Jazz hands for Jesus: Inside Broadway's religious revival
Since 1921, The Nederlander Theater in New York City has housed many heralded Broadway productions — from Julius Caesar to King Lear to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Rent. But on June 25, when Amazing Grace opens in its 1,232-seat auditorium, The Nederlander may become known as the place where religion was revived on Broadway.
Amazing Grace tells the story behind "Amazing Grace," the world's most recorded and most popular song. "Amazing Grace" was published by John Newton in 1779 after he barely survived a violent storm at sea — a survival he attributed to his crying out to God for mercy.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
You know it, of course. From funerals to Easter vigils, this hymn telling of God's unending offer of forgiveness is a staple in churches around the world. Historical biographer Jonathan Aitken estimates that it is sung approximately 10 million times annually.
The song is religious. And the Broadway show seeks to capture audiences with both a religious message and a religious mission. Christopher Smith, the show's creator (and a former police officer and volunteer youth minister), is very clear about this: "My desire was that God would be an unseen character in Amazing Grace, moving behind and in every scene and song," he said.
Amazing Grace isn't the only faith-based show to play on The Great White Way, of course. Decades ago, faith flourished on Broadway. There's the enduring success of the deeply moving and faithfully Jewish Fiddler on the Roof. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar garnered five Tony nominations after opening in 1971. Godspell, a musical based on parables from the gospel of Matthew, reached #13 on the Billboard pop chart before opening on Broadway in 1976. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is literally a Bible story.
For a while, the increasing secularization of American culture in the 1980s and '90s brought about a decrease in overtly religious art and entertainment. But then, after 9/11, many Americans, particularly Christians, started to pine for the divine once more. This led to an increasing amount of religious elements and stories in film (think Passion of the Christ, God's Not Dead, and Exodus), television (think Killing Jesus, The Bible series, and A.D.), and eventually theater.
In 2011, Sister Act opened on Broadway, telling the story of singing nuns made famous by the film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Book of Mormon, which manages to both skewer and celebrate the Mormon faith in a way that is both brutal and sweet, arrived to critical acclaim the same year. In 2012, Leap of Faith, the story of a con-man preacher, opened and scored a Tony nomination for Best Musical. In 2013, The Testament of Mary sought to tell audiences the story of Jesus' crucifixion from his mother's perspective. Earlier this year, Hand to God made a Broadway splash with an irreverent show about a Christian puppet ministry. And because Broadway loves revivals — in the theatrical rather than spiritual sense of the word — they've recently welcomed back old favorites Godspell (2011), Jesus Christ Superstar (2012), and Fiddler on The Roof (2015).
Everywhere you look in New York's Theater District these days, it seems there's a gaggle of actors making jazz hands for Jesus. Or Joseph Smith. Or Yahweh. Or some other deity, prophet, or preacher.
It seems like faith-based entertainment is thriving, right? And yet, some of these religious productions have struggled. Leap of Faith closed after just 20 performances, and The Testament of Mary received a Tony nomination... and then closed before the award show took place. Scandalous, a religious show funded by an evangelical Christian denomination, closed three weeks after its 2012 opening and lost millions of dollars.
The team behind Amazing Grace has high hopes that their show can buck this trend. Amazing Grace just finished a run in Chicago, where it premiered to a sold-out audience and received much critical acclaim. In New York, Amazing Grace will feature Tony-winner Chuck Cooper and Tony-nominated Josh Young and has become one of the most popular plays on Broadway before previews have even concluded.
But Chicago is not Broadway, and Sinatra's maxim is as true as ever: If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. So when Amazing Grace opens in June, we'll get more than a story about a song. We'll also learn about the state of religion in 21st century America's popular culture.