Shipwreck survival saga
An inside look at The Avett Brothers’ first musical
Charlotte, N.C. — The Avett Brothers never planned on making a musical, let alone a dark, twisty tale of the sea featuring more than a dozen of their songs.
But nearly a decade ago, a young theater producer from south Charlotte believed one of their albums could support such a venture.
Eventually, he connected with the Grammy-nominated folk rock band. He got one of his buddies to join him as producer. Later, a Tony-winning actor, a big-time Broadway director and the Oscar-nominated writer of “Gladiator” also came on board.
They called their show “Swept Away.”
Inspired by true events, the story centers on an ill-fated 19th-century New England whaling ship swamped by a strong storm. The few survivors, adrift at sea without food or water, confront a terrible choice on how to stay alive, then face the consequences of their desperate actions.
Through a series of coincidences, setbacks and plain old luck, the musical held its much-delayed world premiere last year in California. The show got another big boost when a Washington, D.C., theater announced it would play there this fall.
In exclusive interviews with The Charlotte Observer, singer-songwriter Scott Avett, and producers Matthew Masten and Sean Hudock, provide an insider’s look at the creation of “Swept Away” and dish on what comes next.
The Avett Brothers on the road
In the early 2000s, brothers Scott and Seth Avett were starting to make a name for themselves with their eponymous band from Concord, just outside Charlotte.
Piled in a van and driving from gig to gig, there always was plenty of time to read, Scott Avett recalled. On one trip, he grabbed a book his dad had recommended — “The Custom of the Sea.” Jim Avett always liked a good tale about shipwrecks and survival.
The book detailed the harrowing true story of the Mignonette yacht. Bound from England to Australia, it sank in a storm in 1884. How the few survivors managed to escape death at sea would reverberate through the years.
The tale also resonated with Scott Avett. “If I was moved by something, I would quickly apply it to whatever I was creating,” he said.
“Survival stories ... that are not only filled with gruesome and scary things, but also filled with dignity and dedication, you just couldn’t deny it,” Avett said. “They just found their way in my psyche.”
The result: The Avett Brothers’ third studio album, “Mignonette,” released in 2004. Its first track was called “Swept Away.”
“I love dark and redemptive hope,” Avett said. “I love stories that have that because I think it’s truly reflective of life.”
Enter the producer
A decade after the record came out, Masten was reading a story about albums that could make interesting musicals when one in particular caught his eye: “Mignonette.”
Something clicked. “I just thought that a musical can deal with dark, dark subject matter,” Masten said. “A musical doesn’t have to be, you know, tap dancing and fluffy.”
Broadway has seen plenty of jukebox musicals, biographies of bands or entertainers using songs throughout their careers to tell their story. From the start, though, there never was a plan to do a bio on the Avetts.
Masten Googled the band, thinking it a nice coincidence they were from just up the road in Concord.
On The Avett Brothers’ Facebook page, he spotted the email address for the band’s manager, Dolph Ramseur. Masten dashed off a cold-call email that day in April 2014, basically saying: “Hey, I’m a theater producer in New York. Have you ever thought about turning ‘Mignonette’ into a stage show?”
Minutes later, he got a response.
Ramseur loved the idea — if he hadn’t, the idea would’ve died right there — and suggested talking to the band about it.
Like many popular musicians, The Avett Brothers get lots of pitches. “(Masten) was knocking on our door forever. And it came from a genuine place,” Avett said.
In early 2015, Masten was hanging out at a Super Bowl party when he mentioned the project to his buddy, Hudock, an actor and producer in New York. By the time Masten took Hudock to his first Avett Brothers concert that year, the two were eager to partner on the musical.
Masten and Hudock formed a production company, Knightswood, named for the Charlotte street where Masten grew up.
There was lots to do.
“I was very depressed,” Hudock, 37, said. “For a long time, there were a lot of no’s. And we don’t come from money. We had to raise all the money ourselves and work day jobs on the side.”
Hudock temps at a financial firm and Masten, 36, also helps out other producers.
Chatting in a New York City coffee shop in mid-2017, Masten and Hudock thought John Logan would make an ideal writer for the show. They were impressed by his Victorian-era Showtime horror series “Penny Dreadful,” where “he wasn’t afraid to go dark and has a deftness with historical fiction,” Masten said.
But Logan’s not someone you reach out to on a whim.
Among his many writing credits were Oscar nominations for “Gladiator,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and “Hugo.” The James Bond film “Skyfall” also sits atop his resume, as does a Tony win for his play “Red” and a Tony nomination for writing “Moulin Rouge!” the musical.
A few years before that coffee shop chat, Masten had read stage directions for a play of Logan’s in L.A., and still had his email address from an old contact sheet. “I never in a million years thought he’d respond,” Masten said. Nevertheless, they shot him a note around 7 that night. The next morning, they got their answer.
Despite having no clue who Masten was, and knowing his agent wouldn’t like him responding to an email out of the blue, Logan loved the idea. But he had one condition.
Putting it together
Logan wanted access to the band’s entire catalog, not just “Mignonette.” That way he could broaden the characters and flesh out the story.
He printed the lyrics to every Avett Brothers song, trying to puzzle out which ones could best help tell the story.
“My inspirations for the show were The Avett Brothers, Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. It aspires to that emotionally,” Logan said. “As I narrowed the song list down, the spine of the plot sort of came together. And then I pitched my heart out to the Avett Brothers” by early 2018.
They said yes.
Changes along the way
To Scott Avett, the entire process felt like an easy collaboration, even as their songs were re-contextualized and repurposed.
“The whole thing is about not fooling ourselves into thinking we need to be in control of every little thing, that we always know best. It’s so silly,” Avett said. “It works very well when we create and share.”
Logan eventually settled on the songs he wanted to use. Seth Avett also wrote a new one for the show, “Lord, Lay Your Hand On My Shoulder,” a prayer sung during a mash-up of “Ain’t No Man.”
Shaping the show
The characters came into focus, too, including the four leads: the veteran sea captain, his first mate, a young adventure-seeker and his protective older brother.
Prolific Broadway director Michael Mayer, a 2007 Tony winner for “Spring Awakening,” came on board, as did actor John Gallagher Jr., for the role of ship’s mate. He, too, had won a Tony for “Spring Awakening,” as best supporting actor.
Masten and Hudock continued to seek out investors, and Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts was among the early ones. Billionaire Gigi Pritzker signed on as a co-lead producer through her Madison Wells Live company.
Finally, “Swept Away” was ready to hold its world premiere at the nonprofit Berkeley Repertory Theatre in northern California in the summer of 2020.
Just as the cast prepped to go into rehearsal, COVID hit.
The show was postponed multiple times over the next year and a half.
Finally, the musical premiered at Berkeley Rep in January 2022.
Before the curtain rose, Hudock looked at Masten. The moment they had worked on for so long for had arrived at last.
“There was this amazing electricity in the room,” Hudock said. “To hear the fans’ response . ... They were deeply connected to the music. Having spent so much of my life in theater, I have never experienced that kind of frenzy.”
“We’re really trying to get to Broadway,” Hudock said, ideally in spring 2024.
Whatever happens, Scott Avett remains proud of “Swept Away.”
“All you can do is make your best stuff and live your life,” Avett said, speaking in the months before the D.C. announcement. “There’s been a very natural evolution and growth of this piece of work from lots of people.”