A museum invitation inspired a new musical — and a re-framing of the Tony Award-winner
By FRANK RIZZO
You’re entering a world-famous museum say the Yale University Art Gallery or Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum—and you’re feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, and you just don’t know where to begin—or even what you’re doing there.
That’s how Gavin Creel felt when he stepped into the hallowed halls of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He was there because he was being asked to create a musical project as part of the museum’s interdisciplinary MetLiveArts program, where performers create and perform pieces inspired by the Met’s collection.
“I had never been to the Met before this meeting and they’re asking me to talk about fine art,” he says. “The only idea I had, I told them, was to tell the truth, I didn’t have any museum experience here, and I didn’t know what the hell I’m doing. They said that was wonderful because a lot of people will identify with that.”
Creel was taking a lunch break at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center ’s National Music Theater Conference in Waterford where he was doing a workshop of the musical he expanded from that original Met assignment for which he wrote music, lyrics, book and in which he also stars.
On the grounds of the O’Neill campus, Creel was still sporting his cool silver-colored spiky hair from the Broadway revival of Into the Woods (in which he plays both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf), which he’d head back to the next day. He was dressed summer casual, sporting a white t-shirt, cobalt blue shorts, flip-flops—and a funky straw hat and colored fingernails for that touch of dash. Despite being in rehearsals and facing the final performance his new work in a few hours where producers from New York would be in the audience, Creel presented the picture of Midwest niceness, sincerity, and personal engagement.
It’s no wonder the Met turned to the artist. Creel is part of a new generation of Broadway stars with a wide range of talents, commitments and fan bases that is redefining the field. Creel was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway debut 20 years ago opposite Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie. He received another nomination for playing Claude in the 2009 revival of Hair before finally winning one for his performance in 2017’s Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler. His other Broadway gigs include She Loves Me, La Cage Aux Folles, Waitress, and The Book of Mormon. In London, he starred in The Book of Mormon, receiving the 2014 Laurence Olivier Award. He also starred in Mary Poppins and Waitress in the West End. Last year, Creel appeared in two episodes of FX’s American Horror Stories, opposite Matt Bomer.
In Walk on Through, Creel uses his own freshman experience at the Met to frame the basis of the show: the journey of a single man trying to figure out his life and loves through the art he sees around him. Its tone is introspective, yet playful, reverential yet sexy, existential yet deeply personal, as he connects to the art, the artists and even the figures in the works. Think of it as a show that might easily be called Sunday in the Museum with Gavin.
“You sort of get to hop on my back and walk through the museum,” he says. “I play Gavin Creel and I sort of dramatize how it all happened— that I have this commission coming up, and I have to figure out what it is I’m going to say.” As he walks into a room filled with Thomas Hart Benton paintings, he discovers the themes not only for his show but for his own life, too. “It’s all about color, light, sex and story.”
Being True to Himself
He describes Findaly, Ohio where he grew up as, “White. Republican. Religious. Conservative. Not a lot of diversity.” His family, he says, was supportive but also a product of that environment. “We didn’t ruffle feathers. We didn’t speak out. “Of their three children, two are gay, and it’s been a huge journey for my parents. Now they have human rights stickers on the back of their car and my mom and dad are 80 years old now, and they’ve got pride flag return address stickers. It’s their small way in which they can send messages to the world.”
It wasn’t until Creel was at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance “that I kissed a man for the first time. It was the second semester of my freshman year semester, and it was just one of those moments where—[singing] ‘Ahhh-ahhhhh—when the skies opened up and I’m, thinking, ‘Oh, now I see what everyone’s been talking about.’” His career took off after graduating in 1998 when he was 22 with a national tour of the musical Fame, regional shows and a workshop of Spring Awakening. Not long after came his big Broadway break with Millie.
Creel followed that with a prestige gig when he was cast as a gay lover to one of the leading characters in the new musical Bounce by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, first in Chicago, and then in Washington D.C., directed by Harold Prince, re-uniting with Sondheim after several decades. (Years later the show played off-Broadway without Creel or Prince, under the title Road Show, directed by John Doyle.)
The issue about being gay shadowed his early success. Film and stage producer Marc Platt (Wicked)—and father of Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt—was a friend and mentor of Creel’s and the actor shared his unhappiness about not feeling he was his authentic self. ‘The closet was alive and well and still is,” he says. “So many people are terrified about what [coming out] can do to themselves, their lives, their safety. Marc said to me, ‘Your career can be a close second but, Gavin, your life and your happiness have to be first.”
Creel didn’t come out professionally until Hair when, during an interview for The Advocate magazine, he was asked if he could identify with his character, Claude who was bisexual. “In that moment I just went: ‘Yeah, I’m actually a gay man.’ And it made news—and I’m nobody. It made news because people just don’t do this.”
Dark nights, too
After Creel came out, he took a more public advocacy role. He is also one of the founders, with Rory O’Malley and Jenny Kanelos, of Broadway Impact, an LGBTQ+ activist group, which began in 2009 and led the March in Washington for marriage equality.
“After being such a fearful homosexual for so long, I wanted to get more involved in the gay community,” he says. That also meant featuring his sexuality front and center in this new show, too. “I’m showing a side of myself that maybe a lot of people don’t know about,” he says, “Maybe they think, ‘Oh, he’s that nice, joyful guy from those Golden Age revivals.’ Yeah, that’s part of me but…” He pauses for a moment. “The last two-and-a half-years have been a dark night of the soul for a lot of us,” he says softly. “I went inward and tried to figure out how to channel that into something artistic. I want to keep growing this piece and I hope in a year it will be opening on Broadway. I want to share what I’m making. I’m really proud of it.”
Creel also has advice to newbie museum-goers who might experience shock and awe—and momentary immobility—because of the abundance of art in the unfamiliar and lofty surroundings. “Look. Breathe. Wait. Just wait a second and you will find something, something you love, something that connects to you.”
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