Hero of 'Amazing Grace' Isn't That Heroic

Chris Peterson

If you've read the latest reviews of Amazing Grace, the new musical which opened tonight, you'll read that its got its share of problems. But the problem you might not be hearing much about is its most egregious one - that's the actual story of its main character, John Newton. 

Taking a look deeper into the actual history of this man, you realize that his story isn't as inspiring as this musical would have you believe. 

Amazing Grace follows the story of John Newton, an English sailor and later a captain of slave ships. He became ordained as an evangelical Anglican cleric and also wrote the hymns "Amazing Grace" and "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken".

The musical touches on his time as the captain of a slave ship, when he was imprisoned in West Africa and his "spiritual conversion"("saved" in modern terms) where he then became an abolitionist and ended up writing the stirring title hymn. 

Now here is where the problems begin. 

The show would have you believe that John Newton's abolitionist inspiration came from surviving a violent storm. 

Some of that story is true, Newton's "spiritual conversion" did happen during a storm on his voyage home. However that storm happened in 1748, according to Newton's writing. In truth, he kept captaining slave ships for another six years after the storm and his "spiritual conversion". It also wasn't a "spiritual conversion" that caused him to stop sailing slaves across the sea but a debilitating stroke in 1754. And Newton didn't come out right away with his feelings of anti-slavery, it would be another 30 years before he spoke publicly on the matter. 

With all these creative liberties the musical is seemingly taking, presenting Newton as some hero, I feel it might be too much for an audience to believe. Which is a problem for a blatant faith based musical.  Presenting a character who came to believe that slavery was a bad thing because of God's intervention rather than common sense, seems a bit far fetched and boarder line pretentious. 

With these issues, it's a shame because the cast does include some heavy hitting talent. Josh Young is a budding Broadway superstar and has one of the best full throated voices since Michael Ball. Erin Mackey is also a star on this rise and from what I hear, Tony Winner Chuck Cooper gives another award worthy performance. 

Yet even with this cast, there are just too many issues about the subject matter for this to be a sure fire hit. And given the state of original dramatic musicals on Broadway, If this stays open after Labor Day, I'll be surprised.