Published: July 24th, 2015
Gabriel Barre is an internationally acclaimed director whose production of the new musical Amazing Grace is slated to open on Broadway in 2015 at the Nederlander Theatre. Amazing Grace had its world premiere at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago in the fall of 2014, and had a prior developmental production at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Other work includes the off Broadway production of the The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa at the Manhattan Theatre Club which was nominated for numerous awards, including five Outer Critics Circle Awards and thirteen Drama Desk Awards, both including Best Direction of a Musical, and for which he won the Calloway Award for Best Direction. He directed the US national tour of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s, Cinderella, starring Eartha Kitt, which toured the country for three years, including a stint at Madison Square Garden, as well as subsequent productions regionally throughout the US. He also directed the national tour of Pippin, which originated at the Goodspeed Opera House and played throughout the US and Canada. Other original off-Broadway credits include: Almost, Maine at the Daryl Roth Theatre, Summer of ’42 at the Variety Arts Theatre, Honky Tonk Highway at Don’t Tell Mama (winner of a MAC Award and Bistro Award for Best Review) Stars in Your Eyes at the Cherry Lane Theatre, john & jen at the Lamb’s Theatre, Son Of A Gun at the Samuel Beckett Theater and the 25th Anniversary production of Jacque Brel is Alive and Well at the Village Gate, which he also acted in, and choreographed.
Howl: Tell us a little about what drew you to directing "Amazing Grace”.
Barre: The first thing was the producer, Carolyn Rossi Copeland. She produced the first show I ever directed called "john & jen" and I am always interested in working with her so when she called about this show. I was immediately interested. The second thing was the story. That is always the most important thing to me - what is the story and what is it about? What does the audience walk away with? This is a great story and the third thing was the fact that the story is unknown. That is a rare thing and something that has even found it’s way onto our publicity campaign: “The song the world knows and the story it doesn’t.”
Howl: "Amazing Grace" is a song that most Americans have heard, and yet the history behind with John Newton it is a fascinating story. What were some of the pieces of its history that most interested you?
Barre: The sheer epic adventure of all of it, but especially the presence of the sea as a character in the piece and the challenge of presenting the world of slavery onstage in a musical which has not been done much at all.
Howl: Currently, there are many Civil Rights campaigns gaining ground around the country such as Black Lives Matter. "Amazing Grace" deals with the themes of slavery (John himself was enslaved at one point), redemption, and freedom. What lessons are there from the play that you think could parallel or be poignant to the present day in America?
Barre: So many, but the one scene in our show that comes to mind is the scene when John Newton is begging forgiveness from Pakuteh and Pakuteh asks John: “Who am I?” That one question sums up a lot of what I believe is at the root of the racial divide still in place through systemic racism in our country. People don’t really know each other and don’t take the time to regard and respect each other as individuals.
Howl: What has been some of the feedback from people who have seen "Amazing Grace" and do you think the contemporary Civil Rights issues in America have an impact on how people view the play?
Barre: The feedback is and continues to be overwhelming. Audiences leap to their feet and sing "Amazing Grace" along with cast. It really is an experience for them and for the cast every night. And the show resonated whenever it has played whether in our 2012 developmental production, our 2014 Chicago production or now…on Broadway. But it is a particularly important time for us to be presenting this story in our country and we do not look at it as accident.
Howl: You have been a part of many dramatic productions in your career. Being intimately familiar with production of "Amazing Grace," what are some of the aspects (costume, set design, music...) you love most about this particular production?
Barre: The entire design process was extraordinary. I always work close with each aspect of the physical production and do everything in my power to insure they work with and feed off each other as well. But this team has been exemplary! Ideas have come from all and all carefully processed and carried out involving a true collaboration. The look and feel of the show is one of the things I am most proud of, but they also influenced greatly the writing!
Howl: From a personal and literary standpoint, what lyrics or lines stand out to you as particularly meaningful or touching?
Barre: As I said earlier certainly, “Who am I?” but there are many others including: “Where will you go when there is nowhere left to run?” and “This is for the one who loved me when there was nothing there to love.”…also, one where John asks Thomas to just leave him in peace and Thomas responds: ”I can leave, but the peace is up to you.”
Howl: What is it about the medium of drama you love so much in regards to storytelling?
Barre: Live theatre is about an exchange of ideas. When done well, it is an experience that is happening in the room and the audience is involved. Their imagination is part of the process.
Howl: Do you see a play like "Amazing Grace" to be more reactionary to the times or influential? In other words, do you think the production came about from a spoken or unspoken desire from the people? Or do you feel that the play was put into production with an intent to lend a voice and make a change?
Barre: The work on both the script and score began many years ago by a policeman living in Pennsylvania. He saw the potential in this great story and saw, even those many years ago, that the themes in this show of forgiveness, second chances, true unconditional love, and redemption, were universal and timeless.
Howl: What do you hope people take away from seeing "Amazing Grace”?
Barre: That it is time to really look at one another and see ourselves. That change is possible. And that standing up against injustice sometimes has to start with one person, but it must start. And that faith is everything.