Thespian alum Gavin Creel on finding your tribe and making an impact
BY GREGORY BOSSLER
LAST JUNE, Findlay High School hosted a Tony Award viewing party to cheer hometown hero Gavin Creel, whose performance as Cornelius Hackl in the revival of Hello, Dolly! earned the Thespian alum a nomination for featured actor in a musical. While the audience at Radio City Music Hall put on their Sunday clothes, the height of elegance in the Ohio school auditorium was a T-shirt emblazoned “Hello, Gavin!” And instead of Broadway swag bags, the prized souvenir was a Dietsch Brothers chocolate bar with a limited edition wrapper featuring eight Playbill covers highlighting Creel’s career.
It’s a career that he didn’t initially set out to pursue. “Theatre wasn’t my original plan,” he said. Both of his older sisters sang, and Creel obsessively listened to the cassette tapes of their programs. Once in high school, he auditioned for the show choir, the glee club, and the vocal ensemble. “I found my ‘family’ in the Findlay First Edition [show choir]. I wasn’t playing a character, but that’s where I fell in love with performing.”
Although music was his passion, he decided in his sophomore year to audition for his high school Thespian troupe’s spring musical, and he got a small role. “I played Sir Sagramore in Camelot,” he said. “I had two words — not even a complete sentence — but I got bit by the theatre bug.” The appeal for him was similar to that of show choir. “It was about the people I was with,” Creel said. “I love the distinct frequency of musical theatre performers.”
Encouraged by fellow Thespian Jonathan Baker, an upperclassman who was one of the high school troupe’s stars, Creel decided to study theatre at University of Michigan, and he got a headstart on his career even before graduating. “My junior year, I was cast in the summer season at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and got my Equity card,” Creel said.
“The next summer, David Bell, a director I met at Pittsburgh, cast me as Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at North Shore Music Theatre. He took a risk on me, because he liked how committed I was in the chorus of one of his shows for a week the year before.” Later that summer, Creel moved to New York and began pounding the proverbial pavement, an Equity card in his hand and an agent on his side.
“I saw an ad in Back Stage for Fame and thought, ‘I’m going to this.’ My agent said, ‘You don’t have to go to open calls. We can get you appointments.’ And I’m glad I didn’t listen to him. I got cast and did that show for about a year. It was eye-opening. I learned a lot about growing up and being a professional.”
Returning to Manhattan after the tour, Creel soon made his Off-Broadway debut as a swing in the musical Bat Boy, followed later that same year by an ensemble role in the Encores! concert of Hair and the lead role of Melchior in a workshop of Spring Awakening. His big break, though, came the subsequent year, when he landed the lead of Jimmy opposite Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which earned Creel his first Tony nomination in 2002.
The acclaim he received for Millie led to a series of unique opportunities — including the out-of-town tryout of the Sondheim musical Bounce, the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, and the London production of Mary Poppins. He returned to Broadway as Claude in the revival of Hair, which earned Creel his second Tony nomination in 2009.
The role seemed a perfect fit for where Creel was at that time in his life. With friends Rory O’Malley and Jenny Kanelos, he had just founded Broadway Impact. “We were fighting for marriage equality in New York State,” he said. “Once we won on the state level, we began focusing on the federal level, which we won soon after.” As that battle began winding to its successful conclusion, Creel turned his attention to education.
In 2014, he and fellow college alum Celia Keenan-Bolger started the Activist Artist Endowed Scholarship at University of Michigan, to encourage community-based non-performance activities. “Whether fighting for marriage equality with Broadway Impact or for homeless youth with the Covenant House, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had have been offstage,” Creel said.
The roots of his devotion to volunteerism were laid by his parents. “They are the reason I have any of this in me,” Creel said. “They’re the most selfless, generous people. I’m always trying to live up to their example. I often can’t get them on the phone, because my dad is serving at the church’s welcome table or my mom is knitting blankets for the Linus Foundation. They’re always doing something.”
After Hair, Creel spent the next three and a half years of his career playing Elder Price in various productions of The Book of Mormon, including a U.S. tour, a West End run, a Canadian tour, and a Broadway turn. One hazard of long runs is what Creel calls “the white room,” that void of space and time when an actor suddenly thinks, “I don’t know where I am.”
This classic actor’s nightmare happened to Creel a few months into the Broadway run of Hair. His first reaction was “to just walk forward with purpose, holding my arms out as if I were Jesus,” he said. “The cast worried if I was going up, but I got back on track. It was a dramatic moment, but the audience didn’t notice anything strange.”
On the other hand, long runs also offer an actor welcome moments of sudden enlightenment that occur when muscle memory has taken over and they can listen anew. “I did Book of Mormon more than 1,300 times,” Creel said, “and I would still find something brand new two years into the run. I would hear something as if for the first time. A line would make sense to me in a different way than the day before.”
For the London production of The Book of Mormon, Creel picked up his first individual acting trophy: the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Last June, he swept the awards for featured actor in a musical with trophies from the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and the Tonys for Hello, Dolly! “To have Sutton hand me the Tony was surreal,” he said. “She accepted her Tony on that same stage for Millie 15 years earlier, and now she was handing me mine. It was a beautiful moment that didn’t have to happen, but it did.”
Creel continued, “It was a beautiful blessing from the community, a message to keep doing what I’m doing, even though I thought, ‘This whole thing is a joke, because if they gave me one of these, it must not mean anything.’ I know I have talent and I’ve worked hard, but a lot of people have more talent and have worked harder. They just haven’t had the luck I’ve had. I’m grateful for that and try not to take it for granted.”
The finale of the award show was another particularly special moment for Creel. During the last commercial break, the announcer asked all the Tony winners to join host Kevin Spacey onstage for the closing song. “It was such mayhem,” Creel said. “I started walking down with Mimi Lien, who won for the set design of Comet. As we got to the passerelle, I saw Patti LuPone — and I cut in front of Mimi. I am never like that, but I wanted to stand next to Patti! She’s my favorite. My dream is to do a musical with her.”
Another dream of his is to teach. “I would love to go back to Michigan. I would love to help students with what I’ve learned.” On par with his Olivier and Tony, Creel considers it an honor to have been asked to give the 2012 graduation speech at Michigan. “I know the value of that education and the mentors who inspired me. I realize more and more every day what I was afforded at college. I want to create opportunities for people like me who are studying musical theatre to feel more connected when they go into the real world.”
One piece of advice Creel would share with young performers is to “find your tribe,” as he has in New York. “I feel lucky to be a part of this community and this city,” he said. “In New York City, there’s so many different types of people. If someone harasses a dude with a pink mohawk, three other people will tell him to rock on.”
Creel added, “Make space for people who are different, whether it’s their gender identities, their sexual orientation, their height, their weight, or their acne. I spent so much time trying not to stick out, but the ones who stick out are years ahead of everyone else.”
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