged readings in New York City. It was at one of these readings that the Tony Award-winning producing team from Goodspeed Musicals first saw the show. The production was about to get the chance to prove itself in front of a paying audience. Gabriel, who has directed productions all over the world, has a keen sense of context and how one moment within a story can be enhanced or diminished by events around it. This led to some painful cuts in the material, not because the elements were not valuable in of themselves, but because they drew focus away from critical points that needed to move to the forefront. In addition to crafting the story it was now time to assemble a larger team to bring the script to life on stage.

Preparation of all music elements moved into the capable hands of Kimberly Grigsby who serves as Music Supervisor. Kimberly’s work on A Light in the Piazza, Spring Awakening, Grease, and, most recently, Spiderman Turn Off The Dark has given her a deep knowledge of how to work with actors and musicians to support the composer’s vision. She worked with Chris to create a musical landscape which flowed from the action and kept the dramatic tension over the entire piece. As the Goodspeed premiere approached, Jodie Moore was brought aboard as Musical Director and Kenny J. Seymour (who is currently the music director of Memphis on Broadway) was given the task of orchestrating the piece for the five musicians who will accompany the show from the pit and the numerous actor/musicians on stage.

The Spring 2012 developmental production at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre also afforded the first chance to explore scenic and costume design as well as choreography. The Tony-nominated designer Beowulf Boritt worked for months to craft a design that would do justice to epic scale of our story but would not overwhelm the limited size of the facility. His innovative use of elements that can be transformed for a variety of uses and the addition of dynamic movement, encompassing both actors and sets, actually allows the audience’s perspective to change with the action.  Benoit-Swan Pouffer joined the production as choreographer and began to tackle the dance and movement elements, which span two continents and two very different styles. His dedication to authenticity and artistry has produced key elements necessary for transporting the audience across time and cultural divides.  Another vital part of drawing the audience in and establishing credibility lies in the period costumes. Tony nominee Toni-Leslie James took on the important task of envisioning and creating costumes for 27 cast members many of whom play multiple rolls. The research that has gone into this and indeed all of the creative elements has been a monumental undertaking.

The Future
The Goodspeed premiere represents a chance to prove and test what we have been working toward for so long. We have a three and a half week rehearsal process during which the cast will learn the material and we will learn from the cast. We hope to refine our script and plan to continue trying new solutions through both the rehearsal period and the run. We hope to gain feedback from audience members that we can use to inform and fuel the next step in this odyssey to Broadway and beyond.