Faith Restoring–Discovering “Amazing Grace” and its Backstage Tour

As Amazing Grace—this season’s first new musical—enters its final week of performances on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, we’d like to take the time to reflect on our favorite parts of its run. Of course, we’re a little biased here, but we loved getting to send one Twitter follower, Jiaqi Zheng, to see the show and get a backstage tour with a little help from cast member Clifton Samuels. We asked Jiaqi if she’d like to write a blog post about the show and her experience backstage and she agreed. Check out her great piece on what the show means to her and what it was like to get to peak behind the curtain of a Broadway musical!

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The Song “Amazing Grace” is a well-known hymn around the world. The words and melody of the song have been inspiring people for over 2 hundred years. Even President Obama sang this song at the recent funeral ceremony of Rev. Clementa Pinckney. As a former chorister for over 10 years, Amazing Grace might be one of the most familiar songs to me. The first time that I heard this song was about 15 years ago, when I was at primary school. At that time, I only knew it was an inspiring hymn with a beautiful melody and that the chorus at church usually sang it. Besides this, I knew nothing about it. It was not until this fall that I got the chance to know more about this epic story behind the song.

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The story was about John Newton, a talented young man who followed his father’s step to be a slave trader, turned to be an abolitionist after struggling with his conscience through a long-term journey in 18th century Britain. During his journey to West Africa, he was brought to be with a slave dealer’s wife, Princess Peyai. Under her despotic power, Newton continued to torture his slaves, including Thomas, the house slave of his family who actually raised him since his mother died. However, Princess Peyai had other thoughts on him and then treated him as her slave, abusing him and chaining him. Few years later, Newton’s father came to save him by sending a ship to Africa, but unfortunately got killed in the battle against the Princess. After that, John Newton began to realize how terrible and inhumane he was before and determined to set his slaves free permanently. Later, affected by his lifetime beloved Mary Catlett, he transformed into an abolitionist and left the world the famous hymn.

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There were many highlights that impressed me a lot throughout the whole show.  I guess most people who have seen the show would recommend the “shipwreck” scene at the end of Act 1. And I think it might be the best scenic design of the show. At that moment, the ship sank into the sea and people on the ship couldn’t stop falling into water. The scenic designer made it as if the actors were really struggling under water by covering a waving semitransparent curtain and it was such a visually spectacular scene that I will never forget.

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A view of the stage from the orchestra seats!

However, the most frightening scene must be Scene 6 in Act 1. At this scene, those slaves of Newton’s family kept crying and screaming when they were chained in a very small cage. They were about to be traded to Africa. Someone tried to escape but received even harder torture. I felt quite terrified when I was looking at the eyes of those slaves. They were full of anger and despair. It reminded me of the dark history of slavery between 14th and 18th century. And of course, it was hard to forget.

The musical also follows a sung-through mode like many other productions.  For me, the sweetest song and the most touching moment was when the Leading Lady Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey) began to sing the song “I still believe”. Believing in others may be the most magic power in the world. Even though her lover John Newton had done so many bad things, Mary still chose to believe in him and waited for him to return to the right path, which really moved me to tears.

After that, perhaps the most powerful and inspiring moment of the show was the finale (the curtain call), when the entire company sang the world-famous theme song Amazing Grace. At that time, the audience all stood up and sang along with the whole cast, restoring faith from the miraculous story together.

Then, when I walked out of the theatre, I finally understood the meaning behind the lyrics, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, and now I found, was blind, but now I see.”  This was exactly what John Newton had been though during his lifetime. His self-redemption story reminded me of the nature of humanity. And the musical reaffirmed the power of love, faith and forgiveness, which are still considered as part of the global common values nowadays. Besides, we need to be aware of the fact that slavery still happens today. Introspection and self-redemption still need to be kept in all our minds, for the sake of us and for a better world.

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With Amazing Grace’s leading man, Josh Young!
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Clifton Samuels and Chuck Cooper!

I have seen many Broadway shows and I must say the cast of Amazing Grace is extraordinary! There is no doubt that Josh Young handles the role really well. Also, Erin Mackey has such a beautiful voice that surprises me a lot (By the way, she always looks gorgeous no matter on or off stage!). Not to mention Tony Winner Chuck Cooper and John’s father Tom Hewitt. When Cooper sang the song “ Nowhere to Run”, his low voice made the song really powerful.  Moreover, from a former chorister’s view, I really appreciate the accompaniment and the way they rearranged the world-famous song. I like the humming skills they used and the Africa rhythm they put into it, because those are exactly what we use frequently in choral singing. I also need to mention that the ensemble is so strong that makes the sound unified as a whole, when singing the theme song “Amazing Grace”. It made you feel like you were in a church and listening to the sound from the heaven! Amazing, right? Therefore, there is no wonder why the audience would like to join the company to sing along the sweetest song at the curtain call.

About the Backstage Tour

Thanks to The Broadway Blogger and Clifton Samuels, I got the chance to get two orchestra tickets and an unforgettable backstage tour after the show. Cliff led us backstage and introduced us to the production process of the show. Since it was the very first time we had been backstage, we were really interested in all things that happened on and off stage. We asked questions like how the actors change costumes within a very short time and how the scene changes work. After that, we took some nice pictures with Josh, Chuck & Cliff, and even heard a bit of rehearsal inside the theatre. It was thrilling!

Then, we also had a brief talk with Cliff about things that happened on Broadway and people who work in the theatre district. I was really impressed by them and couldn’t believe that they have so much passion acting and singing, and they never even feel bored or tired. For the audience, usually, we may just see the show only once, but the actors may have to play the some show for hundreds of times! How hard it could be for those who are not fully committed to the theatre! Only those people who really love acting and singing can stay on stage for such a long time. They are all awesome guys!
It was really a wonderful experience for us, the audience, to get deep into the production process behind the show and to learn about the theater world. This kind of experience, together with the opportunity of singing along at the curtain call, became the best memories on Broadway and I could never forget it.

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Selfie from the stage with Clifton Samuels!

My friend and I both enjoyed the show and the backstage tour very much. Again, we’d like to thank The Broadway Blogger and Clifton Samuels for providing us this great opportunity. I hope more people can come to the show and learn something from it before the show ends on Broadway. It’s really worth your time. Remember to bring some tissues, though. Undoubtedly, it will touch your heart.

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Amazing Grace will end its run at the Nederlander Theatre this Sunday, October 25th after 24 previews and 116 regular performances. To get more information on the show, and to get tickets to its final week of performances, click here.

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