Backstage on Broadway: Story behind ‘Amazing Grace’ comes to life in new musical

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It's a song that transcends generations, an anthem almost everyone's heard, but the story behind it is not as well know.

“I was like wow, this is the stuff that amazing musicals are made out of,” Josh Young said.

Josh Young portrays the songwriter, John Newton, in the musical Amazing Grace.

“He was a pretty terrible guy," Young explained. "He was one of the preeminent slave traders of the 18th century.”

The show details the tumultuous journey from innocent boy to slave trader to leader of the abolitionist movement.

“He once was lost, now is found, and in our show we show what that being lost actually meant and what being found actually meant,” Young said.

Helping Newton find his way was Mary Catlett, the love of his life.

“She always believed in him," Erin Mackey said. "She always believed that he could be better and change his life and she never gave up on him.”

Erin Mackey holds everything together on stage and off.

"I keep him in line," she laughed. "She does! Young responded.

This duo's bond comes from a very different kind of show though.

“We’re all about watching the Bachelorette, that’s like the foundation of our friendship,” Young said. “Not our favorite season," Mackey said. "Though it was entertaining, it was definitely entertaining.”

There's a rawness to Amazing Grace, it depicts slavery in a way rarely seen on Broadway.

“It’s an important issue to talk about because I believe it’s America’s original sin,” Chuck Cooper said.

Tony winner, Chuck Cooper, plays the family servant who heavily influenced Newton's change of heart.

“If I allowed myself to constantly be in the space of I’m a slave, it’d be overwhelming,” Cooper said. “It takes a moment to come down, a moment to recalibrate so I go home and play solitaire for about an hour!”

He leaves everything on stage pulling from a personal connection.

“My last name is Cooper, and often slaves took the name of their vocation and a Cooper is a barrel maker," he explained while showing me a picture. "When I saw this in Jamaica I was just stunned [because] these Coopers could’ve been related to me.”

But this story of redemption and hope is one everyone can relate to.

“I feel like one of the messages is to not take your loved ones for granted,” Young said.

It all culminates at the end of the performance when the audience joins in singing.

“I think they just want to be part of a human, communal experience that is very tangible,” Mackey said.

“They leave the show feeling changed and feeling enlightened,” Young added.

“We look out there and we can see how it’s moving people, we can see the tears in their eyes,” Cooper described. “I don’t know if there are words that can really describe that.”

You can see Amazing Grace currently playing at the Nederlander Theatre.

 

Produced by: Kim Pestalozzi