Mal Pope: Composer of the Welsh revival musical Amazing Grace

Wednesday 4th January 2006

Tony Cummings reports on the Amazing Grace musical based on the Welsh Revival of 1904 written by veteran Christian singer/songwriter MAL POPE.

Mal Pope
Mal Pope

Singer, songwriter, keyboard player, record producer and now writer of stage musicals Mal Pope has achieved a phenomenal amount since those head-turning days in the early '70s when he was discovered by John Peel and signed to Elton John's Rocket Records. In Wales he is, of course, a popular TV personality while in the CCM field his warmly soulful voice has been heard on literally dozens of recordings, including the international best seller 'City Of Gold'. However, even Mal's most enthusiastic admirers were probably surprised by the recent expansion of Mal's creative armoury when he suddenly emerged to write what some critics have already dubbed the finest Christian-orientated musical to emerge in post war years. The production earlier this year by the Wales Theatre Company of Amazing Grace with music and lyrics by Mal Pope showed this quietly spoken Welshman to be a towering theatric talent and many are predicting that it is only a matter of time before the world Church comes to recognise the stunning creative and spiritual impact of Amazing Grace and its lucid account of the story of Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival of 1904.

Set against the background of mining disasters and union unrest, the story begins with Evan Roberts meeting with God in his bedroom. From there he takes the message of love and repentance first to his chapel and then throughout Wales and beyond. The musical charts Roberts' rapid rise to fame and his equally dramatic fall from grace. When travelling round the country to speak, Roberts was accompanied by the Singers Of Dawn, a band of young women followers. It wasn't long before there arose suggestions of both misconduct and manipulation. Enter the Reverend Peter Price, a hellfire and brimstone preacher who determines to bring down the young upstart. Add polite society and a disgruntled mining community and an "unholy" alliance is formed. Telling the story and bringing an outsider's eye to the situation is WT Stead, a reporter for the London Times. He carefully details the facts for his readers and at the end confesses that, almost in spite of what he's seen, he has been saved.

Mal Pope: Composer of the Welsh revival musical Amazing Grace

The production of this musical has been a dream fulfilled for Mal Pope, who carefully researched the story before writing the music and lyrics. Mal is rueful about the period he took in researching Amazing Grace. "I spoke to a London musical heavyweight and told him I'd been working on the show for two years and he said 'not long then!' I'd been brought up in the shadow of the Welsh revival all of my life but with the centenary looming I started doing some research on the internet and found out that it was a lot more complicated than I had been led to believe. I have been searching for a way to honour Welsh culture and music and this seemed to be the perfect tool. I did also feel that everything I had done up to writing this show was in some way preparation for the job."

The Wales Theatre Company's production of Amazing Grace was a big success in Welsh theatres with a fascinating mingling of Christian and non-Christian audiences. Said Mal, "I went to a lot of churches to tell them what the musical was about but more importantly what it wasn't about. I was pretty sure most of them would have the same impression of the revival being one long jolly but there was plenty of heartache as well. I always left them by saying I'd love them to come but to be honest the show wasn't for them. It was for people outside of church. That's why it had to be honest, to tell the negative as well as the great positives, otherwise people would have seen through it as a piece of propaganda and not a true story."

Mal Pope: Composer of the Welsh revival musical Amazing Grace

When I saw Amazing Grace in Mold I was struck by the sheer quality of Pope's music. From the powerful miners' anthem "We Make The Wheels Go Round" to the plaintive Evan solo "Get Thee Behind Me Satan", the songs resonate. But the most powerful of them all is given to the Reverend Peter Price, who, echoing the words of the brother to the Prodigal Son, cries out to God, "You never threw a party for me!" It is now the title song of the new Mal Pope album and is as moving an expression of spiritual longing as you are ever likely to hear. Mal spoke about the song: "'You Never Threw A Party For Me' came late to the show (second week of rehearsal). I didn't want Price to be purely a caricature. He does represent the church opposition which eventually broke Evan and the revival but I wanted him to have a reason for his feelings. (I also needed to give Peter Karrie a big song in the second half.) I've been touring with Rob Parsons on the Prodigal evenings and you do have to feel some sympathy for the elder brother because sometimes life feels unfair. That concept seemed to fit in with Price's avowed mission to break Evan. Every night it used to crack me up. I used to love watching the audiences' reactions."

Impressively for a groundbreaking musical like Amazing Grace, it covered its production costs. Plans are now underway to bring the show back in the autumn of 2006 with an extended tour and bigger venues, including the Millennium Theatre in Cardiff. I confidently predict that one day Amazing Grace will make the West End of London and then Broadway because for me, the project has a stunning ability to speak to both Christian and non-Christian alike. Pope has clearly got the theatric bug. He is now hard at work on a new musical, Contender, based on the life of boxer Tommy Farr. But, as I've said, we've not heard the last of Amazing Grace. I leave the final words about his memorable baptism into the world of musicals to Mal. "As the show ended in Mold all I could think of when I saw a full house standing and cheering was that God is faithful. I've had some amazingly high and low moments on this road. God was there for both times. My reaction to success and failure has been interesting, every knock and disappointment has made me trust more. Every success has taken away that need to trust. That's an incredible lesson to try to learn. To trust God during success is much more difficult because it appears you don't need him as much, when in fact you need him even more. As for my Welshness, that's been a great gift that I've treasured. To see others experience that Welshness, wherever they come from, and enjoy it too has been fantastic." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

Reader Comments

Posted by Penny Jones in East Sussex @ 17:21 on Sep 1 2007

After seeing Peter Karrie in Swansea this week and hearing excerpts from Amazing Grace I would have loved to buy the musical on CD. What a shame that such great singing and musical talent of Peter Karrie and Mal Pope is unavailable other than within live shows.
Please make a CD of this show (with Peter !) for those of us outside of Wales !

Posted by Linda Jones in Swansea @ 22:23 on Nov 12 2006

I can't praise this production highly enough. I've seen it twice now in Swansea and both times I have left the Grand Theatre on 'a high'

Posted by morris rowlands in Barnston, Wirral @ 14:35 on Apr 16 2006

I was at Mold an saw AG, to read it will return to the road in Autumn is a tremendous boost. Hope it comes again to Mold. I will tell all I know to go and see it and experience a fantastic evening

Posted by tim Neale in East Grinstead @ 18:25 on Jan 7 2006

A great article, lets hope AG gives Mal the recognition he deserves (outside of his homeland).

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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