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Broadway's Pop Star Activist
by Marilou Carlin
For several years now, Gavin Creel has been routinely described as a “Tony-nominated musical theatre star.” More recently the word “activist” began appearing alongside his name. Now, with the release of his third solo album, the tag may become “pop music powerhouse.” In fact, he is all of the above; trying to make him fit into a single category is a lost cause.
Creel, who grew up in Findlay, Ohio, and graduated from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance with a BFA in musical theatre in 1998, has resisted typecasting throughout his career, and he’s proud of it. “Every choice I’ve taken in the theatre,” he said, “has resulted in an inability to pigeonhole me.”
Creel’s career continues to spin into new directions as he releases his third album, an unapologetically explosive foray into pop music, while also preparing to play the lead in the first national tour of The Book of Mormon, the nine-time Tony Award-winning megahit. The tour kicks off in Denver this August.
Playing Elder Price, the zealous, overconfident and seemingly perfect half of a pair of Mormon missionaries who get sent to Uganda, Creel gets to take his comedy skills to a whole new level while also being featured in 10 of the show’s 16 songs.
"I think Gavin is one of the finest musical theatre performers in New York and I can't wait to hear him sing these songs,” said Tony-winning Book of Mormon choreographer and co-director Casey Nicholaw in a statement.
Gavin Creel got his big break in 2002 playing the lead opposite Sutton Foster in the original Broadway cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The show was one of the biggest hits of the year, winning six Tonys and netting Creel his first nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Musical, which blew him away. “I just didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said, laughing. “I felt like they had made a mistake.”
Over the next couple of years, in addition to filming two television movies based on the children’s line of Eloise books—with one of his idols, Julie Andrews—Creel took supporting roles in a number of shows. They included the Chicago and Washington, D.C., runs of Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce, an off-Broadway production of Bright Lights, Big City and the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles.
Then, in 2004, he took over the role of Bert in the original London production of Mary Poppins. It was already a hit, so there was no pressure to open the show. This was, said Creel, the best year of his life. “I got to live like a king in a foreign country in an amazing show,” he said. “I was 30 years old and kind of burned out, and I didn’t have to be anybody but who I wanted to be.”
This led to an intensely creative period of writing and recording songs, in collaboration with the talented composer and musician Robbie Roth, resulting in his debut album Goodtimenation (2006).
But theatre beckoned and he was soon cast as Claude, a hippie drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, in the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair. Another smash hit show and another Tony nomination, followed by a run in London. But for Creel, the most important result was the awakening of his political consciousness. “Hair changed my life on and off stage,” he said. “It made me a more courageous performer and a more active citizen in the world.”
Coinciding with his turn in Hair, Creel publicly declared that he was gay. He was amazed to discover that it caused a flurry of media attention. For the first time Creel saw that the measure of fame he had achieved could be an asset: he could make a difference in the realm of political action. So he and his friends Rory O’Malley (appearing in The Book of Mormon on Broadway) and Jenny Kanelos, a theatre production coordinator, founded Broadway Impact, a non-profit dedicated to “mobilizing the nationwide theatre community in support of marriage equality.”
“I love having even a tiny bit of celebrity because I know what to do with it,” said Creel. “Celebrity in the right hands is the greatest thing, because you can stand up and say good and just things and people will listen to you for some reason.”
Broadway Impact has mobilized hundreds of volunteers and raised awareness for marriage equality through letter writing and telephone campaigns, as well as high profile rallies and performances. When New York State passed its marriage equality bill last year, it seemed that the organization’s hard work had paid off.
However, Broadway Impact's goal is national marriage equality, so the work continues. Creel made his own personal contribution to the cause when he and Robbie Roth wrote and recorded a song titled “Noise” last December, and donated all proceeds to Broadway Impact. It’s described as “an anthem for equality.”
Creel and Roth also created a music video for "Noise," directed by fellow SMTD musical theatre alum Andrew Keenan-Bolger (BFA ’07), which uses historical gay rights film footage intercut with Creel performing. In the weeks after its release, the video became ubiquitous on the Internet. In one of the many interviews he did, Creel said, “I believe music can reach people in a way that pushes past prejudices and misunderstandings. I hope this song can inspire people to get involved, urge them to talk about gay rights and change their hearts and minds if need be.”
Meanwhile, Broadway Impact has also teamed up with the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) to coordinate a nationwide series of staged readings of Black’s play 8. The play is based on the transcript of the Perry vs. Brown case in California, which found that Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that restored opposite-sex limitation on marriage, was unconstitutional.
Following the first reading of the play on Broadway, the next reading took place at SMTD last fall starring alumni, students and faculty, with Creel playing one of the two attorneys that helped overturn Prop 8. The performance took place the same weekend that he shared top billing in “Broadway Comes Home,” a concert by SMTD students and alumni celebrating the 40th anniversary of U-M’s Spectrum Center, which serves the needs of the LGBT community.
Since then, dozens of staged readings of 8 have taken place, including a star-studded L.A. performance led by George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Creel has been appearing in many of the college productions and conducting audience discussions after the shows.
Simultaneously, Creel has worked steadily on his music. And just as in his theatre career, he relishes exploring new territory. In his first album, Goodtimenation, he mixed feel-good, upbeat pop songs with contemplative ballads, including “For Nancy,” a heartbreaker written for his mother to help her cope with his coming out. The follow-up album was Quiet, also with Roth, an intimate and tender EP of six exquisite songs accompanied only by Roth’s dexterous guitar playing.
Now, with his third album, Get Out, released in March, Creel has switched gears again, jumping head first into dance-dominated pop music. It was written with and produced by Ben Cullom, a UK-based songwriter, producer, musician and DJ.
“It’s really hard to be in the theatre and make an album, and people are like, ‘oh, it’s a theatre guy trying to be a pop star,’” he said. “There was a time when I was trying to do that, but now I’m not. I’m honoring my theatricality, and the fact that I’m dramatic. Instead of calling it theatrical, I call it epic; the album tells epic stories, it tells of epic heartbreak and desire.”
Whether Creel will triumph in the highly competitive pop music scene remains to be seen. But he has a loyal and growing fan base and has received universally positive reviews, including raves, such as the one in Show Business Weekly, which said Creel has “the kind of star quality that other singers can only dream of possessing. His ‘watchability’ factor is stratospheric!”
In addition to high-profile gigs in New York this past winter—at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room and a sold-out record release concert at Joe’s Pub—Creel also returned to U-M to work with musical theatre seniors, helping prepare them to launch their careers. He recognizes that SMTD was critical to setting him on the road to success and he was honored to be the featured speaker at the 2012 SMTD commencement ceremony in April.
“My time at Michigan was all about forming a concrete foundation from which I could strike out at the world,” he said. “I had mentors like Melody Racine, Linda Goodrich and Brent Wagner … people who guided me and taught me that I was worthwhile and that I had talent. There was a lot of learning that I had to do in the real world, but they gave me that foundation.”
He loves teaching and directing and envisions a day when he’ll have “a house and professor job—when I can’t bend my legs anymore.” But in the meantime, he’s taking some good advice he was once given: to view his career as a marathon, not a sprint.
“I’m relaxing back now and saying, ‘what you got for me?’ I’m not making plans right now. I’m letting the universe tell me where I should go.”