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Ex-Police Officer Was Fighting Crime on the Streets — but What He's Doing Now Might Surprise You


"What I want to do is tell you a story that’s so powerful, so moving, that the real story is what happens in you when the lights come on."

An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland)\n

Composer Chris Smith's story is most certainly an uncommon one.

He transitioned from being a full-time police officer who had never written a show in his life to the primary catalyst behind "Amazing Grace," a pre-Broadway show that will hold its world premiere Sunday night on Broadway in Chicago.

Flashback just a few years and Smith — the brains behind the new show about one of history's most famous hymns — was a cop in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. But a simple decision led him away from crime fighting and into the theater.

Smith recently told TheBlaze that it all began during his years as a police officer when he was also involved in youth and adult education programs. At the time he said he was always looking for stories and anecdotes he could use to relate to young people.

An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland) An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland)

Then in a library one day in 1997 he found a gem.

"I was walking through, just at random, and I just pulled a book off a shelf and the book didn’t say anything on it except 'John Newton' — and I (had) never read the name before," Smith said. "So I start reading this book."

At the time he had no idea that the simple act of picking up that book would set him on a years-long quest toward writing and producing the "Amazing Grace" show about Newton — a British abolitionist and Christian writer who lived from 1725 until 1807 and was the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace."

"I read the story and I’m like ‘Wow, this guy had a really interesting life," Smith said, recounting the profound changes that Newton underwent as a slave trader who later repudiated the practice. "What I realized in reading that book is...if you could condense this, if you could put this into something people could understand, you could have this amazing story of personal transformation, which causes cultural transformation."

After realizing that Newton was also the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace," Smith said he became convinced that his concept would work well as a musical, so he started looking into copyright files to see if anyone had ever done a musical on Newton — and what he found surprised him.

"Nothing. Two hundred and sixty years—nothing," he said. "And I went home to my wife and I said, 'I found a story.'"

Smith started out taking some small steps toward producing a music-driven show about Newton's life. Having had experience in songwriting and theater during his younger years, he had roots he could draw upon, though he was most certainly a novice when it came to composing theatrical works from scratch.

"I started writing and I started doing all of it because I didn’t know that normally you never have one person who does the music, lyrics, and book. And that just is hardly ever done," Smith told TheBlaze. "I had an investor tell me, ‘Do you realize that more people have walked on the moon than have done that successfully in a lifetime?’ And I was like, ‘Oh great, you’re laying this on me?’"

But Smith continued with his work until he met Rich Timmons, the owner of an art gallery in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Timmons encouraged Smith to create a demo, then helped him use it to bring "Amazing Grace" to potential funders.

And the response to the concept and the small performances he produced was tremendous, leading Smith to launch popular "Amazing Grace" events that showcased his music.

"We raised $230,000 in three months doing that, because people were so gripped by the story and we did some events where we took some people who were working on Broadway at the time, and they came in … and they did the little events," he said.

An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland) An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland)

Those "Amazing Grace" events drew hundreds upon hundreds of people who were interested in hearing the music and seeing the show. One event in Hilltown, Pennsylvania, had seating for 600 and ended up drawing more than double that number.

"It was like 'Field of Dreams' where you...looked out and you see this line of cars going," he said.

At that point, the show still wasn't in big theater form, but the heart and soul of it resonated with Broadway producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland when she saw a version in New York City.

Copeland, who recently told TheBlaze that she immediately knew the music was something special, began working with Smith.

And that's when the novice composer decided it was time to leave his police career and devote himself more fervently to making "Amazing Grace" a reality; he left the force and hasn't looked back. The process, of course, wasn't simple or easy.

But with Copeland's guidance over a seven-year period — including pairing up Smith with experienced writer Arthur Giron — the show is having its pre-Broadway debut in Chicago Sunday night. It was a process that Smith said was simply "meant to be."

An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland) An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland)

"It’s been so many things that are just so beyond just regular, old explanation...and a lot of people feel this way — that it was just fated to be, it was just meant to be," he said. "And I think that’s what’s helped me get through all the years of working on it."

Smith added, "I just feel like this is the way it is supposed to be. And it’s part of my (Christian) faith, it’s part of my view of the world."

"Amazing Grace" tackles themes pertaining to “romance, rebellion and redemption,” while shedding new light on the life of Newton — a tale that focuses on the abolitionist's Christian faith and themes of hope, redemption and personal transformation.

"What I want to do is tell you a story that’s so powerful, so moving, that the real story is what happens in you when the lights come on," he said. "It could mean going home and hugging your kids, it could mean repairing a marriage, going into rehab. It could...mean anything. Or it could just mean something, you know, very simple."

For more about “Amazing Grace” or to get tickets visit Broadway in Chicago.

Follow Billy Hallowell on Twitter (@BillyHallowell) and Facebook.

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