On the eve of his 45th birthday, Gavin Creel has reached an enviable place among Broadway luminaries with a string of leading roles on both sides of the Pond in musicals as diverse as Hair and The Book of Mormon to Waitress and Mary Poppins with a few wild cards for good measure like Bat Boy: The Musical and an obscure and short-lived Sondheim musical called Bounce. He won his first Tony at the age of 41 for his role as Cornelius Hackl in the smash hit Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! which represented Bette Midler’s tour de force comeback. He’s also nabbed an Olivier, the British equivalent of the Tony, for his performance as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon. But despite all the awards and accolades, Gavin remains refreshingly down-to-earth, humble, and more interested in the creative process than the awards. When I asked the hypothetical “devil’s bargain” question of giving up the stage in exchange for a lucrative career in film and television, the answer was an unequivocal no. “Even more than being on stage, I love the interactive, connective relation-based existence of theater. That is my favorite part. Being connected to those people, and then giving it to the audience.” With a starring role as Matt Bomer’s significant other in “American Horror Stories,” Gavin Creel seems to be having his cake and eating it too.
Despite his youthful air, Gavin seems acutely conscious of his age. “I can’t believe I’m middle-aged, but I’m solidly middle-aged. I still feel so young and have so much to say and that I want to do.” But as we talk, it seems evident that he’s at a crossroad in his career, exploring new ways of expressing his art beyond the stage. He’s currently in L.A. filming a project he’s not at liberty to discuss, though he did hint that the character he’s playing might be gay.
I asked Gavin what’s enabled him to rise to the level he has. He began by repeating advice he gives to theater students. “I tell them there’s three things we need: authenticity, vulnerability and honesty. I pride myself in bringing those things to the stage. So much of the stuff I’ve done has been Golden Age revival insanity. When I’m cast in those roles, I try to make these people human and real. When we did Hello, Dolly! it looked and felt like an homage. But it wasn’t. Our paces, the way we realized characters, was faster, punched up, on purpose. You had to know that it’s a 2017 audience sitting there, not a 1964 audience. I try to bring as much of me into whatever role I’m playing. I used to take offense when people would say you’re so natural, you’re so Gavin. But now it’s like the greatest compliment. As to what makes me special, what I’m proudest of, it’s that I’m relentlessly self-examining. I am constantly trying to make myself … more myself. In my opinion, the greatest failure of musical theater performers is when they perform as if they’re in a musical. You’re not in a musical, you’re not even in a play. You are living that life. You just happen to explode into song and dance because it is the only way you can express what you’re feeling. That’s why I love teaching so much. Trying to communicate with them through my energy, through my ideas and my passion. How do I teach them how to listen? What are the steps that lead up to that? I love trying to demystify that process.”
Gavin was one of the early individuals to test positive for COVID-19. He was starring in Waitress on the West End for a limited engagement in London with Sara Bareilles at the time. “If there’s something to catch, I get it. But I was never really worried. I was like, well – I’ll get it and I’ll be fine. Or if I get it and I’m not fine, then I’ll die. I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but that’s how I handled it.”
Gavin goes on to describe how things progressed and how his run on London’s West End came to an abrupt end.
“We finished Saturday night, I think it was like the 7th of March, and we were on a plane Sunday morning. We were greeted at the door of the plane by policemen, people in suits checking our temperature – and I was like what is going on? I woke up the next day with a little tickle in my chest. I drove to a cabin I have upstate to quarantine for 2 weeks – and I just got sicker and sicker and lost my sense of taste and smell.” Though he never experienced respiratory symptoms associated with the disease, he acknowledged that this year and a half has been unbelievably painful. “But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I’ve learned more about myself in this year and a half than I’ve learned in all 43 years before it.”
In the wake of the recent backlash against one of Hollywood and Broadway’s biggest producers Scott Rudin [who produced Hello, Dolly!], who was exposed for a decade’s long record of extremely abusive behavior toward assistants, Gavin shared his thoughts on the matter.
“I have been dealing with a lot of emotions and thoughts about it, and I have been privately talking to people I trust, seeking their counsel and advice. I don’t need anybody to tell me that behavior is abhorrent. That said, I have been a part of productions with him [Scott Rudin] and been treated in ways that were generous and kind and remarkable art was made. Let me make it clear, I do not defend that behavior. It’s really complicated and painful. I think our industry is having a real reckoning with so many things. With bad behavior. With racism. With inequities in pay structure and what material gets produced and what audiences they’re intended for. I’m just listening and observing and trying to educate myself on how I can be a part of positive change – not just sounding off into the void. That’s why I stay off social media. Because I am most effective when I’m on a stage, singing, or acting, or telling a story or doing a concert.”
“The theater community was loosey-goosey. If I had written down some of the stuff that was done to me, or how I was touched, or inappropriate comments, please! No one would be working. We grew up in a world that is not being tolerated anymore. That’s why I’m conflicted with people who are like ‘you’re done, you’re cancelled.’ I know that the life I grew up in – certain things you’d say in an ensemble dressing room, or the way people behave, or the way we parade around, doing things that were absolutely now [in hindsight], completely inappropriate. During the run of Hair alone … the things we got up to in that building – none of us would have careers now. I’m not going to go into detail, but we were wild children. And it was BLISS. It was so fun. But the truth is, there could’ve been someone that was mortified and uncomfortable and that pains me.”
Have you been subjected to inappropriate behavior?
“OMG, yes! I’ve been in rooms with people, in cars with people, doing things and saying things. I’m not making any blanket statements about human beings in general. My parents raised me with enough fortitude and knowledge to just hold my own. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. I’d be like, okay, whatever and I’d defuse it. And if it got weird, I’d just exit stage left. But I’m lucky, because some people didn’t have that fortitude.”
I suggested that Gavin’s talent would’ve enabled him to thrive regardless, but he countered with …
“Well, that’s very kind of you to say, but there are a lot of people who are a hell of a lot more talented and it did impact their career. I know there are people who have pushed back and then all of a sudden, you’re just iced out. I’ll be 45 tomorrow, so I see it differently than young people do now. But I’m grateful for the young people who are speaking up because they’re going to change the world. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little saddened to let go of the world that I grew in. But I’m grateful that it’s going to be more equitable, safer, and hopefully more inclusive in terms of opportunity. More people will be able to partake in the opportunities that I’ve been lucky enough to have. And yes, I worked my butt off and I was blessed with some really special talents that I’m so grateful to have.
What was young Gavin like?
Gavin answering in the third person: “Before he learned that being flamboyant and expressive was a bad thing, he was blissfully girly, had two older sisters, loved to play with their Barbies, loved to dress up in dresses, put on mom’s high heels in secret because he knew it was a bad thing. He was sporty, he loved competitive swimming. He was a really good piano player, loved singing. He got into singing at church choirs, 5th and 6th grade choir, glee club and ensemble at Jefferson Elementary.”
But it wouldn’t be until his first year at college at age 19 that he would experience his first same-sex kiss.
“I will never forget that first kiss. It was the spring of my freshman year at college.” Just 20 days earlier, he kissed his high school girlfriend. “I was relieved because I got kind of excited kissing her. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not gay, I’m not gay.’ And then, 20 days later, I kissed a guy I had a crush on and I was like [realization dawning], oh … I see.”
Gavin recalls the experience vividly which he even wrote a song about.
“The room was blue and there was light coming through the Venetian blinds, and I was on the bottom bunk and he was on the top bunk. And I was shivering because I was so nervous. And I laid next to him and he fell asleep and I kissed him while he was sleeping. And he woke up while I was kissing him. It was just life-changing. Every part of me wanted to be just kissing him.”
On fully accepting himself as a gay man.
“It took a long time. I told my friends in college that I was gay when I was 20. And I was so nervous to tell them.” He pauses briefly, realizing how ridiculous it seems in hindsight. “Please … the musical theater department at the University of Michigan was just crawling with gay – we were everywhere. But my first actual boyfriend wasn’t till I was 24. And I didn’t tell my parents until I was 25, right before [his Broadway debut] Thoroughly Modern Millie. I knew they would be there, and I knew they would be proud of me. I didn’t want to tell them before, because if they told me they didn’t want to speak to me, I figured they’ll still come to the opening and they’ll be proud and they’ll cry and I’ll be like – do you like me now? I’m on Broadway, do you like me now? But of course, they were amazing. But it was hard for them, they cried. My parents are just the most remarkable people.”
Gavin came out professionally around the time he was in Hair which would have been around age 33. The show’s messages of liberation and nonconformity convinced him it was time to live his truth. It also helped that other “out” Broadway actors paved the way, including John Tartaglia and Cheyenne Jackson.
“It’s so much better on this side. It doesn’t mean it’s without struggles. You can call me names for the rest of my existence, as long as I’ve got those laws, honey. Gay culture is seemingly so much more accepted, but a lot of it is very demonstrative. There are some people who don’t want to be loudly gay. If you want to be loud, DO IT, I love it. But don’t shame others who don’t. I don’t like that. That’s what we’re trying to get away from as a community and people who shamed us for so long. I don’t dig shame. I’m with Brené Brown on this one.”
Let’s talk about the Tony Awards 2017 when you won for your performance in Hello, Dolly! What was that like? And if you could, tell me about your outfit.
“The two best parts of that night were getting to make a speech and that outfit. I’ve always wanted to make a speech. Winning a Tony is wonderful but the award is second to getting to talk. I always wanted to talk about education and I’m so proud that I did. And my outfit. I just felt like a million bucks. I felt special because I knew no one else would have it. It was designed for me. It was built for my body.”
“My outfit was designed by Jeff Mashie, the Tony-nominated costume designer of She Loves Me and Kiss Me Kate. He’s a good friend of mine. I love his style. I told him I love taking chances on fashion for those kinds of things. It was like an ice blue velvet. Ahead of his time, he did this amazing navy blue, bell-cut, handmade tuxedo pant. He got me these Cartier diamond studs; they were vintage ‘30s diamond studs. And I was like [wincing, unsure if he could pull it off] really? I don’t know. And then I tried them on and I was like yes, please!”
Gavin’s idols: Whitney and Patti
No reportage on Gavin Creel would be complete without mentioning two of his greatest inspirations: Whitney Houston and Patti LuPone. The boy from Findlay, Ohio was obsessed with Whitney’s early hits “How Will I Know,” “I Want to Dance with Somebody” and “I’m Your Baby Tonight” all the way through to her tour de force singing in The Bodyguard. He was willing to grade on a curve for her acting. And then of course, there’s Patti LuPone who’s had a brilliant career in the theater and remains a formidable presence. “I love what she did and what she still does on stage. I can’t believe how brilliantly she’s taken care of herself and kept her instrument up. I just love her.” Which makes it especially fun to watch Gavin [circa 2013] being asked to join Patti onstage to sing a song from Les Miz with the diva herself. By this point, Oliver Award winning Gavin had established himself as a worthy duet partner. To be honest, Patti seems as giddy to be singing with him as he does with her.
Besides the aforementioned film project, Gavin will be performing a night of original music at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 25th.
“It’s literally the thing that has gotten me emotionally through the pandemic.” The piece was commissioned as part of the Met’s Live Art Series. Though he’d lived in New York for 20 years, he’d never actually visited the museum. So this was a chance to experience it and develop original music inspired by the art. “The first public step of this piece is called ‘Walk on Through.’ It sort of is my journey through feeling like a stranger in the Met and also feeling like a stranger in my own skin. Feeling isolated, lonely, like I didn’t really belong. Even me, with my own successes. I hope the message will feel universal and I’m really proud of what I’m making. And hopefully I’ll make it into more of a realized theater piece that I can do off-Broadway and then hopefully a Broadway run. I call it a ‘concertical.’ Like a concert and a musical had a baby.”
For more Gavin, go to gavincreel.com.
Last modified: July 26, 2021