Broadway composer seeks 'lights' in entertainment
Smith -- author of the script, music and lyrics for the musical "Amazing Grace" -- has pursued that aim through speaking engagements at several Southern Baptist-related schools, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Union University, Houston Baptist University and Liberty University. He also hopes to demonstrate what God-honoring entertainment looks like with a 70-city tour of "Amazing Grace" starting Nov. 17 at the Museum of the Bible's grand opening in Washington.
"I really believe," Smith told Baptist Press, "in the redemptive power of theater which is excellent in its artistry and honors God."
"Amazing Grace" is based on the true story of 18th-century slave trader John Newton, an atheist turned Christian pastor who helped abolish the slave trade in Great Britain and wrote the autobiographical hymn Amazing Grace.
Inspired by Smith's encounter with a book about Newton years ago, "Amazing Grace" mirrors Smith's personal testimony in some ways. God saved him out of atheism at age 17. Then he went on to become a police officer and youth pastor in Pennsylvania before breaking into the theater business with "Amazing Grace."
During the show's 2015 run on Broadway, it drew polarized reviews from critics, with some extremely negative and some extremely positive. Audiences, however, reacted enthusiastically. Some theatergoers told Smith the production made them rethink their priorities in life.
One woman happened by the theater after learning from a doctor she had three or four months to live, Smith said. She decided on the spur of the moment to watch "Amazing Grace" and told the cast afterward the show helped her realize "there are things I need to get right in my life and people I need to get right with."
On a regular basis, audiences spontaneously stood at the end of the musical to sing the hymn Amazing Grace.
Through the 70-city tour and continued speaking engagements, Smith hopes to show fellow believers they too can glorify God through the arts.
"You leave 'Amazing Grace' knowing ... that God can be in the theater," Smith said, adding the musical makes clear Newton experienced a spiritual conversion wrought by God while not explicitly presenting the plan of salvation.
"We're into this [trend] -- especially in film -- where [people ask], 'Is it a Christian film, or is it a secular film?' This [show] blurs the line. This is a secular musical about a personal salvation," Smith said.
In mid-October, Smith helped students and graduates at Liberty present a concert of selections from "Amazing Grace" that featured a 400-person choir and full symphony orchestra. In rehearsals leading up to the concert, Smith said, he tried to help aspiring performers understand how to "communicate the Gospel in a hostile industry, a hostile world without being adversarial."
That goal also has led Smith to form a nonprofit organization called Lights on Broadway -- with the assistance of Southern Seminary philosophy professor James Parker among others -- to train aspiring Christian performers. In addition to helping them hone their craft, Lights on Broadway will produce musicals consistent with a Christian worldview.
Young people in entertainment tend either to "quit because they don't want to compromise" their morals or "compromise because they don't want to quit," Smith said. "That's our fault. We need to create great quality entertainment [so] they can practice their gift without compromising their values."
Secularists "did a takeover of entertainment," Smith said. "I really think theater is the way to start to claw back something that will honor God."
Performances of "Amazing Grace" at the Museum of the Bible are scheduled through Jan. 7. A schedule of other tour stops will be released at amazinggracemusical.com.