A good many of us with Celtic roots best know Amazing Grace as a song every pipe and drum band must know and one that such bands play at funerals, particularly for firefighters and police officers.
The story behind Amazing Grace is the subject of a musical of the same name now running at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago that has its official opening night Oct. 19.
The tale isn’t set in the Scottish Highlands, though, but involves John Newton who was, indeed a wretch, lost then found.
“The song is such a part of our culture, but I didn’t know his story,” Erin Mackey said.
Mackey plays Mary Catlett, Newton’s love interest, and he had a life stranger than fiction, she said.
In 1735, at the age of 10, Newton was sailing the high seas with his father. The rowdy youth spent time on merchant ships then was forced into service with the Royal Navy, which he deserted to be with his honey. He was punished and wound up in West Africa working for a slave trader who wound up treating Newton as a slave.
Newton was rescued by another slaver. He found God off the coast of Ireland and Donegal. And he wound up captaining his own slave ship.
Eventually Newton realized slavery to be evil, became a minister and befriended William Wilberforce, a driving force in the English abolitionist movement.
As an Anglican minister in Olney, Newton wrote many hymns, including the words for Amazing Grace. Hymns then weren’t tied to melodies, and Amazing Grace eventually wound up wed to the haunting tune we know today.
Mackey said the musical focuses on the most transformative years of Newton’s life, which inspired his writing the Amazing Grace hymn. And the action takes place outside of London, in Sierra Leone, and Barbados.
“He was drunken sailor, a deserter, and a lost soul, but he wanted out to get back to Mary,” Mackey said.
While much has been written about and by Newtown, Mackey said not a lot is known about his wife. Thus, the musical is freer to take liberties with her story, Mackey said, and her path leads to a realization similar to Newton’s about the realities of the slave trade.
“The story so inspiring,” Mackey said. “I was struck by its relevance. We still have all these things.” Mackey knows many stories of slavery’s continued presence in the world as a best friend works for a nonprofit addressing human trafficking issues.
The producers of Amazing Grace hope to bring the show to Broadway, but no theater there has been booked yet.
Mackey has appeared on the Great White Way in Chaplin: The Musical as Oona O’Neill. Other Broadway credits include Anything Goes (Hope), Sondheim on Sondheim and Wicked (Glinda). She recently appeared at Lincoln Center in the NY Philharmonic’s concert production of Sweeney Todd as Johanna, which will be broadcast on PBS later this year, and as Nellie Forbush in Paper Mill’s South Pacific.
Mackey also performed with New York City’s Irish Repertory Theatre for a week in 2010, in a reading of the musical version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair.
“It’s wonderful theater,” she said.
Irish-American Mackey grew up in Orange County, and is known to Chicago audiences for playing Glinda in Wicked here from 2006 – 2008.
“I love it here. I’m a big foodie, and I have a huge list of places to hit once the show is up and running,” she said. “I met my husband here (fellow Wicked cast member Stanton Nash). I love the neighborhoods, and that this is a great walking town.”
For more information on John Newton, see The Abolition Project or The John Newtown Project or Christianity Today’s bio.
For Amazing Grace information, see Broadway in Chicago.