‘Amazing Grace,’ Amazing Origin Story

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With guest host John Donvan

"Amazing Grace" on Broadway. We’ll hear the music and remarkable story of the composer who went from slave trader to abolitionist.

Josh Young as John Newton in the Broadway production of "Amazing Grace." (Joan Marcus / Amazing Grace)
Josh Young as John Newton in the Broadway production of "Amazing Grace." (Joan Marcus / Amazing Grace)

It’s the song of the hour: “Amazing Grace.” Sung this summer by a President, an anthem for civil rights and now, the title of a Broadway show written by a former cop, who started out with no idea how to write music or lyrics and who had no idea where the song came from. Turns out a one time slave trader wrote it before he turned abolitionist. That happened more than 200 years ago. He was British, but "Amazing Grace" today — it’s wholly American. This hour On Point, "Amazing Grace" -- the story of the song, the show, and the sentiment.
-- John Donvan


Christopher Smith, composer, lyricist and librettist for the Broadway musical. "Amazing Grace."

Bil Carpenter, gospel music historian. Author of "Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia." (@Carpenterbil)

Josh Young, Broadway actor. He plays John Newton in the current production of "Amazing Grace." (@joshpaulyoung)

Laiona Michelle, Broadway and TV actress. She plays Nanna in the current production of "Amazing Grace." (@LaionaMichelle)

From The Reading List

New York Times: The Cast of ‘Amazing Grace’ Grapples With Slavery -- "The show, which cost $16 million to bring to the stage, is not the first to depict slavery on Broadway, but its treatment of the slave trade is both extensive and stark, and has posed a challenge for the creators, who have toughened their treatment of the subject throughout the musical’s long development, and for the cast, many of whom have struggled with playing uncomfortable roles."

Philadelphia Inquirer: The winding path to staging 'Grace' -- "Though he'd studied history at Eastern College - before serving, variously, as a police officer in Bryn Athyn and Upper Moreland, a private investigator, and a church education director - Smith hadn't heard of Newton until one day in 1997, when he was killing time in a library. At random, he picked up a biography of Newton. As he read, he saw latent potential in the dramatic arc of Newton's story, and the power of the hymn."

Billboard: 'Amazing Grace' Writer Shares Story Behind New Broadway Musical: 'It's Just a Great Journey' — "Smith has been encouraged by the audience reaction during the show's previews. 'I sit in one of the opera boxes off to the side and I watch,' he says. 'The audience watches the show and I watch the audience. They are coming out singing. They are coming out crying and they are all standing up with us at the end and singing 'Amazing Grace.' I've never seen anything like 1,200 people on 41st Street in the heart of New York standing and singing 'Amazing Grace.' It's just an incredible experience for everybody there.'"

Watch A Highlight Reel From "Amazing Grace"

This program aired on August 6, 2015.


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