Ticket sales remain robust, with orders coming from most states and as far away as the U.K., Japan and South Korea. And the Avetts’ folk-rock music itself continues to win new fans. Heck, last week BuzzFeed cited “Murder in the City,” one of the Concord band’s songs in the show, on a list of “song lyrics that give people goosebumps.”
“Swept Away” was inspired by the Grammy-nominated group’s “Mignonette.” That 2004 album was a riff on the real-life tale of a 19th-century yacht that sank during a storm off the coast of South Africa, and the wrenching choice the survivors made to cling to life.
The Avett Brothers contributed all the music and lyrics for “Swept Away,” deploying over a dozen songs from their deep catalog.
The show debuted last year at Berkeley Rep in California, where it gained strong reviews and extended its run several times. Now it’s set for a month-long appearance at Arena Stage starting Nov. 25.
But along with momentum, there’s pressure.
Pressure that comes with guiding a decade-long passion project with challenging material to a new venue — and maybe, eventually, Broadway, too — despite an uncertain economy, audiences still wary of returning to venues and the ever-present complexities of bringing any show to life on the stage.
“It’s all a challenge,” said Charlotte native Matthew Masten, one of the lead producers. “Unfortunately, none of it is easy.” But, he added, that’s why people become theater producers.
Masten, fellow producer Sean Hudock and producing partner Jamie Forshaw with Madison Wells Live recently spoke with The Charlotte Observer about “Swept Away” as it preps for its D.C. engagement and beyond.
Catching up with ‘Swept Away’
It’s been about a decade since Masten hit on the notion that an Avett Brothers album could form the basis for a musical, one with resonant themes of survival and redemption.
Masten lucked out when he managed to connect with the band’s manager, Dolph Ramseur, after spotting his email address on Facebook. Ramseur immediately took to the idea of turning “Mignonette” into a stage show. The Avett Brothers ultimately came on board as well.
As Scott Avett told the Observer in the spring, “I love dark and redemptive hope. I love stories that have that because I think it’s truly reflective of life.”
The musical, from a script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan, centered around a whaling ship encountering a massive storm off the coast of Massachusetts. Other big names attached to the show include a couple of Tony winners — director Michael Mayer and actor John Gallagher Jr., both honored for “Spring Awakening” — as well as Tony nominees actor Stark Sands and choreographer David Neumann.
The show centers around a veteran sea captain (Wayne Duvall), his mate (Gallagher), a young man seeking adventure (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and his protective older brother (Sands). After the shipwreck, “Swept Away” focuses on what the men do to stay alive without food or water, and how they live with the consequences.
Avetts are all in
The Avett Brothers remain a critical piece of the evolving show, from rewriting their own lyrics to weighing in on moving around the opening song.
“We’re in constant contact with them,” Masten said, despite the band’s busy touring schedule. “I was just texting with Scott earlier today, and getting their feedback on the artwork by someone who’s done posters for them.”
They’re even suggesting songs of theirs that haven’t been in the show but could be a potential fit.
In an interview last month with the Des Moines Register, ahead of the band playing a gig in Iowa, Seth Avett called it a “beautiful and very surreal experience” to see their songs exist in a different format than how they started out.
Logan seamlessly moved the context of the lyrics from the album to the stage as if that was what they were created for all along, Avett said. “It’s just been really mind-blowing, really beautiful, and it’s a continuing sensation.”
‘Swept Away’ heads east
There remained constant work for the producers and the creative team to do after the show closed in California last year.
Logan and Mayer got together with the music team to go over new material as well as to consider alternative Avett songs. “They knew there were certain changes and adaptations that needed to happen,” Forshaw said, “and they’ve been working on that (since Berkeley) so they’re ready to go into rehearsals in (Washington) in November.”
The “Swept Away” leaders also were buoyed by the Avett Brothers’ fan base, which had started to buy tickets well before the show was to open in D.C., and helped push “#AvettSailors” on social media. A number of Charlotte groups already got their tickets and are heading to Washington, too, including one from the church Masten attended when he was growing up here.
But unlike some other recent Broadway shows (think “Back to the Future” or “Mrs. Doubtfire”), “Swept Away” isn’t based on a big-name movie.
“It’s still going to be a tough sell,” Masten said, and Hudock added that they know they need to expand their audience to sustain the show’s viability.
To that end, they linked up with veteran Broadway ad designer Drew Hodges, whose company created high-profile campaigns for shows from “Rent” to Hamilton.” Hodges got the “concert poster” vibe they were going for, Hudock said, and has been working with them on “fun and different stuff” they hope to release to build audience.
Still, even Forshaw had his doubts when Masten and Hudock first approached him about working with them.
Forshaw had questions about the material and he wasn’t familiar with The Avett Brothers. But all that quickly changed after he attended an early workshop for the show.
“I was blown away by the music,” Forshaw said. “And the story was very compelling... I left that workshop and said, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ And we’ve been in ever since.
“When you’re creating something new, every step of the way, you have to follow your gut,” despite questioning the choices you make and remaining aware that you’re trying to get a return on your investors’ money.
“Ultimately,” Forshaw added, “as long as you really believe in and love the projects you’re working on — in this case ‘Swept Away’ — you have to believe that you’re always doing the right thing.”
Betting on Broadway
As the show prepares to open in Washington, the producers also have their eyes set further north: on Broadway.
Their goal remains to transfer the musical there. Before that can happen, they said, multiple factors would need to line up just right, from positive reviews in D.C. and audience feedback to just the right theater space becoming available. They also are working to attract industry attention for “Swept Away” during its stint at Arena Stage.
“All of these things really have to click for a show like this to come to Broadway and have a chance at success,” Masten said.
At the same time, they are keeping their options open, whether that means touring other cities before Broadway or even instead of Broadway. And they are exploring the best way to get some of the show’s music out into the world as a way of highlighting Avett Brothers songs being sung by Broadway vets, Hudock said.
But if everything does align, somehow, they could see a scenario where “Swept Away” arrives on Broadway next year in the late spring or early fall.
“That is certainly the intention,” Forshaw said. “I mean, that’s what we’ve been developing the show for.”
How to get tickets for ‘Swept Away’
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington, D.C.
When: Nov. 25-Dec. 30
Tickets: Single show tickets remain available at the Arena Stage website, arenastage.org.
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