Why the Avett Brothers Are Taking ‘Swept Away’ to Broadway

by info.vocallyrics@gmail.com

Four whalers are set adrift after a violent storm sinks their ship. Lost at sea, exposed to the elements and on the brink of starvation, the men must make horrifying decisions in their struggle to survive. Cannibalism may or may not be on the menu. That grim setup doesn’t scream Broadway musical! 

But that’s exactly what the producers of “Swept Away” think they have, following successful runs at the Bay Area’s Berkeley Rep and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. “It exceeded all of our expectations,” says Hana S. Sharif, Arena Stage’s artistic director. The show, which was slated to end performances in December, extended its run by two weeks to meet demand. It was Arena’s first post-pandemic show to exceed $2 million in sales. “We could not keep a seat,” Sharif says. “I wondered if it would be too bleak, but it blew everyone away. We had people flying in from all over the country to see it.” 

The geographic pull, in this case, can be attributed to the Avett Brothers, the folk-rock band whose songs are featured in “Swept Away.” The group’s music attracts a loyal following with its soulful, spirited emotionalism. 

“I’ve spent the years since the pandemic trying to figure out what an audience needs and wants,” says Johanna Pfaelzer, the artistic director of Berkeley Rep, where the show was also extended. “And it’s elusive. But there’s something about the brothers’ music that inspires real passion. People have a deep personal identification with these songs. It forms the soundtrack of their lives as they grow up.” 

The musical has other pedigreed talent attached, including John Logan, the “Gladiator” screenwriter who penned the book, and Michael Mayer, who directed “American Idiot,” a show that used Green Day’s music to memorable effect. It also has deep-pocketed backers, among them Gigi Pritzker’s Madison Wells Live. But the success rate for original musicals on Broadway is daunting — just ask “New York, New York” or David Byrne’s “Here Lies Love,” which saw their runs sharply abbreviated due to tepid ticket sales. So the producers of “Swept Away” are trying to keep things lean, aiming for a capitalization of $12 million, much lower than the nearly $20 million that many musicals cost to put on these days. 

“We have a show that can be produced reasonably,” says Pritzker, who notes that the small cast helps keep the budget low. “We want to give our team all the resources they need to make this show great, but it needs to be put on in a manner that gives everybody a chance to get what they want to out of the production.” 

“Swept Away” has yet to announce what its next port of call will be, but Pritzker sounds confident that Broadway beckons, perhaps as early as this season. 

“It’s the kind of show where the word of mouth is extraordinary,” she says. “The elevator pitch may not be as easy to make as it is for other shows, but once people see it and hear the music, it’s going to take off.” 

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