Monday, June 5, 2023

‘Swept Away’: Avett Brothers’ new shipwreck musical sets sail for Berkeley Rep

The Swept Away was a long journey.

The world premiere of the musical at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, featuring songs from popular American music group the Avett Brothers, tells the story of shipwreck survivors and what they do to survive.

Gone was originally scheduled to begin in June 2020, but like many other productions, it has been delayed due to COVID so far.

This is the return to Berkeley Rep of director Michael Mayer, the Tony Award-winning director of Spring Awakening, who premiered Green Day’s American Idiot at Berkeley Rep in 2009 before making it to Broadway.

Mayer, co-writer and director of American Idiot, describes himself as a “big fan of the Avett Brothers.”

“Actually, John Gallagher Jr. introduced me to them when we were making American Idiot,” he said. Gallagher, who worked with Mayer on Spring Awakening and American Idiot, also co-stars on Gone.

“For me, the beauty of the Avettes’ music is that their stuff is very soulful,” Mayer says. “They are not cynical people. And I feel that the honesty and generosity of their spirit as human beings and as brothers and just who they are as human beings comes through in their songs and their lyrics. They never try to be smart. They don’t brag. They speak from their truth and try to connect with what is true in their audience.”

The book for Swept Away is written by playwright John Logan, whose Tony Award-winning drama Red was played by Berkley Repa in 2012. He is also a screenwriter for films such as The Aviator and Hugo, and has written the book stage musical Moulin Rouge! it is scheduled to play San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater this September.

“Unexpectedly, I received an email from a producer named Matthew Masten saying: “Hey, we have never met, but do you know the music of the Avett Brothers? Is there a show on their Mignonette album?” Logan says. “So I did what your agent tells you never to do. I said yes! I’m in. I like it. I had one question. Can we open the entire catalog of their songs? Because Mignonette, while a brilliant concept album, wasn’t really enough to build an entire theater evening on it. And the Avettes were incredibly generous and said, yes, whatever we may have written, you can use.”

The 2004 album Mignonette, which featured the musical’s title track, was inspired by the true story of the shipwreck of the Mignonette yacht in the 1880s and the terrible things her castaways had to do to survive.

“The climax of the historical story is sort of the climax of the show, but with completely different characters involved in a completely different resolution,” says Logan. “I wanted to deal with the sea, with a shipwreck, and with a lifeboat survival story, but everything else is completely fictional.”

“It’s almost like a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, a ghost story told in flashback to a shipwreck in 1888,” Meyer says. “Basically, it’s four characters in a lifeboat, in a small whaling boat. This show is about what people are willing to do to survive. How far are you willing to go to survive, and how do you keep hope?”

The musical has a few songs from Mignonetta, but it’s taken from the entire work of the Avette brothers, and there’s one song they wrote specifically for the show.

“I spent months just listening to every song,” says Logan. “And they recorded a lot. So I went over and made a card for each song, like, here are the themes, here is the language, here are the characters that appear. And while I was doing that, the story started to come up.”

This is a short musical – 90 minutes without intermission – at the center of just four characters in the most intimate and desperate circumstances.

The co-authors say that the show itself has not changed during the long wait for the premiere, but its subtext has changed.

“It was frozen in time, but none of us were frozen, so we’re all bringing our last two years into this production,” says Logan. “We all understand isolation and loneliness differently. So while the show is still there, I think the main note of our lives has made it much more rewarding and meaningful in a way.”

“I think it has influenced how we all feel about it,” Mayer agrees. “Because let’s face it, four people in a lifeboat as a metaphor is much more relevant now than it was two years ago. I mean, we’ve all had a recent survival experience. We are still in it to a certain extent. The concept of survival against the unknown is very relevant to all of us.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected] and follow him on


world premiere; book by John Logan, music and lyrics by the Avette Brothers, presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theater

Across: In preview from January 18 to 19, the main release is from January 20 to March 6.

Where: Berkeley Rep. Pete Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

Tickets: 37-186 dollars; 510-647-2949

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