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You'll Never Guess Where the Shipwreck Came From

Date: Jul 13, 2015
The surprising inspiration for Amazing Grace's pivotal scene


Of all the musicals currently on Broadway, Amazing Grace seems the least likely to be influenced by experimental German theatre. Yet the Berliner Ensemble, the company co-founded by Bertolt Brecht, is the direct inspiration for one of the show's most memorable moments.

Here's how you draw that particular line: Amazing Grace, which is now at the Nederlander Theater, is an epic musical in the Les Mis style about John Newton, the 18th-century slave ship captain who eventually had a religious conversion and wrote the titular hymn. Newton's commitment to God famously began after he survived a shipwreck, so it's no surprise the disaster ends the musical's first act.

And that scene is a doozy. Thanks to innovative design, it seems like water fills the entire stage, and as pieces of the ship float around, several actors, suspended in mid-air, swim through space. When Newton finally gets rescued, he "swims" to the top of the proscenium arch, which is dozens of feet off the ground, and disappears into the sky.

The concept for this showstopper came from set designer Eugene Lee. As he pondered how to make the shipwreck happen, he was reminded of a trip he took to Europe in the 1960s. "I was with my friend Andre Gregory, who I've worked with forever," he recalls. "We were in Monte Carlo, where they had rented a little villa for the summer. And he said to me, 'You know, when you're here, you should go to the Berliner Ensemble. It's nearby. Why don't you go?' And I was a hippie back then, so I just went to Berlin! And the Wall was up. You had to put your passport in a little slot -- it was very scary -- and it came out eventually and they let you in."


Once he made it through the checkpoint, Lee saw several Berliner Ensemble shows, including a production of Sean O'Casey's Purple Dust, about a pair of arrogant British stockbrockers who try to restore an ancient Irish mansion. As they push their worldview on their Irish workers, a storm comes along and knocks the building to the ground, leaving nothing but rubble.

Lee still remembers how the Germans staged that demolition, which started with a piece of machinery slamming into a wall. "Pieces of the wall fly away and water is flying out of the wall," he recalls. "Real water. Little streams of it. The stage is filling up with water, which is a perfect thing for a proscenium. I don't know how it's done. A scrim or something, possibly. And things floated off the stage floor. And as the proscenium filled totally with water, there were phosphorescent fish. It was wonderful."

Which brings us back to Amazing Grace. "When we got to the problem of the shipwreck, I explained to everyone what I had seen in Berlin years ago, and that became the inspiration for the underwater shipwreck with people floating and trying to save each other," Lee says. "I always like things that come back into my life years and years later. Because that was not in any script. That was just Eugene saying, 'Remember Purple Dust!'"


Mark Blankenship
is the editor of TDF Stages

Photos by Joan Marcus
. Top photo: Josh Young (left) as John Newman, with the cast of Amazing Grace.