© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Amazing Grace' Musical Has Its 2nd Coming At Museum Of The Bible


Finally today, it's one of the best-known Christian hymns in the world.


JOSH YOUNG: (As John Newton, singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...

MARTIN: I'm talking about "Amazing Grace." The story behind the famous hymn and the former slave-trader-turned-abolitionist who wrote it is the subject of a musical that's being performed now for the second time at the Museum of the Bible. The play is also called "Amazing Grace." It's directed by Gabriel Barre. We asked him to tell us about it, and he began by telling us about the remarkable life of the author of the hymn, John Newton.

GABRIEL BARRE: Well, he lived in the 18th century and was a part, as his father was, of the horrendous slave trade, which existed and was a big part especially of the British culture and empire, which he was a part of. He was born in England. And he lost his mother at a very, very early age, and that was a seminal event in his life. It turned him away from God and religion in general, which his mother had been a key sort of part of starting in his soul, if you will. And he shunned authority. He became a bit of a very bitter and hardened man and continued in the slave trade as his father before him had done.

And as we depict in our show, later in his life, he had, after many trials and tribulations, a huge sort of epiphany. And he literally turned his life around. Although it took in real life a little time to do so, he ended up becoming a huge force in the anti-slavery movement, the abolitionist movement. And just a month before he died, when he was 80 years old, he finally saw, after 20 years' effort, slavery abolished in England.

MARTIN: So I guess what I was wondering is, how, then, did the show go to the Museum of the Bible? And it is a little unusual, isn't it, to perform a full-on stage production at a museum, right? So how did that happen?

BARRE: It is. Well, the show had a nice life on Broadway. And after the Broadway run, the closing of the show there in New York sort of coincided with the instigation, really, of this exciting museum that is now flourishing and open in D.C. And as part of the museum, they'd created a hall or theater on the fifth floor of the structure. It's large enough to sustain a show of this size but also small enough to be even more intimate than we were able to be in a Broadway theater.


YOUNG: (As John Newton) Do you think cotton picks itself or that sugar just appears on your table? The coffee in your cupboard, the indigo in your dress - even the teak in your church pews depends on the trade. This is the world we live in. You don't have to like it.

MARTIN: You know, I have to say, for me, I was surprised that you were as blunt as you were about the brutalities experienced by people over the course of this. You know what I'm saying?

BARRE: I do.

MARTIN: I mean, it could easily have been kind of prettied up. And you obviously don't show everything, but - that people experienced. But you show a lot, including of what John Newton himself experienced when he was at a point indentured himself and pressed into, you know, involuntary service on a naval ship. It's challenging, you know, in parts. I was curious about what your intention was with that.

BARRE: Well, I think our intention was to get the reaction you just sort of expressed, that people realize, first of all, the horror of slavery and what it means to whatever extent we can show on stage without gratuitous violence. And certainly we wanted people to stay in their seats and watch the rest of the show. So that's a factor, too.

But we also felt it important not just for the cast that have to go through a pretty rigorous, emotional journey themselves every time they perform the show, but for their ancestors, who actually lived and died at the hands of slavery and lived through it, that we owed it to them to not pull punches wherever we couldn't. And to be as honest as we can be, albeit stylized in some sections of the show, of course, we felt it important that people really see how routine this was and, indeed, of course, still is, as we know in our world today.

MARTIN: So before I let you go, you obviously are a professional theater person. I mean, this is your your livelihood, your passion. You've worked all over the world on all kinds of projects. You know, for some people, this is a faith commitment. And I just wondered if there's anything about this - working on this project that was transformative of you in a way that you may not have expected.

BARRE: What a wonderful question. Michel? And I really. Really appreciate the thought behind that. And yes. I'd say this did touch a pretty deep nerve in me and I think continues to arouse some deep-lying things in my own past and continues to stimulate me in many ways that I would say were spiritual. I was raised in the Episcopal church. My father was a Episcopal minister, in fact. And yet my relationship to organized religion has been one of somewhat skepticism and and so on. And yet I find myself still a very spiritually open person and believe in God as love and so on.

But this show and working on this show and seeing this character question his own faith and relationship to his God, as it were, of course made me do the same over and over again. And it makes me do it every time I watch the show and certainly every time I work on it. It is, I think, above and beyond the sort of normal already exciting and cathartic experience I have doing any piece of theater, wherever I am.

MARTIN: That is Gabriel Barre. He is the director of "Amazing Grace." It's a musical being performed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., now through August. And he was with us from our bureau in New York. Gabriel Barre, thank you so much for talking to us.

BARRE: Such a pleasure. Thank you.


YOUNG: (As John Newton, singing) Twice grace.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Twas grace.

YOUNG: (As John Newton, singing) That taught my heart to fear. And grace my fears relieved. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.