BWW Interview: Broadway at NOCCA Welcomes Gavin Creel
There was this one time, when I was a bit younger than I am now, I turned on my TV to flip through channels around the holidays and my sister said, "Stop! We have to watch Eloise!" Eloise? "Yeah, it's cute, it's a Christmas movie about this little girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel." Or, at least that's sort of how I remember the conversation going. So we watched. Within 10 minutes I was giggling and Eloise at Christmastime became one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time. I can't go a single holiday season without watching it. I just can't.
What does this have to do a Broadway at NOCCA concert? Well, I'll tell you. As I was watching the movie, I took note of this young man who had the most gorgeous voice. I thought they had to have dubbed his voice as they do so often with movies, but sure enough when I looked it up I learned that actor's name was Gavin Creel and that indeed he was singing. Learning who Mr. Creel was opened a whole new world for me. I had always been a fan of musical theatre, but I didn't really know newer shows. It was then that I discovered THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and followed this crazy talented actor's career ever since. Just to give you an idea of the level of talent this guy has, let me list a few small and completely unknown shows he has been in: THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, HAIR, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, MARY POPPINS, THE BOOK OF MORMON, and SHE LOVES ME.
I'm so thrilled to say that on Thursday evening one of my biggest inspirations, Gavin Creel, along with Seth Rudetsky will be presenting a concert at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. I'm even more thrilled to say that I had the unique opportunity to hold him hostage on the phone for nearly half an hour to talk about his life, career, and some burning questions that I just had to have answered.
Tell me a little about yourself, how you became involved in theatre, and at what point you knew you wanted to make a career of this.
Oh God, good question. I think I'm still trying to figure out if I can! You caught me in a reflective moment. I'm sort of... I don't know, my friends and people who know me well are always kind of making fun of me because after every show I do I go "I think that was the last one. I don't think I'm gonna do another one." I really do. And then, I don't know, if I get the bug or whatever... I guess I originally got the bug for performing when I was in choirs and school stuff and all that. I don't know when. I guess I decided to do it because a lot of people said I was good, and I liked the attention. You know... I was third of three kids and I just really enjoyed making people happy, and it was neat that while singing... I love singing... while I was doing that I noticed that people were happy, and then someone told me I was good, and then I just decided sometime in my high school to switch paths. I wanted to be a movie director. I was just obsessed with watching movies and camera shots and directors. I read autobiographies and stuff of directors. I just sort of turned when I got the encouragement from teachers and people who were like "you should consider this." So I did, and I went to the University of Michigan for four years and fell in love with it and studied really hard. But, it was kind of like once you go to Michigan, it's like a machine. You go in and you're pumped out at the end, and if you're lucky like I was you get snagged up sort of quickly with an opportunity, and after a bunch of snags and hopefully a dream of yours... you go dreaming of being on Broadway and originating a role in a new musical... it all happened very quickly. I got snatched up quickly, and I don't know, when I got into my 30s I started to ask myself "do I really like doing this?". And, I think I do, but I don't know maybe after this next one maybe I'm done. Haha! We'll see!
Haha! I think that's a pretty normal thing, though, for anyone and not just actors to ask themselves. You get out of college no matter what your major is and start looking for jobs and a few years later you question if you're going in the direction that you want to be going.
Yeah, "Do I really enjoy this? All this money, all this time, all this energy... Is this really what I want to be doing?" And, I suppose that's also kind of Zen living in the moment and always questioning and stuff. But I've also been... when people smile in your direction when you do something, you tend to continue to do it. You know? So, I have continued to do it because people and opportunities and good fortune continue to smile in my direction. Sometimes it feels like a wave is sort of pushing me along because it just feels good, and then sometimes it's "nah, I want to dig at that a little further." And, in a way, getting to do these little explorations is a call to assess or re-examine our careers and think and talk and share thoughts. It's sort of like a reflective moment, and honestly just looking back at the opportunities I've had and songs that I like... why do I like doing this? Why do I like singing? And, telling stories in front of people is really fun.
What was your degree at the University of Michigan?
I have a Bachelor's of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre.
Do you have any advice for students who may want to get a degree in an art field, because I feel like a lot of times it is so discouraged?
Yeah. I mean. I question the people who are discouraging it. Do you mean they discourage it like... no go pursue something that's going to make you better money? That kind of thing, or just don't waste your time?
Well, I was a college counselor a few years back, and I often had students coming to me saying, "well, I want to be an art major" or "I really want to be a vocal performance major, but mom and dad want me to do this other thing" or "this person told me I won't be able to find a job."
Well, my advice based on what you just said is to start listening to what you want. Start listening to your own inner voice. It's hard to do sometimes because you've heard so many people weighing in their opinion. We do it our whole lives... but, beginning to practice listening to what you really, honestly want even if it's a guilty voice or a naughty voice... practicing what that sounds like, practicing listening and trying to really hear, "What do I genuinely want? What fills me with 'oh God that's exciting'?" and follow that voice because that voice is never going to lead you into the wrong place. You're always going to learn something because you made the decision on your path and not on what other people said you should or shouldn't do. I genuinely hope that doesn't find it's ears into people who are mentally unstable or evil, but I'd like to think even in the midst of the world being weird right now - or always - that at the core we're all good people hopefully, and we're not gonna "You know what my gut says? It says stab my neighbor in the eyeball. That's really what it's saying." I have a feeling that, no, it actually doesn't. But... I don't know... this is the weirdest interview you've ever given probably, but yeah. My advice would be, especially to people who are in high school, start practicing listening to your gut, your inner voice, because it's gonna tell you what songs you really want to sing, it's gonna tell you how to follow your instincts in an acting class, it's going to inform how to push outside of comfort zones, and explore what it is you really want as opposed to what everybody says you should do.
So, I have to tell you, the first time I had ever heard of Gavin-Creel-the-actor was around Christmas, and I think you know where I'm doing with this. My family LOVES Eloise at Christmastime. It's one of our favorite Christmas movies to watch.
Oh, that's so neat! I've done very little... I've done those two movies, that's it, on TV, and it's so neat that one of the was a Christmas movie because it keeps coming around every year and people are like "you're Bill from Eloise!" And I'm like, "Yes, I am!" Yeah.
Well the first time I watched it you caught my attention because... you know when you watch things and they sometimes dub voices or whatever? So I just kept thinking hmmmm I wonder if this guy is actually singing. So I took to Google because the Internet does lie, right? And I was like nope, nope, not dubbed... this guy's the real deal!
Well, thanks! Yeah, it was sort of like baptism by fire because, like I said, I had no experience in front of a camera or anything, but it was just such a great learning experience around the greatest people ever... Julie Andrews is a queen, and it was just really fun to do. And, to work with Kevin Lima, the director, who was the director of Enchanted and Tarzan and a bunch of other stuff was a great opportunity. I'm so pleased every time Christmas comes around. It's just so funny. People will call me up and be like, "You're on the Hallmark channel!" or "I saw you on ABC Family!" And, I'm like "Ohhh, ok, cool!" I wish I looked like that still!
Too funny! Well, is television or movies something that... you know, you said you were originally interested in film... is that something you'd like to dive into a little more.
Honestly, it's not something I think about a whole lot, to be totally honest. I wouldn't... if somebody came knocking I would love the challenge, but I have passions in other areas... in writing, in directing, in teaching. I'm not convinced that the rest of my career is gonna be in the front. I think I'll be collaborating in other ways, I hope. I don't think I'll ever stop acting, but I'm excited about other things and that's not at the top of the list to be honest.
What do you teach?
I teach voice performance, voice lessons and coaching, acting song, things like that. I just got back from a five-week course that I taught at my alma mater - University of Michigan. It was the first time, and it was just magical. It was called The Process Project, which was an invention of mine that I collaborated with one of my mentors, Linda Goodrich, who was one of my teachers. She started very young, right when I was leaving college, and she's still there as a tenured professor, and an inspiration of mine. She and I and my friend Justin Mendoza sort of invented the course, and then we team-taught together. It was an opportunity, an experiment with 15 students of sitting in the process with original, new material of mine and seeing what came out of it with very little road map or blueprint of where to go. What could we make just sitting in a room for five weeks and create in a process-oriented situation? It was neat. It was sometimes extremely successful, and other times extremely challenging; but, the entire time it was blissfully satisfying, and I know that's where I want to head someday.
Yeah, I teach high school theatre right now and I love it. I'm finding that I often learn more from them than they're learning from me!
Totally! Isn't it amazing? It's like you go in and you go, "Ok, I've got a few things I know I want to teach... this is what I'm gonna do," and then about ten minutes in you're like, "Ok I'm tossing this out the window, we're gonna do this now because they need this right now," or, "there's something going on here... this is what we want to talk about now." I learn so much from them, and I have real dreams of getting to teach at the collegiate level... theatre and acting and all that... musical theatre.
So going back to your acting career, there are so many shows that you've been in that were just huge shows, and the first one... I mean your Broadway debut was THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, which by the way you were nominated for a Tony Award for. So how's that for a debut, right?
Yeah, it was crazy. It was a little overwhelming, I'm not gonna lie. It was overwhelming. It was one of those things where I was like living all the dreams all at once, and I sort of had to go to bed and go, "ok I've gotta dream up some new stuff because I am out of dreams!" Just to get to meet Sutton Foster and get to work with her at the beginning of her explosion... you know, she's like a pal... and Angela Christian, Marc Kudisch, Anne Nathan, Francis Jue, Ken Leung... it was just an amazing group of people. I feel very fortunate to have had that as my first Broadway show, but I had done a national tour of FAME before that. I did some regional stuff. I did a bunch of readings. I actually met Michael Mayer, the director of MILLIE, doing a couple readings of SPRING AWAKENING way back... like 2000 or 1999. I did a HAIRSPRAY reading, a WICKED reading... just all these shows that are now just being revived and it's really bizarre. It was a dream in the beginning to watch people build musicals, and now as I'm trying to write my own thing it's neat to think oh wow I've sort of had an education for these last 20 years. I got my equity card 20 years ago this summer. It'll be my 20th anniversary of getting my equity card, so pretty cool. But yeah, MILLIE amazing.
So then after that you've done all kinds of stuff. You've done MARY POPPINS, HAIR... I think it was a LA CAGE AUX FOLLES revival, right?
It was the Jerry Zaks revival in 2004, yeah.
And then THE BOOK OF MORMON, most recently SHE LOVES ME, and I imagine it's hard to pick a favorite, but do you have one?
Hair. It just changed my life on stage and off. It was like art imitating life imitating art imitating life. I just had a transcendent, creative experience. It was not without its challenges, but it was just... getting to exist in something that felt so exciting, and it felt like the city was really excited about, what Diane and the tribe and everybody had created... I just loved it. I loved the people who I met, I loved the part I played, I loved being a part of this massively beautiful, big ensemble. It was magical. I mean I've had a wonderful time doing all the shows I've done, but that is hands down the best experience of my theatrical career thus far.
I really enjoyed that show because it starts out being so fun and lively and energetic... not that the whole thing isn't energetic... but, the second act takes this serious turn. I didn't really know a whole lot about it when I saw it, and it was very unexpected, but it really makes you think about what was going on during that time.
Yeah, totally, that's a great observation.
I've also noticed with all of these shows that you've been in you have somehow been able to avoid type casting. Every role that you've played has been so vastly different.
Oh cool, thanks! No one's ever said that before. That's very sweet of you. I've never really thought about it.
Is that something you've consciously avoided in the roles you've chosen, or has it just happened that way?
Well, you know, I wish I could say it was me picking roles. A lot of times in the beginning it was like, "please!" And, even now, there's still jobs that I would love to do that I don't get. You know, I think probably if I can have the luxury of saying this, I just turned 40 last year and I'm just sort of like if I'm gonna be an actor I don't want to be a part of something unless I'm like, "Awww I gotta do that! I want to do that." You know? I don't really... I'm lucky that my parents taught me how to save my money very well, and I'm also lucky that I've had really, really good jobs. But, I have the luxury of being able to say no sometimes, and it's not because I'm a snob. It's not because I think I'm better than something. It's like... you don't want me in that. If I'm not responding to your material... I write, and if somebody's like, "Yeah, your songs are ok, Gavin," I don't want that person singing them. I want somebody who's gonna pick it up and think I'm the Leonardo DiVinci of songs because I'm gonna be able to bring, "oh, I love this song you wrote, Miley Cyrus, I have to perform it." That's the kind of person, that's the kind of actor I want to be when I walk into a room. That's the actor I want to see who tears into stuff. And, I don't know, I guess maybe, to answer your question, it wasn't a calculated thing to say I want to do something totally different. I knew MILLIE because it was a good fit, and I was grateful to be a part of it. LA CAGE was just sort of an amazing opportunity that was able to help me not almost go into debt, and then to also have a joyful experience with a really amazing creative team. And then MARY POPPINS... I thought I was auditioning for the Broadway show. I just felt like the part just lined up with who I was. I thought I might be a little young to play the part at the time, but they ended up saying would you go do it in London, and I said holy crap yes. It changed my life again, so I don't know. I don't really think about the characters in comparison to the other ones. Only once. There was one time where I had a show that was looming on the horizon shortly after HAIR. It smelled and felt a lot like HAIR, and I thought I just kinda just did this, I don't think this is probably the right thing to do. I try not to do it, but if somebody came in and said, "hey, we want you to do this musical about hippies and it actually takes place outside as opposed to inside," I would be like, "I don't know about that." You know? But, it doesn't usually happen like that, and I appreciate you saying that because I don't think like that, so that's so cool. Thank you.
No problemo! So then with your most recent show SHE LOVES ME, which I thought was just a beautiful show... the set, the costumes, the music, all of it... we had this BroadwayHD thing going on.
Yeah, it was totally unexpected. I didn't know about it until they called a meeting and were like, "there's this thing, it might happen, we don't think they're gonna raise the money, so we're just telling you if it does happen this is how it would go, and we'll be talking to your blah blah blahs." And, all of a sudden it did go, and sort of a little bit of history was made. It was pretty cool. I didn't go to the big screen thing, but some people were there and said it looked nice on screen.
It did, I thought it looked very cool. I really like this live streaming idea, and I want to hear your opinion on it because with BroadwayHD and all of these live musicals happening. What do you think about the future of theatre and this live and/or recorded stuff?
At the moment, and this is my answer for right now... thankfully I'm not a senator so I can change my mind... I think that theatre is very expensive, and it's a very limited audience economically, racially, demographically, all through every different type of person. It's elitist and out of touch, and I think there's more good than harm because if there's somebody who just happens to say, "I'll spend $10 and whip this open," and it's filmed well and acted well and, hopefully, I think it presents an opportunity to reach into the homes and hearts of especially young people who might have an inkling about wanting to, if not be in the theatre, to go see theatre and to be a part of the theatre. The difference between the "dying" movie business... you know, I read from this magazine that had the top 100 innovators of the future, and one of them said something about how in 10 years cineplexes will be gone... there won't be any more big movie places because people aren't gonna go. And I thought, "that's not gonna happen to theatre," because we are the original story-tellers. When the zombie apocalypse happens, people will still sit around a fire and act something out. They will do something to entertain one another when there's no power, or you can't go to a movie. It's not the same. In my mind it's a bit like you can watch a movie on a big screen that they made a year and a half ago or you can decide to watch it on a little smaller screen in your house, but it's still the same medium... one screen or the other screen. Whereas ours is you can watch us on stage acting through beautiful camera shots, amazing lighting, and whatever, and it's a beautiful thing you can watch on your computer; but, to know that it's happening right now in New York City and you can actually come and see the people that you watched on the screen... I think it's going to excite people. The cool thing would've been if SHE LOVES ME was an open run, and we all signed on for another year or something, all of those people would be like, "I wanna go see SHE LOVES ME because I saw it on the screen and it was amazing." I think it has the potential to make theatre stars like movie stars again in a lot of ways. If it's done well, if the material appeals, it's a way to get... I mean, the only reason movie musicals were huge in Hollywood in the 30s, 40s, 50s is those stars were played on the radio. If HAMILTON is teaching us anything with the HAMILTON mix tape that's coming out, I don't think it's an impossibility. I think he's (Lin-Manuel Miranda) got a juggernaut on his hands. He's genius and it's an unbelievable show, but there is a possibility that... I don't know... DEAR EVAN HANSEN, if they film it well and it gets into the homes of people, they're gonna get a beautiful score written by Pasek and Paul - Michigan graduates, by the way, they're gonna get a great new performance by this young guy Ben Platt and this amazing team of veterans... Rachel Bay Jones, John Dossett (now Michael Park), Jennifer Laura Thompson... and you go, "Oh my gosh these people and they're telling a story that seems bizarrely applicable to my life. I know that story. I've felt that way. Look at the way they're singing, it's so passionate and beautiful. And they're running in New York right now? I just saw this. Mom, can we go to New York and see this?" or, "It's touring and coming through, let's go see that show." I think it's a great way to... this is a really long answer... but, I think it's a great way to get people who need to know something before they invest $180 for a seat in a theatre. Instead of oh it's based on a movie from the 80s, or it's based on the catalog of somebody's music... I don't think either of those are bad, I just think it's that it costs so much to go to the theatre I kind of want to know what I'm getting in to. And, with DEAR EVAN HANSEN, which is completely original, and not starring, you know, Miley Cyrus, maybe this is the way to do it is to show them how good it is. Go ahead and see it for $10, stream it, tune in at your movie theatre, and then word of mouth spreads in cities across the country that aren't near New York that costs so much money to come and see a show. So that's sort of my hope anyway, and I understand the naysayers who are worried about it, but I think there's more good than bad.
Yeah, see, that's kind of what I thought, too. I'm lucky enough to be in New Orleans where we do have the Broadway tours come through, but there's a lot of places that even the tours don't reach. So by doing the live streams and even these live TV musicals, it's reaching an audience who may not be able to get to New York or get to a tour stop or somewhere where there is live theatre.
Yeah, and then it doesn't become elitist and excluding a demographic or a race or a sex or or a sexuality. It's for everybody. You want to tune in on December 7th, and watch HAIRSPRAY live? They're doing it live, people, and it's on TV right now you better tune in. You're gonna grab new audience members who will be like, "That was fun, I'd see the one next year." Then you've got a new audience and all of a sudden, "Wait they do that on stage? And it's called a musical? Ok, I'll go see that!" The guy who just cut my hair last week said, "I've never been to a musical," and he went and saw CAGNEY off-Broadway, which is written by and starring one of my friends Robert Creighton, he's such an inspiration, and he said the greatest thing. He's from Turkey, he's got this thick accent, he's cutting my hair, he says, "I've never been to a musical, but I gotta tell you," this was the next day and he goes, "I'm still in it. It's still with me." And I thought, yeah that's the power of theatre. It's unbelievable. It stays in you and he was 40-something years old, from Turkey, living here, cutting hair on the upper west side, and he had his mind blown by an off-Broadway musical written by a friend of mine. Like... you never know who you're gonna reach in an audience. You never know who's out there, and God isn't that compelling to get up on stage and create something.
Well to totally and completely change tones because I thought this was so funny and creative and a taste of the quirky side of theatre, we need to talk about the video that broke the Internet. You and Aaron Tveit singing "Take Me or Leave Me" at MCC Miscast.
Oh my gosh! Yeah, I had no idea how famous... he is so famous! I had no idea how famous Aaron was. Geez. Yes, it was so fun. That was so much fun.
Who's idea was that?
I think it was Bernie Telsey's idea, who is a casting director in New York. Miscast is a thing that MCC Theater does... they do this benefit every year called Miscast, and people sing songs they wouldn't normally sing. I think he originally asked me to... I think he might've floated the RENT thing by, but he said we could do a SIDE SHOW song, and I was like let's do an up-tempo. And, Bernie was I think the one who had the idea, and I said, "Aaron, you get to sing the high part, I don't want to sing that high." And he shredded it, and I was like ok there we go. And then we just did it, and had a little rehearsal, and got up and did it, and it was really fun. And then I get to the theatre the next day and someone said I had like 800,000 views, and I was like, "What?! I've never had that many views on anything." But yeah, it was pretty cool. It was so much fun to do. The only regret I have is that we didn't just go for it and kiss each other at the end. That was my idea at the end. I was like, "Aaron, what do you think? We get really, really, really close, and make people think we're gonna do it and then just end the song." But, we should've just done it and freak everybody out. Pretty fun.
The next thing you've got coming up next is HELLO DOLLY, right?
Yeah, we start rehearsals in January, and the official opening is the 20th of April.
I really hope I can get up there to see it. That is one of my favorite shows. Have you ever worked with Bette Midler before, or is this a first?
No, but we did a little two week workshop to dip our toes in the water this October, and you are not ready. You are not ready. Prepare to have your mind blown. It's gonna be the theatrical event of the season. She's gonna blow the roof off.
Are there any other shows coming up this next season that you are excited to go see?
Ummm... I don't know. What's coming up? I don't know. I don't read anything anymore, so I don't know what's coming in. What're some of the new shows that are coming in?
Let's see... ANASTASIA, AMELIE, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY...
Yeah, I want to see all of those. All three. It's pretty exciting. I do want to see all three of those. It's exciting that I know some of the people in them, and I think they're gonna be amazing. Christian Borle's gonna be incredible, Phillipa Soo's gonna be amazing, it's gonna be so much fun.
Well we cannot wait, and by "we" I mean "me," are so excited to have you in New Orleans! I'm so thrilled for this. Have you been to New Orleans before?
Never. I've never been. Never, never been. I cannot wait. I'm gonna get there a couple days before the concert and I have to leave right after. I'm gonna come and wander around so if there's any recommendations you have zap them my way! I can't wait. I cannot wait.
Can you give me a preview of this concert? Anything in particular we can look forward to?
We're gonna explore some shows I've done, some songs I love, some songs Seth Rudetsky loves. Our concerts are really informal and joyful and ridiculous. Every concert I do I never want to be formal. It's just not me. I want people to feel like they're in a living room, and we're just gonna share songs, and so that's the kind of evening it's gonna be. Hopefully a lot of fun, and I hope people come out.
Oh, but trust me, if you miss this show at NOCCA next week, you are missing something truly extraordinary. I don't gush about many people, but Mr. Creel is one of those who I will sing high praises of without a shred of hesitation. Look, I'll even make it easy... click on this link for tickets and more information about the Broadway at NOCCA series and this awesome concert that's happening on Thursday! Be there!