Jazz Hands for Jesus: Inside Broadway's Religion 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.