Communique: Broadway Musical "Amazing Grace" Onstage At Wilson Center | January 27 & 28

Jan 25, 2018

The touring Broadway musical Amazing Grace was scheduled for just one performance in Wilmington this weekend…due to popular demand, another was added. The show tells the true story of British slaver John Newton, the author of the popular song “Amazing Grace.”

Performances are Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, January 28 at 2:00 pm at CFCC's Wilson Center. Tickets are available at the Box Office, by phone, and online. See a video from the performance in Washington, D.C. here.

Gina Gambony spoke with Director Gabriel Barre by telephone from his home in New York. Barre has performed on Broadway and directed large-scale international touring shows, but this is his Broadway debut as a director.

Gina:       What is the story of Amazing Grace?

Gabriel Barre
Credit Gabriel Barre

Gabriel:    It's a really fascinating story and a quite adventurous one too. It's basically the story of John Newton, who wrote the words to the hymn Amazing Grace that most people have some sort of relationship to or at least have heard in their life. Obviously a remarkable song that's been adopted by many many cultures, religions and certainly people that don't have any faith at all. The song has become extremely popular worldwide over time. And John Newton's story is particularly dramatic and a ripe one I think for theatricalization. Which really made Chris Smith, the author and composer of the show, surprised when he stumbled upon a biography of John Newton and realized no one had written a musical about this guy so far.

Because it was quite an adventurous life, a life where he was following his father's footsteps in the slave trade in the mid seventeen hundreds when the British Empire and indeed the world was dependent on the slave trade, you could say terms of their commerce and their culture and society. And John became a slave trader.  And also the death of his mother- when he was 8 or 9 years old-he had a sort of void or black hole in his heart because of that experience. And so it turned him off from religion of any kind, even though his mother was quite devout. And so his relationship essentially to God or to religion was really cut short at that point. And he was quite a bitter person in many ways as a young man, as we portray him in our show as well. He was quite insubordinate and dealing with authority was very tough for him and so he went through a lot of experiences, many of which we depict in this musical. He was in the Navy, the Navy didn't want him and traded him to a female African slave trader named Princess Peyai- and that character is in our show, although he finds his way to her under slightly different circumstances in our piece.

But the show is predominantly based on real life and certainly deals with his character, the princess and John's father is quite realistic ways. And it's the story of his transformation. Shortly after his enslavement himself, in the middle of a huge storm at sea, John has a near-death experience… one of many that he had up to that point in his life…he actually had a moment where he he supplicated himself and said to God or to whoever is up there-- if you get me out of this, I will the devote the rest of my life to you.  And by some fluke miracle the ship was spared from this horrendous storm and John had an epiphany and basically changed the course of his life and devoted the rest of it to the abolition of slavery.

Amazing Grace

He ended up inspiring one of his proteges, Wilbur Wilberforce to take anti slavery legislation to Parliament for the first time. It took 20 years but it finally passed just a month or so before John Newton died in his 80s. So it's a remarkable story and we've chosen I think smartly too to not try to tell the entire life of John Newton, but to focus on those two or three years where he went from this sort of bitter heart and soul to someone who was realizing the opportunity that he had just as a human being on the earth to to do better and to make the world a better place and to make up for his considerable sins that he had committed  up to that point, especially in light of his role in the slave trade.

Gina:       I've seen a clip of this and it looks so lovely. And also I see some of the comments from reviews saying that it's vividly staged, chillingly staged, grippingly staged, soaring...some of these words that are used to talk about just the impact of watching it and what it looks like. What does it look like to see this show unfold?

Gabriel:    What does it look like to me or what does it look like to an audience?

Gina:       What does it look like to an audience member?

Gabriel:    This show I think offers a fantastic experience. The show can strike people in many ways. And I believe the theater is an ideal place to explore all of those ways. Obviously we hope it has an emotional impact. I think everybody likes to think the likes and hopes that that life will bear them second chances at things. So that's certainly one of the central things obviously this theme of forgiveness here. So there's a central character in our show named Pakuteh. John only knows him as Thomas as he was a slave presented to John in John's youth and John named him. And this is one of the great characters we created or amalgamated  for this show. But the relationship between John and Pakuteh is very important part of the show. So the audience I think is very moved tracing that relationship as well.

And they hopefully will be impressed with the visual production of the show created by legendary set designer Eugene Lee and his associate or co-designer Eddie Pierce. Eugene is best known for probably Saturday Night Live for which has been the desire for its entire 45 years of existence or 42 I guess years of existence. But he's also designed hundreds of theater pieces and Broadway shows including legendary ones and current ones like Lincoln. So he's a remarkable designer,  somebody I've longed to work as a director,  I worked with him as an actor actually. He's had a tremendous influence on not just the set and how the show looks and feels, but he really helped with the story too. We came up with ideas that happened in the story that became lynchpin moments in the show just from our design meetings.

The costumes are remarkably designed by Toni-Leslie James who is part of the department at the Virginia Commonwealth University costuming department. She has tremendous number of Broadway credits to her name. The clothes just look astounding, and the show that is on tour now represents both the design of the set that was on Broadway and the costumes.

And our lighting designer, Ken Billington, may be the only person either living or ever-I'll have to substantiate this- I believe he's the only one living currently now that's done over 100 Broadway shows. And Amazing Grace was one of them. He was a remarkable resource, legend, and asset to our production, and [for the touring production] the lighting looks every bit as good as it did on Broadway, if not better in some ways. Despite fact of course you're touring a show, you have to cut back on certain elements. I'm so pleased with the work of these phenomenal designers. The show sounds great and looks really terrific.

Gina:       There's a lot of dancing, or movement?

Gabriel:    Yes there is dancing. I'd say a high range of dancing for sure because the show is complex in that it takes place points-- England, Sierra Leone, and Africa, and even a scene in Barbados. And the movement reflects those various geographic locations such as English ball dancing in England, African dancing in the western coast of Sierra Leone. It's not a dance driven piece per se, but there's this tremendous amount of movement and stylization in the piece, created by Chris Gatelli, our wonderful Tony Award winning choreographer.

Gina:       What's your favorite scene?

Gabriel:    Well it's hard to say but the one that pops to mind... I mean I obviously appreciate all of them and all of them have to fight for their existence in a show which is you know putting together an original musical is a complex thing and takes years- it takes really long as you have. And in this case we worked on it for many years and so everything has undergone a tremendous amount of reworking and working and massaging into the show. I have to say, the most impactful thing I think for me is the is what we call the Barbados scene or the Pakuteh scene where were John, after essentially sentencing Pakuteh to death by selling him as a slave a second time from Africa where they've both been trapped,  after he had his reformation or epiphany, seeks him out. To you know--it's sort of impossible to make up for what he did, but he certainly wants to take the first step on the road to achieving or winning Pakuteh's forgiveness.  It was developed not only from the pen of a Chris Smith, the writer, but with the actors in the rehearsal room in one of our early processes with a show. I love developing things in the rehearsal room because actors have such great ideas and when they're up there and in this in a skin of these characters, sometimes they find truth and way into the things that no matter how hard you try, or how many pieces of paper you go through in the writing process, there's no substitute for having real people in the room.

That includes the audience too, of course, they're the final ingredient of any show because after all, the theater is an exchange of ideas. Audiences told of what that scene needed to be. So that's certainly one of the ones I find favorite--- but there's also some spectacular moments in the scene that I'm extremely proud of, including a ship battle at sea in which our two lead characters are in the water, one of them is unconscious and drowning the other dives in to save him, and that's beautifully rendered by the entire creative team and the cast. Happily the touring audience will be seeing that show as it was on Broadway and it is really thrilling, exciting. There's also a storm at sea,the central storm that I mentioned after which John has so his breakthrough, epiphany. And that's beautiful rendered as well. So there are some really exciting dramatic scenes as well as poignant ones and I think the whole thing that as you mentioned, and you know it just just looks great, it came together beautifully on an artistic level.