The Many Sides of Gavin Creel

Written by | Entertainment, Miscellaneous, Stage

There’s the side of him that can talk about theatre and all its facets – from the power of the arts to the literal legends he’s worked with, to the roles he’s had the opportunity to play. There’s the side of him that can talk about activism and social philosophy, our responsibility to be allies to minority groups, the need to have open and honest communication with people whose beliefs may differ from our own, and the need to take a stand in the face of social oppression. There’s the side of him that could talk about his role in the LGBTQ community, the war he was fighting within in coming out, and his current exploration as a gay man in today’s culture. He could talk about the need for mental health, his emotional journey through COVID, and The Artist’s Way. No matter what direction the conversation turns, it all comes from a place of love and light. As cliché as that sounds, after having the opportunity to chat with him on numerous occasions, it is true. As with his stage performances, he comes from a place of sincerity and reflection, appreciating all the bumps and bruises along this journey we call life.

His work has placed him center stage on Broadway, across the US, and in the West End with credits that read like a Who’s Who of Broadway Characters with roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce, La Cage aux Folles, Hair, The Book of Mormon, She Loves Me, Hello Dolly! (with Bette Midler), Waitress, and his most recent, Into the Woods. His portrayal as the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods has been lauded as the new standard, no small feat considering the show has been produced umpteen times, with the unforgettable Robert Westenberg first setting the bar high. Critics and audiences all fell in love with Creel’s portrayal of the character. Humbly, Gavin refers to the whole production as a success, and most needed in today’s social and political climate. What was meant to be a one-off production turned into a Broadway and, later, a Los Angeles run. What made this Into the Woods so special?

I think it’s simplicity. The world is so dense and confusing and painful and awesome and oversaturated, especially entertainment. And, if I’m honest, Sondheim is dense and hard to take and a lot and layered. This production reverberated with so many people because what Lear (director), Lorin (choreographer), and Rob Berman (music supervisor) did was just concentrate on the story. Just concentrate on the words. It was a 10-day rehearsal process for a 10-day concert at City Center. So, I already thought we were biting off way more than we should have. But people wanted simplicity. And we gave it to them in a really classy, beautiful way. I think the cast that we were able to grab together was lightning in a bottle and electric at each level.

For Gavin, the show was an allegory to the pandemic. In Act II of Into the Woods, all the characters are in disarray, experiencing loss, confusion, and having to band together for a common good. One of the show’s most memorable songs says it all.

 It was just, come and sit with us and enjoy an evening of theater after what was probably the hardest three years of your lives of our existence as human beings in the last hundred years. “No One is Alone” is such a beautiful, bittersweet song. It’s all about “we’re with you.” But two or three scenes before they were pointing, “You’re the reason, you’re the reason, YOU ARE the reason!” They’re blaming. And then they come to a place where they get it.

And that to me is like the greatest message of the show. Do you want to be pointing fingers and saying “it’s your fault” for the rest of your life? Because that is atonal nonsense. Or do you want to get harmonious and say, “No one is alone. We just must accept that life is hard. But I’m here with you. I will stand next to you during this.” I’m on that team. I don’t want to blame anymore.

A major learning point in Gavin’s theatre career was working with two Broadway icons – Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim on the not-so-successful show Bounce (now called Road Show).

It was remarkable. I’m really honored that I got to work with both Steve and Hal on Bounce, because I got to watch these men who, to us, came out of the magma of the earth spouting musical theater genius at all points. And I got to watch them struggling to figure out how to put a show together. It was the most humbling thing to sit and watch them go – oh, I don’t know, what if we move this here or do this? And I thought, no, no. Everything you say is supposed to be good and nothing is supposed to be bad. And I watched, and there were parts of the show that weren’t good. I realized that no matter how good you get if you stop trying to perfect – not perfect, because perfectionism is poison – but as long as you try to refine and stay in a process, you’re on the right path. And Steve was just in a process, reading The New York Times, doing the crossword, laying on the floor of the upstairs hallways so he could escape everybody and their questions and me running into him when I would go to the rehearsal room to play piano. I was going through my first breakup, and I was miserable. And there he is just reading The New York Times. He’s just a man who reads the paper and eats an apple.

I always thought that West Side Story is like Mars, they both existed before I was born, so they just are part of creation. And I’m watching him and Hal moving songs around and rewriting sections and cutting lines and John Weidman (playwright) being there, giving new pages and trying stuff out and all that didn’t work. I’m writing my new musical now; I sort of lean on watching the Titans. And, if I’m honest, it failed. Bounce made a beautiful cast recording, but it’s not everybody’s favorite piece by any means and it didn’t have a huge commercial success. But I was there, I was in the room, and that was a gift I will never forget. I’ll tell people that as long as they will listen.

Gavin has played a number of characters from musical theatre history that audiences know all too well. From the ingrained cast recordings to the many school and regional productions of classic works, audiences expect certain things from characters. What is Gavin’s creative process in making a character his own, while remaining true to the piece?

I try to stay away from what’s in my mind and what I’ve heard. I try not to listen to any recordings. I try to go to the sheet music and pretend like it’s a new piece. I just try to pretend like this is a brand-new show. I look at what’s in the text that can give me an “in” that excites me. With Into the Woods specifically, because we didn’t have much time, I was just making spaghetti and throwing fistfuls of it at the wall. And I have to say Lear and Lorin and Rob, while wanting me to be word and letter-perfect as far as what Sondheim wrote (as much as we could know with, sadly, not having him there), I also was grateful to them for letting me play. That’s not always something that I’m afforded by a director, a choreographer, or a music director. I’m really grateful for my education at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance too, because it all begins with the text and the music. To make a choice for the sake of making a choice, in how I was raised and how I was trained and how I now believe, is a fool’s errand. Because that’s just centering yourself rather than centering the character.

I went to my costume fitting (for the Prince) with Andrea Hood, our costume designer, and she slapped me in this highlighter yellow coat. And I was like, oh, I know who he is because there’s absolutely no subtlety. I just thought that’s going to translate into my chest and the way I walk and I talk. There’s not somebody who is looking for true respect from his subjects. I’m not looking for true respect from them, because if I did, I would have a little more taste. So, I always thought of him as somebody who was so insecure about who he actually was. At the end of the play when Cinderella takes him down, he’s like, I don’t know who I am now because all I am is the things I get and things I have and my conquest. And if I can’t get something new, then I lose. I identified a million percent with being a person who for 40-some years as a gay man, was constantly trying to please everybody and get things that made people see I was worthy when I actually didn’t really think I was worthy at all. I was just a shame-filled, sad, homophobic, self-loathing, homosexual for so long, you know? And I thought, oh, I know him. That guy’s insecure and scared. He is trying to puff up and show everybody that he’s a king when actually he feels like he’s a coward. Until he can face his cowardice, he can’t be a king. You know?

We assume that growing up in the theatre offers a safe space for coming out. Gavin still had his struggles.

Religion. Fear. Losing my parents’ love, disappointing them. Physical danger. I still have it. People are like, oh, 2023, it’s so great. I say it’s still really hard to be gay. They’re always going to be coming for us because they have this religion to hide behind, and that breeds self-righteousness and judgment and shame and stigma. As long as they have their Bible, they will come for us; they’ll select the passages that work for them to vilify our community in ways that I have zero time for. You’re either with me or I’m not with you. That’s it. I’m not wrong, you are – period, end of story. If we’re going to talk about Christianity, you cannot believe that Jesus Christ walked this earth and did the unbelievably God-like beautiful work that the stories say that he did, and think that he’d be like, “I love all you. NOT you, queen, not you.” Absolutely not. He [Jesus] would’ve been like, “Queen, let’s go up in the mountains, we’re gonna dish!”

A personal milestone in Gavin’s career was playing Claude in the Broadway revival of Hair. Coming off the heels of a canceled production of Godspell, he felt humbled by the industry and, quite frankly, needed the money. His audition has been talked about in interviews with the casting director, Gavin brought pathos to a character we thought we knew. His performance was a hit. But this performance would mean more than just another credit.

I came out of the closet officially when I was in the press. I did an interview very early on before we started rehearsals even. It was for Out magazine for just a little blurb, a picture of me in the corner, it was tiny. It made AP News when it was revealed that I came out of the closet. I thought, first of all, that’s alarming that, for a second, it took up a bit of a news cycle, but it also made me aware that people weren’t publicly coming out.  It’s different now. I’m encouraged by the way people are feeling more powerful. But I remember Hair changing my life because not only did I come out of the closet, not only was I forced to really break down barriers, breaking the fourth wall, crawling over the audience, going out into them, but I embraced my sexuality kind of publicly as the character.

We also fought for marriage equality during that time. We started Broadway Impact, and the sole purpose was to raise awareness in the theater community and mobilize the theater community around the issue of marriage equality. We did it and we were part of the movement. We marched on Washington on October 11th, 2009, with 1500 people from the Broadway community who we shipped down on free buses that we organized. There were 200,000 people on the U.S. Capitol lawn with Cynthia Nixon and Lady Gaga speaking. I sang at the HRC dinner with Barack Obama and Lady Gaga as the keynote speakers, and just felt very activated. And that had a lot to do with my truth coming out and owning myself. When we own ourselves, we step into our power. The universe is like, there you are authenticity, you are beautiful! But it’s hard to step out into the light when you’ve been told by religion or your parents or teachers or the Right or the law that you are wrong.

This November, Gavin will once again step into the light, center stage. In perhaps his most revealing project ever, he will perform Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice, an original musical with book, music, and lyrics by Creel. Based on a concept originally commissioned by The Met, simply put, “invites you to join Gavin as he discovers – much to his and our surprise – what it means to be fully alive” inspired by the art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hard to believe he had never set foot into the museum in his 20 years as a New Yorker.

Walk on Through is the most vulnerable, most raw, open thing I’ve ever made or done. And people who’ve seen the few showcases that we’ve done have been like, how do you do that? And I say, you know, I don’t know. I’m excited to share it with people. I really hope people respond to it. But I also know that there was no way I couldn’t do it. I hope people will see Walk on Through and see someone who’s standing in front of them, who was given a challenge and a dare to face fine art when he has no sense of belonging. I tried to parallel why I don’t feel like I belong in a museum to feeling like I’m in my midlife crisis and I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.

Everybody looks at me from the outside and thinks, oh, that guy in the fluorescent coat and that guy with the Tony and the guy with all these things, what are you talking about? You’re always so happy when I read about you and you’re smiling. Both things can be true. Yes, I can be blissfully happy and also deeply anxious and severely lonely.

What inspired Gavin to do the show now?

Honestly, I needed it. I wrote these songs, many of them in the middle of sitting alone in my house for months, listening to Chromatica and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and doing pull-ups on my landing, and then standing in my living room and screaming. I felt like I was losing my mind. And then I would sit at the piano and then hate the piano and hate writing and then get back to it. Feel like I’m not being productive enough, or I should be making something and then meditating and going, there’s no should. There is no should. And then needing it, like sitting down and going, if I didn’t have that project, I don’t know if I would’ve made it through. I wasn’t going to hurt myself in any way, but I lost everything. I thought, who am I without my voice or without performing or without applause or without a lover or without a companion? My dog died at the beginning of the pandemic, 12 years, my longest relationship. And I’m in a house by myself. I can say this, it’s personal, but it’s all over my show where loneliness is my greatest fear and my greatest paralysis.

Gavin does not feel lonely under the theatre lights. It’s that connection with the audience and the need for that energy that he battles with.

That’s on us to look inward to go, why do I need it so much? I thought if I really wanted to get healthy and mentally well, I’d have to divorce myself completely from needing any external affirmation. My therapist was like, no, you need a balance of both. I thought when I had a breakup in the past, that meant I wanted to be alone. Therefore, I shouldn’t call any friends when I’m sad. I should be able to be fine because I wanted to be alone. And yet I’m miserable and I miss him and I’m heartbroken and I can’t function and I’m not eating and I’m not sleeping, and my parents are staying with me for a week because they’re worried about me and all of these things. No, that’s when you lean on the people that you love, and you’re allowed to have a balance of both.

As far as the future of our LGBTQ community goes, especially in the face of the upcoming elections, Gavin shares some advice.

Regardless of the outcomes, we are imperative to the process. I’m not going to get overwhelmed by it. I’m going to do as much of it as my brain and my emotional state can handle. Producer David Stone, who’s made a lot of money from Wicked and won the Tony this year for Kimberly Akimbo and is a very accomplished, successful producer, said he’s done a lot of advocacy work for the gay community and for marriage equality and for various causes because “if you do well, you have to do good.” And I thought, I love that. Stephanie Block told me this thing that I am going to take with me for the rest of my life. It’s the three Ts. Give one of three ways: your time, your treasure, or your talent. But fire up the queens and the queers and the trans community and the non-binary individuals out there who are thinking, I don’t know what to do! It doesn’t sound sexy, but the state legislature is where we’re going to turn this race around.

This is my ego talking, but it’s also not. I hope I get a chance to go even further and help, because what I love doing more than anything is this, I love talking, I love town halls, I love learning, and I love listening. I want to make people feel the possibility in whatever way I can.

Walk On Through plays at the MCC Theater Nov 13 to Dec 10th:

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Last modified: October 6, 2023