‘Amazing Grace: The Musical’ comes to New Haven’s Shubert Theatre for 5 performances

January 16, 2018 GMT

“Amazing Grace: The Musical” has roots in the great hymn and 18th century writer John Newton, its infancy at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester and a few young-adult months of glory on Broadway and in Chicago to cap an unlikely rise. Now comes the maturing show’s second act: a national tour.

Producers and creator/writer Christopher Smith timed the new touring show to the opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., where the show ran from Nov. 17 to Jan. 8 to sold-out houses. The tour’s first official stop, with technical rehearsals beginning earlier this week, is at the historic Shubert in New Haven — a parallel to the show’s Goodspeed launch in 2012.

“The biggest changes to the show happened when we were in Connecticut,” said Smith in a phone chat from his home north of Philadelphia. “That’s really where the show was born.”

One critic in Washington didn’t like the fact the show uses recorded music, which the non-Equity production must do for budget reasons, Smith said. But traveling versions of the sets are intact, as are many of the actors from D.C., the high-level talent who formed it and at least one crowd-pleasing special effect — that special hymn, of course.

It is the first and last tune you hear in the show, Smith said, but at first it’s on an African flute. Smith reengineered the song as an African folk song (a young slave saves Newton’s life at one point by sharing food with him). Before that, Newton joins the life of his slave-trading father, against the wishes of his childhood sweetheart, and finds himself on a perilous ocean voyage that leads him to his darkest hour and a transformative moment.

In reality, the hymn’s familiar melody (from an existing folk tune) wasn’t matched to the lyrics until 1835, but here the notes of the hymn form an undercurrent of the show. Smith, who discovered Newton’s story in an old book, is the rare outsider to contribute a concept, book, music and lyrics to a show and make it to Broadway on his first attempt. What is more impressive: He can’t read or write music.

Smith said he went to college and had some instruction in musical composition, but he still can’t read music. He hears the tunes complete in his head and taps them into a computer and keyboard one note at a time.

“The real artistry of it is in being able to quiet my mind enough to hear each element,” he said.

Asked about the show’s relevance, Smith said, “A lot of people leave the show in tears and hugging each other. It’s just that kind of show.

“And I really believe that deep inside every one of us, we want to be loved despite our faults.”

Jamarante@nhregister.com; @Joeammo on Twitter