"I realized at the time that the chances of failure were so high," says Christopher Smith. "I was really betting my family on it. I was betting everything on it."
Smith is Broadway's newest tunesmith. He officially makes his Main Stem debut July 16 at the Nederlander Theatre, where Amazing Grace — an original, new work that tells the story of English sailor John Newton, a captain of slave ships and the writer of the titular hymn — will open.
Smith is a father of four (if you're counting the musical along with his son and two daughters). Amazing Grace has been seven years in the making, with tryouts in Connecticut and Chicago prior to Broadway, but before that, he was a police officer and youth outreach and education director. He left that behind when he felt "called" to write the show.
"I'm 45 now, and it's taken about seven years, so I guess I was about 38 — not a great time for a career change, especially something crazy!" Smith admits. As crazy as it seemed, his wife Alana was encouraging. In fact, she told him to do it. "I'd never been paid to write anything in my life, but it was really my wife who said, 'You should do it' because she had read [my] short stories," he explains. "I had no idea that people don't write music, lyrics and libretto. I didn't realize how rare that was. So, I just did it. I just did whatever I felt, so I wrote a song here, I wrote a scene there, I started to pull these things together, and then as it started to work, people started to become interested in the idea of this thing…until one day, I actually told the right person."
Carolyn Rossi Copeland is behind the new musical. She was the founding producer of the award-winning Lambs Theatre Company and worked on Andrew Lippa's first musical john & jen, which was revived in New York City earlier this year — so she's had experience with new songwriters.
"He trusted me," she says, "and I trusted him, and it wasn't easy, but we had a common goal, which was to get this story on the stage… I was so moved by the music. I was playing it on my computer, and then I sent it to all my friends saying, 'Do you feel what I feel about this?' And, they were like, 'Goose bumps. Goose bumps.'"
Although the stars aligned, the road wasn't so easy for Smith and his first musical. Before he even had a script, he was told by a theatre insider to take on a much smaller project for his first endeavor. ("He was outright insulted," explains Smith. "He was like, 'You've never written anything!'") And then, to raise money, he went door to door to pitch the show, singing its songs in hopes of snagging investors.
When Amazing Grace was finally taking off, and it was close to opening at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut, his wife was diagnosed with cancer.
"She was seven months pregnant with our little daughter, and she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer," Smith confides, "so she went from an early delivery to surgery two weeks later to chemo two weeks later and radiation after that, and this is all leading up to the Goodspeed production, so it was a real test. It always is, but my faith is really one of the things that grounds me."
Amazing Grace is a story of faith: a sailor (Jesus Christ Superstar Tony nominee Josh Young) must decide between following in the slave-trading footsteps of his father or embracing a more compassionate lifestyle. His darkest moments inspire him to pen "Amazing Grace," one of the most legendary Christian hymns of all time.
"I was a hardcore atheist in my early teens," admits Smith, whose faith took a turn during his wife's battle with cancer. "It's definitely closer than it's ever been in my life because it has to be, so I think that I see God in the little things much more than I did before — in the people working [on] the team. One of the things that [director] Gabe Barre had us do at the very start before [the production in] Chicago was bring in a picture of what grace means to us. People brought in pictures of their grandmother, pictures of hands, pictures of their dog… It means so many things to all these different people, and I realize that's true for the audience. That's like 1,235 different struggles and stories and questions, and honoring that has really deepened my relationship with God, too."
Smith had to believe in those surrounding him — he's completely self-taught and maps out the show's songs and structure in his head. His team puts the finishing touches on the music, and Arthur Giron (originally brought onto the team as Smith's mentor) co-authored the book.
"I couldn't just be good at my craft," Smith says of collaborating. "I had to be a great listener."
So, is he here to stay? "Oh, yeah!" he says with a smile. "I have no ambitions to become an astronaut or a brain surgeon…! Let's see, what other crazy career can I go into?
"No, once I left police work for a while, all my certifications lapsed, so I'm not headed back to the police academy."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)