Carnegie Mellon University
July 27, 2015

How Sweet the Sound

Amazing Grace cast

From left, CMU alumnus Chris Hoch, Leslie Becker, CMU alumna Erin Mackey, Savannah Frazier and Elizabeth Ward Land perform in "Amazing Grace."

From bagpipes to basic piano, the song "Amazing Grace" is an integral part of the fabric of the American music landscape.

"Amazing Grace," the Broadway musical, recently opened at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. The performance, featuring two Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama alumni, follows the life of the hymn's composer, John Newton, through his journey from slave trader to forgiveness-seeking abolitionist.

Jonathan Aitken, a biographer of Newton's, estimates that "Amazing Grace" is sung 10 million times each year. President Obama recently sang it while eulogizing Rev. Celmenta C. Pinckney, one of the victims of a recent church shooting.

"It really affected everyone a lot," said Chris Hoch (A 1998), who plays Major Archibald Gray, of the cast's reaction to Obama's rendition. "For me, just the act of the survivors' families, the forgiveness they showed was kind of striking. It was relevant because forgiveness is a big part of our story; asking forgiveness and what is worthy of being forgiven."

Amazing Grace
Mackey and Josh Young

"Amazing Grace" the musical doesn't shy away from political activism and the inhumanities of slavery as the story highlights the beginnings of the abolitionist movement.

"I think the tension of race is very much alive in our society and has roots in slavery and is what makes our show incredibly relevant even though it takes place in the 1740s," said Erin Mackey (A 2004-2005), who plays the female lead, Mary Catlett. "I hope this is making people reflect on our current society and take a look back at our history."

Hoch said he enjoys period storytelling and how it can shed light on the present. He regularly looks back to the set of tools he gained at CMU to help shape his roles.

"Things like the text work, stuff from Don Wadsworth's class," Hoch recalled. "I remember just being so thrown by things about operative words that you would take for granted. ["Amazing Grace"] has dense language and you've gotta have some kind of training to nail down the thoughts, otherwise, there's just a flurry of words, backstory and exposition. It's something I couldn't possibly do if I hadn't gone to Carnegie."

Amazing Grace the Musical
Washington Post: "'Amazing Grace' is making its way from President Obama's lips to Broadway's stage