Two Minutes' Traffic: Swept Away, Arena Stage

 One of the great things about the American regional theatre system is how often audiences have access to new and exciting work, sometimes years before it makes it to Broadway, and crucially, work that might not ever make it to Broadway. All too often, we see success measured in, Well, did it get produced in New York? Off Broadway, or on? How long was the run? It becomes a neverending raising of a bar that I never agreed to, and which I honestly don't think does any theatrical endeavor any good at all. Not every show physically can play on Broadway, and quite honestly, many very good productions shouldn't

Last week, I saw Swept Away at Arena Stage, a new musical using the music of The Avett Brothers to tell a story of the crew of a nineteenth century whaling ship that sets out to sea, and finds in disaster a distillation of the highs and lows of humanity. The score is beautifully rendered, and manages better than many jukebox musicals to navigate songs that largely connect to the action via vibes rather than the specificity I prefer in musical theatre. The cast is excellent, the direction by Michael Mayer is focused and makes excellent use of the sets designed by Rachel Hauck, with wonderful choreography by David Neumann that feels like it comes from the same world inhabited by the characters.

And please, theatre gods large and small, don't let it go to Broadway.

I know, I know. The buzz is strong, producers aplenty have come to check it out, and again- in the American musical theatre, if you don't make it to Broadway, it's a lot harder to claim a triumph.

But I promise, there is something magical about tragedy played out to a small house, where every audience member can feel intimately connected to the story played out onstage. Musical theatre can operate in any musical mode these days, of course, from swelling orchestras to assembled rock bands, but when the composers' musical language comes from the American acoustic, folk, and country traditions, it belongs to theatrical houses across the nation. 

After opening night, traditionally every show is locked, fixed in a specific vision from the director and other artistic collaborators, and for the length of the run, that production stays faithful to what audiences saw on opening night. Crucially, however, Broadway runs tend to cement a specific vision of what the show "should be" for any future productions, whether it's a high school drama department in Oregon or a professional run in Minnesota. Innovation can become trickier, and unhelpful comparisons thrive when it's always apples and more apples. Obviously, exceptions abound, but ask any box office worker who has to field calls from unhappy patrons because the show wasn't exactly what they expected and then talk to me about the work we need to do to break audience members from expectations set by 20 year runs on Broadway.

I thought Swept Away was a great success, and beautifully produced and played. And I want it to keep being produced and played. I want to see new ways to stage it, and new productions popping up across the country that keep bringing new ideas, rather than one production that becomes a hit on Broadway and if you can't make it into New York to see it, too bad. Last season, Arena brought in the McCarter production of Ride the Cyclone, a cult hit that hasn't made it to Broadway, and yet, if you judge from the theatre kids on TikTok, that's half the fun. We have a slightly easier time making a new straight play buzzy and exciting to produce over and over around the country; it would make me so pleased if that's what happened with Swept Away. At this point, no one can say what's coming next for the show, with the creators harboring their own hopes alongside the investors and producers. We'll all have to wait and see, and to happily see the show while it's here in DC.


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