Abolitionist kitsch has a vivid history in this country, and that’s helpful background for understanding Amazing Grace, a new Broadway musical that makes a firm and heartfelt stand against the evils of slavery. Among other examples from America’s past, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin got spun into countless theatrical adaptations; sympathetic spectators loved that melodrama’s characters — some now unacceptable to our contemporary sensibilities — so dearly that clever marketers emblazoned them on product lines from paintings to plates. White readers and audiences found an easy way to identify personally with a problematic narrative that nonetheless persuaded many of the abolitionist cause.
Amazing Grace hews to melodrama in that tradition and never wavers. The musical could have come straight from the nineteenth century if it weren’t for the blithe anachronisms of Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron’s awful, telegraphic dialogue and the mostly schmaltzy belt-it-out ballads (by Smith).
To illustrate the biography of John Newton, who composed the cherished spiritual song, the drama takes a clumsy romp though his early life. Although the stage populates with slaves, workers, and radicals, we’re asked to sympathize with the young rich white protagonist (Newton, played by Josh Young) who chafes against the strictures and hypocrisies of eighteenth-century English society. His stern father, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), commands operations in the British slave trade. Master John takes a romantic interest in Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), a pretty aristocrat disenchanted with the oppression and injustice she observes at a local slave market. Meanwhile a series of adventures — abductions, rescues, separated lovers, and a couple of shipwrecks — prompt John to abhor the act of owning and torturing another human being. Virtue must triumph over evil so John can turn evangelical.
The authors have tried to compress this sprawling narrative by shorthanding the show’s book, and the oversimplified results verge on egregious. “Slavery is a way of life here and we are all powerless to change that!” exclaims Nanna (Mary’s stoical African “maidservant,” played by Laiona Michelle) in a typically leaden line. The battle scenes — first a revolt at a slave auction, later in a forest in Sierra Leone — come off with embarrassing staginess. (Has action-picture choreography ever worked onstage?) Amazing Grace is sincere in its own evangelizing, carefully assigning torch-song ballads to otherwise short-shrifted characters like Nanna. But ultimately it prioritizes the story of a rich boy’s moral awakening. The creators make unambiguous condemnations of the real cruelty and suffering inflicted by Europeans and Americans. But despite the cast’s considerable musical talents, the catastrophic slaughter of the Middle Passage may just be fundamentally incompatible with Broadway’s need for superficial lyrics and emotional deliveries. Misty-eyed “who am I” ballads don’t square well with mass murder.
By the time Newton undergoes his long-time-coming religious transformation and pens the famous hymn, it’s impossible to trust the musical’s insipid manipulations. The final number — can you guess what it is? — offers a redemption so earnest and yet so calculated that it’s downright bewildering. The night I attended, audience members leapt to their feet en masse at the finale and raised their palms in Christian testimony. This show had been engineered for them all along: a ritual expression of a foregone conclusion. While preaching repentance for historical injustices, Amazing Grace piles on the sentiment — which always seems to be America’s favorite indulgence, no matter how righteous the cause.
Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith
208 West 41st Street