By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — On Fat Tuesday this year, a Christian-themed Broadway show that tells the story behind what is perhaps the most recognizable hymn in history will be coming to Dubuque.
“Amazing Grace: A New Broadway Musical” will be performed Feb. 13 at the University of Dubuque’s (UD) Heritage Center as part of its first national tour since leaving the New York stage.
“Most people never get to see a Broadway show, now a Broadway show is coming to Dubuque,” reflected Rev. William “B.J.” Weber, an Anglican pastor who, after graduating from the seminary program at UD in 1978, left Iowa for the Big Apple to minister to the homeless in Times Square.
“Amazing Grace” was written by slave trader turned abolitionist, John Newton, in the 18th century. The hymn tells the story of a man suffering under the weight of his own cruelty. He has a dramatic conversion where his eyes are opened to his own decrepit ways and to the grace and forgiveness that washed it all away.
Ironically, it’s the impact of God’s grace in Rev. Weber’s own life, which began through the influence of Catholic monks and nuns in and around his hometown, that led to his own conversion to Christianity. This, in turn, prompted his decades-long ministry and most recently, the coming of this Christian-themed musical to Iowa.
A Graceful Meeting
It all started when the 71-year-old pastor was a young, longhaired Rugby player kicking around Dubuque in the 1970s. Hunger prompted Rev. Weber to take a drive out to New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, the home of Trappist monks, a Catholic religious order based on the rule of St. Benedict.
“I went out to buy a loaf of bread they sold on weekends,” recalled Rev. Weber.
Father James Kerndt (1914-2010), OCSO, abbot of New Melleray from 1964-66, struck up a conversation with the young man, who was not practicing any religion at the time, sparking his interest in spiritual life.
“(Father Kerndt) introduced me to Christ,” recalled Rev. Weber. “He helped to mentor me and care for me.”
Eventually, the young student enrolled in UD’s seminary program, which at the time offered a variety of courses through a consortium of three seminaries of various traditions in the city, including UD, which is Presbyterian; Wartburg Theological Seminary, which is Lutheran; and the now closed Aquinas Institute of Theology, which was a Catholic seminary run by members of the Dominican order.
Rev. Weber was eventually introduced to Sister Columba Guare, first abbess of the Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, a community of Trappist nuns who came to Dubuque in 1964. The order still lives and works at their abbey not far from the city.
Sister Columba became Rev. Weber’s spiritual director, and it was she that suggested he work with the poor to help in his discernment process.
“These monks and nuns nurtured me for five and a half years,” he said.
To the Big City
In 1979, Rev. Weber moved to New York City where he worked with the homeless population for about six years, ministering to drug addicts and prostitutes in and around Manhattan. He lived at a church at 130 W. 44th St., which was also an off-Broadway venue for the arts called “Lamb’s Theatre.”
It was there he met Carolyn Rossi Copeland, a theater producer and fellow Christian who was getting her career started. The two became friends.
“She was the first person I met when I walked in the door,” he said.
“(Lamb’s Theatre) was really an epicenter of the Christian community in the 1970s and 80s,” added Copeland.
Although dedicated to her faith, Copeland wanted to make financially viable productions targeted beyond just Christian audiences.
“My ultimate belief is we’re responsible for the words we put in this world,” she said. “I’ve always been called to competitive commercial theater.”
As time went on, both Rev. Weber and Copeland became successful, he in his ministry and she in theater. Rev. Weber also stayed in touch with his Trappist friends and his alma mater. Copeland, the executive producer for “Amazing Grace,” was very involved in the development of the show, including the book of music.
The production follows Newton, a willful and musically talented young Englishman, as he faces a future as uncertain as the turning tide. Coming of age as Britain sits atop an international empire of slavery, he finds himself torn between following in the footsteps of his father – a slave trader – or embracing the more compassionate views of his childhood sweetheart. Accompanied by his slave, Thomas, Newton embarks on a perilous voyage on the high seas. When that journey finds Newton in his darkest hour, a transformative moment of self-reckoning inspires a blazing anthem of hope that will finally guide him home.
In the fall of 2014, Amazing Grace’s World Premiere production was presented at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago as a pre-Broadway engagement. Oct. 25, 2015, Amazing Grace played its final Broadway performance at the Nederlander Theatre in New York. Once its Broadway run was complete, Copeland received a vehement request from her friend that the show be brought to Rev. Weber’s hometown.
“I introduced Carolyn to Dubuque and to bringing the show to Dubuque, Iowa,” said Rev. Weber.
Grace Through Theater
Thomas Robbins, the executive director of the Heritage Center, helped make the idea of the show coming to Iowa a reality. A Catholic, he has been working at the University of Dubuque, founded by Presbyterians, for several years and says the ecumenical cooperation among students, staff and faculty of different faith traditions is affirming.
“For me, it’s strengthened my faith,” he said. “It helps me to find more community.”
Robbins feels the show will be an opportunity for Christians of all denominations to come together and share fellowship in a special way.
“‘Amazing Grace’ goes right straight to the heart of Christianity as a whole,” he said.
Weber and Copeland will be making the trip to Dubuque for the event, during which the executive producer plans to give a talk on the show. She is happy to be part of the occasion with the pastor.
“I think it’s a testament to our friendship,” she said. “I support his work and he supports mine. Our children grew up together.”
Copeland is hopeful the musical will appeal to everyone.
“I think the story of John Newton is so powerful that people of all faiths are interested,” she said.
For more information on “Amazing Grace” visit: http://www.dbq.edu/fineperformingarts/heritagecenter/.
The cast of ‘Amazing Grace’ performs a scene from the musical. (Contributed photo)