Arts & Culture » Theater

Innocence & experience

by Jim Gladstone

Gavin Creel: "I'm ready to put myself out there." Photo: Courtesy Bay Area Cabaret
Gavin Creel: "I'm ready to put myself out there." Photo: Courtesy Bay Area Cabaret  

In 2017, Gavin Creel won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a musical playing dizzy, innocent Cornelius Hackl in the celebrated revival of "Hello Dolly!" alongside Bette Midler. Twice before he'd been a Best Actor nominee, for his 2002 Broadway debut opposite Sutton Foster in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and for playing Claude in the 2009 production of "Hair."

So it comes as a surprise that, after 16 years on the musical theater A-list, Creel's performance at the Venetian Room on Oct. 14, as part of the Bay Area Cabaret series, will be his first major concert of showtunes. He'll do two warm-up gigs at a small New York venue a few days before flying west.

"For the first 10 years I was on Broadway, I avoided it. I said that I only wanted to do Broadway on Broadway," explains the Ohio native. Throughout those years, Creel pursued a parallel career path as a singer-songwriter. "That whole time I was meeting with managers and cutting albums. When I did solo shows, it was in small rooms doing my own stuff and some rock covers." Some of Creel's solid pop recordings can still be found on iTunes.

"I did study musical theater, and I had this great early professional success," recalls Creel, a proud University of Michigan alumnus. "But there were times I really felt burnt out on it. I think subconsciously I wanted to turn my back on the thing that paid me, the thing that was my job."

Rocker vs. actor was just one of the identity issues Creel wrestled with during his career's first decade.

"I didn't really publicly come out as a gay man until I was doing 'Hair,'" he explains. "Doing that show really woke me up."

Empowered by the musical's countercultural idealism, Creel, along with fellow theater actor Rory O'Malley and Jenny Kanelos, founded Broadway Impact, which organized and mobilized the theater community around advocacy for marriage equality. Among their accomplishments were a series of fundraising concerts and nationwide series of benefit readings of Dustin Lance Black's play "8," about Proposition 8.

After successful runs in "Hair" in both New York and London, Creel released one more pop record, "Get Out," in early 2012. As had been the case with his past albums, it made little commercial impact. In the wake of that project, Creel took to the road as the lead in the first national tour of "The Book of Mormon." The five weeks he played Elder Price at the Curran were the only time Creel has been to San Francisco prior to next month's concert.

"The San Francisco audiences were just mental for 'Mormon,'" he recalls fondly. "The geography of the city and the drama of the hills made such an impression on me, too. It feels like Europe, but then there's a palm tree on the corner!"

Creel was accompanied on tour by his then two-year-old mixed-breed hound dog. "His name is Wally. I named him after the Pixar movie, but changed the spelling so I wouldn't seem like so much of a nerd. One of my best memories of the city is driving him up to Fort Funston to play."

In addition to giving him plenty of time to bond with Wally, Creel recalls the "Mormon" tour as giving him time to settle into himself. And his career in the theater.

"I was 36 years old," he remembers. "And I said to myself, 'This is good. This is a really good life. I'm ready to relax into it, and enjoy and see what I can learn.'"

Along with peace of mind, Creel's full acceptance of himself and his career in musical theater yielded a new level of professional success. After touring the U.S. with "Mormon," he opened the West End production in London, winning an Olivier Award as Best Actor. Then a Broadway run in "She Loves Me," and of course, his Tony-winning performance in "Dolly."

"I feel at home now," Creel says of his life today, complete with dog, boyfriend (also an actor) and Broadway. "I'm a lucky human being. I'm ready to put myself out there as a musical theater guy," he says of his San Francisco concert, which he hopes will be the first of many to come.

But while Creel has momentarily set aside performing his original tunes in favor of classic numbers from Broadway history, he hasn't left them behind for good.

"I'm really encouraged to see how pop and theater music are coming closer together," he says, pointing to the success of "Hamilton," Sarah Bareilles' "Waitress" and the work of his fellow Michigan Wolverines Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who composed "Dear Evan Hansen" and had a Top 40 hit with "This Is Me" from "The Greatest Showman." So encouraged, in fact, that Creel is at work on a musical built around his own pop tunes.

"I'm gonna 'Mamma Mia' myself," he jokes. "I've been writing a storyline that connects the songs I've written over the past 20 years. I know the arc of the plot and what I'm trying to say. It's about a guy in his early 40s. He's sort of aimlessly wandering through New York. He first moved there when he was in his 20s, when he was really on fire, but got a little lost along the way. He's feeling a kind of loneliness and emptiness. But then he runs into a young guy, full of this vivacious, exciting, sexy energy, and has a relationship with him. Of course, it's really himself, 20 years earlier."

Gavin Creel, Sun., Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m., Bay Area Cabaret at the Venetian Room, The Fairmont, 950 Mason St., SF. Tickets ($65): (415) 927-4636, www.bayareacabaret.org

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