Last night, my husband and I saw the new musical, Amazing Grace, in it's pre-Broadway Chicago run. As you might guess from the show's title, it's a musical about John Newton, the man who wrote the beloved hymn, Amazing Grace, after turning from a seller of slaves to a committed abolitionist.
The show ended with the song, Amazing Grace. Immediately, people around me wiped away tears before rising to their feet to give the show a standing ovation.
I remained seated, baffled by what I was seeing. I then leaned over to my husband and asked, “What did I miss?”
To which he responded, “The Christian marketing ploy.”
You see, despite it's standing ovation, the show was terrible.
Nothing about it was cohesive. The storytelling bounced from one thing to the next, with not much connecting the space in between. (To give you an example of the dismal storytelling, rather than being woven into the story itself, the song Amazing Grace had to be introduced as an epilogue.) There was also little to no character development, something that left me going “I don't get it” when Newton suddenly sang a song about his transformation – something the show failed to actually portray.
The blocking was horrific. It seemed as though the show's director wasn't convinced his cast could both sing and move at the same time. As a result, the show included a lot of people simply standing around, looking at each other. What few numbers actually had choreography were dreadfully slow... Perhaps because the music itself wasn't great (though in their defense, the cast could sing).
On every level, the show failed. So much so that we actually contemplated leaving at intermission.
Yet, we stayed – theater lovers to the end, hoping that something in the second act would redeem the show.
Unfortunately, the show never improved.
And yet, the packed house exploded to it's feet at the end of the show, I fear because my husband is right and the marketing ploy worked.
You see, as a Chicago area youth pastor, I know how this show was marketed to local churches. During the weeks leading up to the opening of Amazing Grace, I received personalized e-mails from the Broadway in Chicago marketing department, telling me the many reasons why this show was the perfect outing for church or youth groups. I was even offered complimentary tickets to see the show. Our church received fliers and was asked to post them.
In other words, the theater world stole a page from the movie industry's playbook on how to market to Christians.
And from what I saw, it worked.
I can only assume people stood in recognition of a beloved song and a show that wove in the right amount of Christianese to its otherwise stilted dialogue.
They certainly didn't stand in recognition of the show's quality.
And that worries me.
As Christians, when will we learn that good art honors God and bad art – even when it includes Christianese – doesn't?
The church used to be the patron of the arts.
But these days, we're only patrons of bad Christian art.
The problem with that is that when we're willing to settle for and even champion mediocrity just because it has a Christian theme, that's all we'll ever get.