History On Display: Amazing Grace, the Musical

Earlier this week, My Own True Love and I took a chance on the “pre-Broadway world premier” of a musical by a new composer/playwright based on the historical story of John Newton (1725-1807), the slave trader turned Anglican minister and abolitionist who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”.  At a minimum, we knew there would be at least one good song.

Newton’s story–complete with love story–would be a gripper even without the personal transformation that inspired the song.  He was impressed into the British Navy in 1744.  After deserting ship, he was captured, flogged, demoted and eventually traded to a merchantman involved in the Triangular Trade between England, West Africa, and the West Indies.  Dogged by bad luck–often brought about by a bad attitude and questionable choices– he became the prisoner of a powerful and highborn West African woman, worked as her factor in the slave trade, was rescued,* and almost died in a horrific storm at sea.

Amazing Grace, the musical, turns Newton’s story into a powerful drama, with themes of love, redemption, and freedom.  It does an excellent job of portraying the brutality of the West African slave trade, the lesser brutality of the British Navy in the mid-eighteenth century, and the heroism of those involved in the British abolitionist movement.  I suspect that some of the details of Newton’s life were tweaked to make a more dramatic story.  For instance, nothing I’ve read suggests that Newton’s father headed the mission to rescue his son or that his life-long love Mary Catlett was part of the abolitionist movement.**  (The production makes up for slight in accuracies by providing an excellent study guide on line.)

Two aspects of the play bothered me, though both made for good theater.  Both Newton and Mary Catlett are attended by loyal family slaves who serve as their owners’ consciences, as well as surrogates for parents who are present but inadequate.  The African scenes, particularly those involving the evil Princess Peyai,  had overtones of old adventure movies like King Solomon’s Mine.

All caveats aside, Amazing Grace is worth seeing if it comes your way.  If you can stand at the end and sing “Amazing Grace” with the cast tears in your eyes or at least a lump in your throat, you’re a tougher history buff than I am.

* Or perhaps just convinced to come home, depending on which version you read

**And if she was, I want to know more.  Anyone?


  1. Jane on October 19, 2014 at 5:44 am

    I appreciate your unashamed tears at the singing of Amazing Grace.

    John Newton was part of the Clapham Sect. It seems natural that Mary would have fit into the group as well.

    • pamela on October 19, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      Jane: I agree that it makes sense that Mary would have been part of the Clapham Sect. In fact, I suspect that was true even before John’s transformation. The musical goes further, and has her feeding info to the abolitionists involved in raiding slave auctions.

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