The good news? Demand for tickets is so high that the show has already extended its run twice, with plans to occupy the company’s Peet’s Theatre through March 6.
The bad news? Well, just check the headlines.
At rehearsals in the first week of December, the production’s Tony Award-winning director, Michael Mayer said, “We’ve got all our digits crossed.”
As the highly mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus was gaining traction across New York and shutting down Broadway shows — including Mayer’s revival of “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Westside Theatre after a cast member tested positive for COVID-19 — the director said he was still feeling optimistic about the opening date for “Swept Away.” But if he’s learned anything from the past two years, it’s to be flexible.
“The ‘show must go on’ theory is mitigated a little bit at this point,” Mayer said. “The show must go on, but maybe not tonight.”
“Swept Away” was originally set to make its premiere at Berkeley Rep in June 2020, with a script by fellow Tony winner John Logan and a score drawing from the Avett Brothers’ catalog, particularly the North Carolina folk-rock band’s 2004 LP, “Mignonette.”
“To me, it’s an opportunity for musical theater fans to be introduced to or deepen their appreciation of the Avett Brothers’ work,” Mayer said. “It’s also an opportunity for their fans to come and hear these songs in a new context, sung in a different way, and in relation to other characters.”
Mayer has some experience bringing popular music to theater stages. Ten years ago, he staged and directed the Green Day musical “American Idiot,” and he has since staged “Head Over Heels,” which was built around hits by the Go-Go’s, and a revival of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
The idea for a drama built around the music and lyrics of the Avett Brothers was brought to him by screenwriter John Logan, whose Broadway production of a “Moulin Rouge!” musical was also mired over COVID protocols.
“What impressed me most about the Avett Brothers’ music is the range, from toe-tapping banjo music to soaring spirituals to intimate love songs,” Logan said. “It gave me the broadest range of color. The process of going through it and picking the songs was laborious, but it was joyous.”
The new musical is set in 1888 and follows a shipwrecked crew of four, including two brothers, who attempt to survive off the coast of New Bedford, Mass.
The production stars John Gallagher Jr., Stark Sands, Wayne Duvall and Adrian Blake Enscoe, with choreography by David Neumann. It runs for a little over 75 minutes, without intermission.
“When you’re dealing with people starving in a lifeboat, you can’t send people out for a hot dog and margarita,” Logan said. “It’s not a light show. There’s not a lot of tap dancing. It’s the anti-‘Moulin Rouge!’ ”
The story resonated with the Avett Brothers as well.
“There are many times I’m up there where I embody this journeyman that is going through an evolution in life, from love and pain and joy and suffering,” Scott Avett told The Chronicle by phone, calling from his home in North Carolina. “Obviously, Broadway takes the magnifying glass and puts it right up close. I’m so moved watching it as it’s built.”
Even though he started writing “Swept Away” in 2017, Logan said living through the COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened its context.
“For all of its intensity, it’s a tale of redemption and finding grace in really difficult circumstances,” he said. “If anything, what we’re living through is finding grace in impossible circumstances. This is the perfect show for right now.”
Mayer said that there is already widespread interest, both from the musical theater and indie rock worlds, with tickets having been purchased from people in 42 states.
And, he noted, neither fan will be disappointed.
“John has really placed the songs with extraordinary care and a deep understanding of them,” Mayer said. “They’re never placeholders. In those jukebox musicals, it can sometimes feel random. This is not like that. He positions them in a way so that you really hear them.”
The Avett Brothers were more than willing to see their work in a new creative context and even recorded a new version of the title song, “Swept Away,” with siblings Scott and Seth Avett on banjo and acoustic guitar and bandmate Bob Crawford on upright bass. A video for the song was filmed for Berkeley Rep’s Ovation Gala.
“When we would discuss doing anything with the writers and cast and crew, it was obvious that it was in group hands that would not let anything out that’s any less than excellent — and I’m careful with that word,” Avett said. “As an artist, it is probably the ultimate compliment and the ultimate praise of our work.”
For Logan, the Avett Brothers’ endorsement of the project was the one that really mattered.
“It could have been a really short meeting,” he said, “but one of the things that most excited them was other artists being inspired by their work and bringing it to a new audience.”
“Swept Away”: Musical. Jan. 9-March 6. $37-$186, subject to change.Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org