How Gavin Creel survived Broadway — and made his own musical
The Daily Beast
December 5, 2023
Tony-winning Gavin Creel reveals how self-doubt, heartbreak, disillusion with Broadway, depression, sex, and the pandemic changed his life—and inspired a very personal musical.
When the actor Gavin Creel first visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019 he had to “confront the fact that I didn’t feel I belonged there—and that was kind of a parallel to how I felt in my life then.” And so unpeels an intense story of an actor adrift, professionally and personally, trying to forge new ways forward in all areas of his life.
This may surprise those who know Creel as the handsome, Tony Award-winning Broadway star of the 2017 Bette Midler-starring Hello Dolly! revival in which he played Cornelius Hackl. There have been other Tony Award nominations (Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, his Broadway debut, and Hair in 2009), other awards (for The Book of Mormon in London in 2014, and for his joyously silly turn in Into the Woods, 2023), and many critical plaudits.
But the Creel who emerges in his new autobiographical musical, Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice (MCC Theater, to Jan. 7), is a damaged, questioning, tender, witty, whimsical, horny, sad soul. At least, he said, he knows the depressed and withdrawn person he became during the pandemic was an experience shared with “so many others.”
In Walk on Through, which Creel has written (and performs alongside a show-stopping Sasha Allen, Madeline Benson, Chris Peters, Corey Rawls, Ryan Vasquez, and Scott Wasserman), the actor combines a new-found passion for art, walking the halls of the Met, with interrogating himself about his own life and art, his delight in sex, a failed relationship, and a re-finding and reclamation of self.
Like many theater actors forcibly benched during the pandemic, he did not know if theater would come back; the collaboration with the Met—what has become this show—is all he had. “In those first months, we didn’t know whether people would want to sit in a theater again—we didn’t know. I thought I would have to sell everything I own, and give up on everything I was working towards because it seemed that theater was not going to exist. I thought, ‘Maybe now’s the time to move somewhere else to do something else.’ Thank God for this project.”
Yet, he said, he had a “love-hate” relationship with his piano and work generally at the time—the self-imposed pressure of feeling as if he needed to do something while some days not able to do anything. It’s a “blessing” to be able to finally perform the fruits of his labor in an actual theater.
Creel, who is 47, knows how clichéd it sounds to say he was having a midlife crisis, but “having lived and felt it, and to still be living it now, I found it to be extremely real. You spend the first half of your life heading towards something you hope and dream for—and, if you find it or land in it, you can sometimes think, ‘This isn’t it.’ You supposedly arrive, and yet there’s no arrival. I was looking for things to fill this hole of sadness and loneliness. In relationships, it comes to be an unfair pressure on the other person, who’s like, ‘I don’t know who I am, don’t ask me to complete that blank for you.’”
Creel has felt both “cursed and blessed,” and hopes this tough period has been an “intermission,” marking who he was before it and who he hopes to be after it, and “I hope to be growing him for the rest of this second half of my life.”
The Tony Award for Dolly! didn’t mark a peak, then? “A little bit, but not really. I have been in a love-hate relationship with what I do since I started doing it—acting specifically. What I really wanted to be was a pop star.” He recalled taking a pee backstage doing the national tour of The Book of Mormon, and wondering “was this my life?” He was grateful for the job, grateful for all the good reviews he was receiving, and tried to offset his unease by just trying to relax into it.
“I have had amazing luck,” Creel said. After The Book of Mormon came She Loves Me, then the call for Hello, Dolly! “I didn’t understand the show, but I wasn’t going to say no to a job. I eventually found a way into it. (Director) Jerry Zaks guided me. Scott Rudin guided me. Bette Midler guided me. David Hyde Pierce had supreme grace, beauty, and elegance. Everybody was great. I accepted it, but as I accepted it, it felt like I was living someone else’s life. I was thinking, ‘Where do I fit in with all this?’
“Everyone thought my life was so great, but inside I was feeling so crap—even though it looked as if I had everything I wanted. I was really proud of the Tony, but I worked just as hard in Fame: The Musical just after I graduated college. I worked just as hard in She Loves Me the season before Hello, Dolly!, and got zero attention for an almost-identical part. One season I won zero awards, the next I won every award going. I just didn’t get it, but I realized awards aren’t where it’s at. I felt lost and broken by personal stuff happening with my health and relationships.”
In Walk on Through, Creel tries to assess his own culpability in the breakdown of a long-term relationship that leaves him heartbroken—just as happened in real life. At the same time, his voice was “getting older, and my identity as a singer was tied up with my voice. Forgive me if I sound arrogant. But I had such a good voice in college. I had always feared, ‘If something happens with my voice, who am I without it?’ During the pandemic I lost my voice. I felt such grief. It was as if an invisible hand was gripping my throat. When I sang it wasn’t sounding the same as it used to.”
Creel recognized his body as a whole was changing, which served to remind him that “Getting older as a gay man is a whole other level of invisibility and irrelevance. I had to confront that. I was grabbing at things, trying to find my value and worth in a world I had outsourced all of it to a business where that worth was measured in if I won an award, or if I had a lead part, or to people who if they didn’t say the exact right thing I was decimated and ruined by it.”
Creel said he had struggled with loneliness all his life, but always had his dog Wally, “my salvation”—who then died six weeks after his relationship broke apart. He also contracted COVID at the beginning of the pandemic, and while he never felt he was going to die, it further damaged his voice, and his sense of “losing everything that gives you your identity.”
Creel’s depression was so extreme he didn’t recognize himself, he said. “I was supposed to be a happy person who entertained people, and who made people happy, and who people liked to be around. But at that time I wouldn’t have wanted to be around me for all the money in the world. I didn’t know how to be that happy, outgoing person people expected. I felt that my former partner was the only person who could make me feel better—but we had agreed that relationship wasn’t right.”
He said he was never going to harm himself when he was so depressed, and doesn’t know if he should define whatever he had as depression. But was punishing himself for whatever he was feeling, adding blame and judgment on to the feelings of sadness and loneliness. “It was like, ‘You don’t deserve to feel terrible, because there are other people feeling way worse than you.’”
Eventually, Creel found a salve in working on Walk on Through. His director asked him if he was ready to face all his personal demons, and Creel is nervous about how people may respond to the result—whether they will consider it self-indulgent, and the amount of me, me, me-ness in it unmerited, and “that their problems are way worse. But I have to believe that this is my story, and I want to share it, and I have tried to craft it as a piece of theater that is inspiring to people,” he said. “I am going to present this show to heal, and hopefully travel it around the world to help others.”
Asked how he is now, Creel said that he was OK. “Loneliness and depression don’t disappear. You don’t get to be done with these things.” In the show, he sings of loneliness: “Oh, you’re back I see. I guess you never left, ‘cos you’re part of me.” That same measured acceptance exists in Creel’s day-to-day life. Writing and therapy have been his biggest “healing and coping mechanisms.” He’s scared to present the show, lest people and critics don’t like it. But he knows he cannot control others’ responses. He just wants the opportunity to perform it “again and again.” One of his lead investors has told him, “You’re not creating a musical any more, you’re creating an act of service.” This is what Creel wants to do with his art, and what he hopes people get from all kinds of art.
“I believe I am blessed. I don’t fear God any more”
On his right wrist Creel has a tattoo reading “Both.” This sums up his attitude to everything in life—things that can be wonderful and terrible, celebratory and melancholy. “I am in a space of all things and everything. At 47 years old, I have realized to love myself is to accept myself, and not judge myself. If I venture myself towards sharing my life with someone or a few someones I don’t know. What if I join a commune and fall in love with 60 people all at once? Actually, I don’t know if I have the attention span for that. I would say that I am staying open to possibilities—that there is so much more I don’t know and don’t understand.”
No wonder that the song celebrating sex is one of the standout songs in the show—how turned on his character is by all the muscular statues at the Met. He was listening to electronic dance music at the time the idea came to him, Creel said. “I realized everyone was looking at these statues but not admitting how horny they made them feel. I had to confront the fact I wanted to fuck all these statues. That song is about sexual shame, and the reclamation of feeling attracted to people and boobs and wieners. No more slut shaming, especially because slut shaming comes down to homophobia and misogyny. It’s just another way for the cisgender heternormative white male gaze gets to continue to permeate the art world. People say there’s so much queer-made art out there, but so much is still from same old white, straight artists.”
The other predominant theme of the show is religion, and its influence in Creel’s life, leading up to a final confrontation and agreement or acceptance of God.
“I proudly feel God’s blessing,” Creel said. “I don’t believe all this good fortune in my life is no coincidence. I believe I am blessed. I don’t fear God any more. I feel as if I am collaborating with him.” He was raised (in Findlay, Ohio) to do and behave in a right way, in preparation for what was to come. On his mom’s side, his grandparents were Mennonites, his dad’s were Episcopalians, he said. He was raised Methodist, his parents inspiringly committed to their local church. “It was about community and service. They were quietly and diligently obedient to the teachings of God. We always prayed before we ate.
“I didn’t do bible study, or anything that strict, but we were raised that we were in dialog with God. My parents would dump me at Sunday school, where I would read stories that left me thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m fucked. I can’t be gay, even though I want to look at those boys, and God is a man in a pulpit telling me that homosexuality is a sin and those people go to hell.’ Today that sounds like a cliché, but that was the foundation of my existence. Now, I think the joy and beauty and opportunity I have in my life has come about by being honest and authentic.”
Creel and his two sisters were raised “like an all-American white middle American family, expected to get on the honor roll or we couldn’t use the car, and to be good and exemplary citizens. To this day, my parents are two of the most generous and service-oriented people. They are constantly doing things for others. For me, this also meant a lot of pressure when I knew I had this thing inside me that could possibly be embarrassing, shameful and hurtful for them. When I came out to parents I was 25 I was terrified. They were wonderful. My mom cried a little bit. She said, ‘Just don’t go marching in any parades.’ 7 or 8 years later my mom and dad marched on Washington for equality with me.”
His first therapist told Creel that by coming out he was “taking your power back,” and what his parents did with the information was none of his business; that if they ranted and raved and kicked him out of the house he would find his own path. “But they didn’t do that. When I said to my dad I thought it would go worse than it did, he said, ‘I looked around the church and thought how much more dull my life would be if you weren’t in it, and how many people here ask us how you are.’” When the relationship alluded to in the show broke down, and Creel fell apart, his parents came to look after him, cooking, cleaning, and helping him cry it out.
“Look at me, don’t look at me”
Creel wanted to be a pop star growing up, emulating his icon, Whitney Houston. The first tape he owned was a Debbie Gibson album. He bought all Whitney’s albums, memorized all her songs: “Any soul I have in my voice is me trying to be her.” A straight friend bought Creel in a Whitney poster when they were in sixth grade, a poster he would go on to take down when other schoolfriends came round lest they thought he was gay. It was the passion and expressiveness and singularity of her voice he relished as a boy. “And her joy. Her videos were so sexy and accessible. She appealed to everybody.” Later he was moved by how Whitney faced all those who sought to control her, and her queer relationship with Robyn Crawford.
With two older sisters, he “tried to get attention any way I could,” but even then he felt split—as he would feel later as an adult—between feelings of “look at me, look at me,” and “don’t look at me.” Today, he says, he still doesn’t know how to “build the kind of persona that many people say is necessary to become famous. I like being free and authentic on stage. Some say I overshare, or that my body moves around like a scarecrow. I guess I’ll never be a pop star because I have no interest in packaging myself. As you can tell, I have diarrhea of the mouth!”
Creel laughed. “Welcome to being a Midwesterner. When you grow up in Ohio we don’t talk about sex, we don’t talk about politics, religion, or your feelings. In Walk on Through, I’m out of the closet on every one of those things. Now I think it’s poisonous to hold that stuff in. I love the Midwestern lifestyle, but people need to talk or communicate to each other.”
After studying musical theatre at the University of Michigan, he performed at Pittsburgh CLO, a repertory theater. After touring Fame: The Musical and appearing in other regional shows, he landed in New York in the early 2000’s, scoring his first Tony nomination for Thoroughly Modern Millie, his first Broadway acting gig.
“I drank the Kool-Aid of Broadway, and loved the community and sexiness of it, going out with friends and getting drunk on margaritas with friends,” Creel said. “I loved meeting some of the idols I looked up to. Then, honestly, the bloom fell off the rose a little bit. New people come in and replace you. The cycle of the business meant I couldn’t love it any more. I knew the industry could not be everything. I couldn’t source my happiness from it because it doesn’t have a heartbeat. It doesn’t ultimately care about me.
“I watched the business use me and other people when it was convenient for it, and then went through stretches of time when I couldn’t get an audition. I can’t source my happiness in an industry ultimately rooted in capitalism, the roots of which ultimately were white supremacist and racist.”
Crediting the “amazing work” of Nicole Johnson, creative director at the Harriet Tubman Effect Institute, Creel said, “Musical theater in this country was founded in minstrelsy and Blackface—something we don’t talk about and which we need to in order to heal. People ask why Broadway is dying. It’s built on a graveyard built on poison. I watched racism happen, and stayed silent because I didn’t think I had the power or voice to speak up. The only thing I can say now is that I will do my best to never do that again, and thank God for the reckoning we are having.”
Creel condemns some recent comments he has heard—that “this person only got this job because their Black. It’s a nonsense, racist thing to say. Whoever says that is saying every white person on Broadway is good, and I’m here to tell you that ain’t true. A lot of white people who have jobs on Broadway should not have them. I’m probably one of them. I’m sure that some people think, ‘Gavin Creel is so boring, so uninteresting, yet he keeps working. He shouldn’t. There are so many people who are better than him.’ White people in theater have not been telling a diverse enough range of stories, they have not been standing up for people of color. We’re part of the problem. Racism built musical theater, and it is still everywhere. I am trying my best to help fight it.”
Creel experienced sexual harassment and inappropriateness “all the time, to the point where I saw it as how we behaved in theater. There was inappropriate groping, comments, nudity, relationships, and inappropriate physical contact all the time. This is also hard for me, because I worry sometimes that as we correct what was clearly wrong behavior we are also in danger of erasing a culture that allowed a large number of gay men to finally feel they were in a place where they could welcome, accept, and communicate their sexuality.
“I felt both weirdly seen, and also sexualized. It was a complicated feeling. I came of age in this environment, and felt free, and yet was also being harmed and didn’t realize it. I thought that was what the culture was, and I perpetuated a lot of that behavior. Now, the important thing is to communicate about all these things in whatever the appropriate spaces and channels are.”
As he makes clear in his show, Creel believes in speaking about and celebrating sex, and those who condemn queer people for talking about their sexuality are also those, says Creel, who would deny us equality and are presently engaged in a concerted campaign of denigration against trans people.
“I am telling you, the phone did not ring”
When it comes to fame, Creel says he once wanted people to know who he was, “and to have power and influence. Then I realized it was the snake eating its tail. No matter how big you get you want more.” Sure, he enjoyed the followers social media brings, or teaching a classroom of 20 people, “who look at me as if I had sunshine coming out of my butt.” But, Creel said, he can’t teach that class to be famous, but rather how to perform and build a hopefully healthy, long career. “I think I could be way more famous than I am but I don’t want to do that work,” Creel said. “That’s when I knew I didn’t want to be famous for fame’s sake.”
But surely everything went steeply upwards after he won the Tony for his role in Hello, Dolly—offers, approaches, general buzz?
“None of that happened,” said Creel. “I am telling you, the phone did not ring. I won the Tony Award, and I thought, ‘Something’s going to change for me.’ It didn’t, except for one very welcome thing—that I am now ‘Tony Award winner Gavin Creel,’ which I love. It means I never have to win another Tony award. I thought the same when I was nominated for my first Tony Award, and I knew I would always be ‘Tony Award nominee Gavin Creel.’ It’s the greatest compliment from the community, for which I am very grateful.”
But otherwise, it wasn’t a case of something happening after winning the Tony, but “something not happening,” said Creel. “Was it because I was 40 and not sexy?” (This is patently absurd, as Creel is very attractive.) Ben Platt won the same year (for Dear Evan Hansen), and to all intents and purposes everything happened for him, maybe because he was young and at the beginning of his career—and not 40 and winning in a revival of a musical. When I realized nothing was going to happen, I thought I had better just get on with the work.”
Today, as symbolized by his new show, Creel is relishing being more in charge of his own career and choices. He would like to be “on the other side of the table,” directing, writing, and producing. He would like to oversee a revival of Frank Loesser’s 1956 musical, The Most Happy Fella. “I don’t need to be on Broadway. I just want to make art. I have more than enough,” Creel said. “There’ll be a point where I need to work to pay the bills, and off-Broadway is not a cash cow, but with this show I am doing the most creative thing I have ever been part of in my life—and I hope it leads to more opportunity.
“That’s what I want. I want the show to go to Broadway, for it to have a beautiful run on Broadway where thousands of people see it, then tour it to the West End, then Australia and the world. I want to be able to serve others with it. If I never do film or TV again, I could live with that, but I’m not ready to never be on stage again. I love to be able to tell stories to make people laugh, cry, and think.”
Creel declined to say if he has a new partner now—a fleeting, happy smile when asked suggests perhaps the answer is “yes”—but, he said with smile still merrily in place, “I will say I’m in a place of healing that I honestly didn’t think I would get to. And that means everything, with the support, love and open hearts of my friends and family.”
Creel said he had been using dating apps. “I never thought I would do it, but I had a bit of sexual awakening. I’m proud that I’ve owned that I’m a slut and proud of it. I do not accept sexual shame. Anybody perpetuating it can come sit next to me and I’ll explain why you’ve got to be kinder to people who want to explore sexually, who want to find out who they are in that realm as long as they are being safe and not causing harm to anybody. Sex is a beautiful, explorative, energetic connection and thing. We should all be free to look at it.”
Creel had been terrified about using the app, until he realized he wasn’t using it to meet anybody, but to eliminate his fear of dating apps. “I have a really good time on Hinge,” he said, laughing. “Grindr I may not be the best friend of. It’s an exploration—going on dates, being open to meeting really amazing people all on their own different parts of sexual or romantic journeys. I am learning to be more communicative.”
“I have to look in the mirror and love what I see”
Three years away from turning 50, aging is clearly on Creel’s mind. He laughs that he is attracted to younger men, and “has to love whatever is happening” to his body and face (again, the humility seems genuine, but the truth is he is extremely, objectively good-looking!). In the past, Creel said, he has put too much pressure on partners to validate him, “and I have to validate me. I have to look in the mirror and love what I see. Yes, my skin is sagging, and will only not sag if I take a human growth hormone or commit to working out obsessively, which I don’t want to do. I’ve got to trust that someone will want me because they want the body I have because I want the body I have.
“When I turned 45 in the pandemic, I realized nobody gives a shit about a 45-year-old who doesn’t like their face or body. I slapped myself on the wrist. I have to look in the mirror and stop seeing a dumpy 25-year-old, and start seeing a hot 45-year-old. If you can see a hot 45-year-old, then guess who else will see a hot 45-year-old? Those younger guys who want to sleep with a hot 45-year-old! The only voice talking down to myself is my own. People tell me over and over again how handsome I am. When will I believe it? Physical beauty is awesome, but the question is: what else have you got?”
As Walk on Through suggests, Creel has found art, and the experience of immersing himself in the Met, to be healing and illuminating. “Museums have set me free,” Creel said. Music has a similar effect, particularly right now the “unabashed joy and prodigious talent” of Jacob Collier.
Indeed, music is central to a new theater piece Creel is crafting. In a show with the working title of Loud Night, a man throws a party every full moon with electronica and electronic dance music, from midnight to when the sun comes up. Its only purpose is to make people who feel invisible feel heard, seen, and set free.
The description sounds like the Creel of our conversation, and the Creel we see in this current show—finally letting go, letting rip. He says it isn’t hard emotionally to unearth all the autobiographical grit and pain night after night. At each performance he tries to be “as open as I can that day, and let the emotions come and don’t force any others. (Casting director) Bernie Telsey recently told him the show was ready enough that Creel could leave “the writer” at home, and let “the performer” play.
So, that’s what Creel is doing. He noted that he needs a minute to himself at the end of each show. “I look at my teammates, and worry for a minute if I have wasted their time. I ask myself, ‘Was that worth it for them? Are they bored doing it? Are they going to get sick of telling this story?’ That’s where I am at today. I accept that I am going to hear that judge in my head, and so I go, ‘It’s OK,’ and then just get up and do it again.”
Creel teared up, and smiled through suddenly watery eyes. “That makes me emotional to think about. It’s like, I’m right here.”