Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Swept Away' is a theatrical vessel for the Avett Brothers' music

A group of theater performers dressed as sailors sing and dance on stage in the middle of a set that looks like a ship.
Julieta Cervantes
Arena Stage
With songs by The Avett Brothers, Swept Away is inspired by the true story of an 19th century shipwreck in which seamen resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The musical Swept Away, set to songs by The Avett Brothers, received rave reviews when it premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in early 2022. Now showing at Arena Stage in D.C., it's garnering the same kind of attention. And with a cast and crew behind the production that have collectively won nine Tony Awards, there's hope the musical will head to Broadway.

In the early 2000s, Scott Avett's dad recommended he read Neil Hanson's The Custom of the Sea, a true story about a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1884. Avett, who grew up in Concord, N.C., says his dad "loves non-fiction survival stories, and so this was one of those books."

Hanson recounts the horrific experiences of four men adrift in a dinghy for 19 days in the burning sun in the middle of the ocean on the verge of starvation. In life-or-death situations, the "custom of the sea" permitted sacrificing one to save the rest.

Stark Sands (L) and Adrian Blake Enscoe play brothers in Swept Away, a new musical featuring songs by the Avett Brothers.
Julieta Cervantes / Arena Stage
Arena Stage
Stark Sands (L) and Adrian Blake Enscoe play brothers in Swept Away, a new musical featuring songs by the Avett Brothers.

As Hanson explains, Captain Tom Dudley made the decision to kill the weakest among them. When they were finally rescued, he told the truth and then stood trial for murder. Dudley's "misfortune was that the British government were determined to outlaw the custom of the sea, and his honesty gave them their chance, and they bent and even broke the law to do so," says Hanson in an email.

Scott Avett says he was moved by the captain's honesty, even though it meant confessing to a heinous act, "Because at the end ... although the truth was the right thing, it was going to be a cause of suffering."

From book to album to stage

More than a decade after The Avett Brothers' 2004 album Mignonette was released, they got a call proposing to turn it into a musical. "It made perfect sense because I visualize these things as whole stories," Avett says.

There are some key differences between the story of the Mignonette and the musical. Among other things, the whaling ship sinks off the coast of New Bedford, Mass. The character who first proposes killing an ailing crew member is called simply the "Mate."

Unlike Captain Dudley, the Mate doesn't believe in God and admits he's led a life of sin. He sings The Avett Brothers' song "Satan Pulls The Strings." By contrast, the character Big Brother is deeply religious and sings the only song the Avetts wrote specifically for the show, "Lord Lay Your Hand On My Shoulder."

A bearded man with a worried expression sits in a bed clutching himself as three men in dark clothing surround him.
Julieta Cervantes / Arena Stage
Arena Stage
In Swept Away, the Mate, played by Tony winning actor John Gallagher, Jr., is haunted by the sins of his past.

John Logan — whose credits include the movies Skyfall and Gladiator , as well as a Tony Award for Red — was brought in to craft the story out of The Avett Brothers' songs. He was thrilled to tackle big themes like redemption and forgiveness, and says: "I hope Swept Away says to the audience, 'What would you do if you were one of these four men in this lifeboat after 21 days?'"

Logan knew some of The Avett Brothers' music but says he pored over their entire catalogue after taking on the project.

"I was just struck by the poetry of their lyrics, by the intensity of the music, and by the way they could explore different characters through songs and that's what musicals do," he recounts. "I went to them and I said, 'Look, can you give me permission to use any of your songs? And if you don't like how I'm using them, we'll discuss it. And they said, 'Great.'"

Actor and singer Adrian Blake Enscoe plays Little Brother in Swept Away. He's also in the indie-folk-pop-americana group Bandits On The Run. He says The Avett Brothers' catalogue is "incredible for this tale of morality and mortality, wrestling with darkness and light and faith and what is my meaning."

When Scott Avett first saw the production on stage, "I thought, 'These guys can sing way better than me,'" he laughs. "They have more control than I'll ever have. and I think it's beautiful."

'Nothing that is human is alien to me'

In Swept Away, the Mate is haunted by his sins. Actor and singer Stark Sands, who plays Big Brother, believes the musical's themes of reckoning with the truth and seeking forgiveness continue to plague humanity.

"I think that right now we're living at a time when there are some people who don't want to face the past," Sands says. "They don't want to acknowledge the sort of awful things that we have done as a race, as a nation... This man that we are following in the story, the Mate, he's done some horrible things that he admits to over the course of the play and all we're asking him to do is just say them out loud."

For John Logan, Swept Away is about having empathy for all, including "those who have sinned." Over his computer are the words: "Nothing that is human is alien to me," a translation of a famous quote that is linked to the Roman playwright Terence but has been used by the philosopher Seneca and others subsequently.

"So when I look at the actions of the Mate in this story, I say he's a human being just like I am, and I'm capable of the same exaltation, the same joy, the same degradation, and the same violence, because nothing that is human is alien to me," he says.

This story was edited for broadcast and digital by Meghan Collins Sullivan and produced for radio by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.