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'Amazing Grace,' the story behind the song, opens on Broadway

Josh Young, center, in the Nederlander Theatre's production

Josh Young, center, in the Nederlander Theatre's production of "Amazing Grace." Credit: Joan Marcus

Many Americans were surprised and deeply moved last month when President Obama concluded his eulogy for slain Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney by singing the hymn "Amazing Grace."

It is fair to say, however, that few were moved on as many different levels as was Carolyn Rossi Copeland, a lead producer of the new Broadway musical "Amazing Grace." The show, which opens at the Nederlander Theatre Thursday, July 16, tells the journey of John Newton, a former English slave trader, who, in 1773, wrote what was to become one of the world's most popular songs of redemption and forgiveness.

There is no way this jolt of global publicity could be seen as anything but good for a show that, given its topic and faith-based roots, is hardly easy-sell Broadway fare.

And yet, Copeland is understandably dismayed that anyone might see her suddenly newsworthy show "capitalizing" on the June 17 outrage, which killed nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

"We have been working on this show for so many years . . . ," she says, her voice trailing off for a moment at the confluence of events. In fact, she has been helping develop what is now a $15 million musical since she first heard first-time composer (and former Philadelphia police officer) Christopher Smith's work at an invited concert in the basement of the Empire State Building seven years ago.

"The music was so remarkable," she remembers. "I wanted to help him fill the vision." A production at the Goodspeed Opera House was followed by a Chicago tryout last autumn. Despite mixed reviews, the creators -- such as director Gabriel Barre and a 32-actor cast, including Tony-winner Chuck Cooper -- forged ahead with the unlikely plans for Broadway.

The commercial theater has not been a welcoming place for projects honoring belief. Ask Kathie Lee Gifford about her short-lived musical, "Scandalous." On the basis of "The Book of Mormon," "Hand to God" and "An Act of God," a stranger coming to Broadway this summer might think the theater is obsessed with wildly irreverent comedy.

Copeland, not surprisingly, resists letting anyone corner her show into a God-or-No-God argument. "This is based on the life of a man who begins as a horrible person and becomes a great human being. We are not selling religion. We are selling great entertainment."

They are also celebrating a hymn the show's press material calls "the world's most beloved song." Is it? I've tried to come up with songs of comparable popularity, at least in the English-speaking world. You try it. For now, I've given up.

"Amazing Grace" has been sung, played or recited at funerals -- including ones for Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. People like to hear it at weddings. UNICEF is using it as the background for one of its current TV ads about starving children.

Newton, who brought blacks from Africa as slaves, ironically, to Charleston, had a religious conversion during a storm at sea in 1748. Although he wrote the hymn for his Church of England sermon, the song has become a huge part of the African-American church. Mahalia Jackson's 1947 version was an indelible soundtrack of civil rights marches.

Judy Collins and Joan Baez made it part of Vietnam protests, yet it is also played at many military funerals. I read that the Library of Congress has a collection of 3,000 versions of it and of songs inspired by it -- including one by Elvis. And let's not forget the song's significance in an episode of "The Simpsons" that dealt with redemption.

I asked Eric Metaxas to explain the pull of the seven simple stanzas of the song, which credits "grace" for bringing the singer safe through "dangers, toils and snares." Metaxas -- syndicated radio host, cultural advocate for faith and author of "Amazing Grace," a biography of British abolitionist William Wilberforce -- half jokes that the hymn "Is one of the few songs in American life that people know. Like 'Happy Birthday To You.' "

"We don't have a unified culture anymore," he said more seriously. "How many people know the lyrics to the same song?" He mentioned that it's a favorite of Garrison Keillor. Bill Moyers did a special analyzing its appeal. "It is something unifying in a divided world. It was written by a slave trader and became a legend."

Metaxas sang it himself in Greece in an Athens church, leading the congregation in the country where his father was born. He also sang it to end his 2012 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, where Obama and the first lady were among the 3,500 guests. Metaxas is pretty sure Obama got the idea from him.

He is happy that Broadway will have a show that doesn't "mock a lot of people in America who have a simple faith," a show that, he believes, will bring in "religious audiences, conservatives, liberals, blacks, whites and the whole family in a show that's powerful but not saccharine. I have always wanted that kind of entertainment in the culture."

When Obama began his sweetly unpolished -- all right, off-pitch -- rendition at the end of his eulogy, the people in the church stood and sang with him. Copeland says audiences at the end of the musical also stand and join the company in the song. "We didn't write that in. It just happened every night. We watched people want to sing, so we give them the opportunity . . . I think we're in the perfect moment to celebrate grace."

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