|Gavin Creel’s role in “Hair’’ helped motivate him to get involved in political causes. “It just woke me up,’’ says the actor and singer.|
Making an impact on and off the stage
Gavin Creel sings and talks about getting involved in gay rights
NEW YORK - When Gavin Creel was growing up in Findlay, Ohio, politics was a largely taboo topic around the dinner table. His parents raised him to believe that there were certain things you didn’t speak about in polite company. And up until a few years ago, he had never donated to a political campaign, called one of his elected representatives, or protested for a cause.
That all changed on election night, 2008. Creel says he was euphoric when Barack Obama was swept into the presidency, but devastated when news broke that California voters had passed Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
For Creel, 35, an openly gay Broadway actor best known for his Tony-nominated roles in “Hair’’ and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,’’ it was a moment that led to a personal transformation. Like many young gay men and women watching on TV that night, Creel was outraged but emboldened. With thousands of others, he gathered at City Hall in Manhattan a week later for a demonstration against the vote in California. There he met theater production coordinator Jenny Kanelos and future “The Book of Mormon’’ Tony nominee Rory O’Malley, and the trio soon cofounded the nonprofit group Broadway Impact, which works to support gay marriage legislation.
Creel, who will be singing Broadway favorites at the Art House in Provincetown tonight and tomorrow, was cast in the fall of 2008 as sensitive Vietnam War draftee Claude in the Broadway revival of “Hair.’’ The landmark musical about idealistic young ’60s hippies helped rouse the budding political activist inside of him.
“It just woke me up,’’ says Creel during a recent interview at a cafe near his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. “As the characters in ‘Hair,’ we were talking about rallying against a cause that you didn’t believe in, and fighting oppression and trying to be seen as free and equal onstage. Yet many of us were actually living that inequality and lack of freedom - right now! So if we’re going to get on stage and preach ‘Peace Now! Freedom Now!,’ wouldn’t it be cool if we actually tried to change something that affected our own lives?’’
Dressed casually in T-shirt, shorts, and blue-and-gray classic high-top Nikes, Creel is affable and earnest, loquacious and self-deprecating, occasionally rambling, and charmingly introspective.
“I was having this personal awakening,’’ he says. “So I was taking it as my duty as the character, and also me as an actor, to engage and awaken the audience for two hours. That was what changed my life. Like, wow, I actually can engage people, inspire people, awaken people - and in a musical?’’
Before “Hair’’ had started rehearsals, he came out as gay to a reporter (he had been out to friends and family, but not professionally). “I thought, you know, if this ends my career, I’ll do something else,’’ he says. “It was a very freeing experience.’’
After “Hair’’ opened on Broadway in March 2009, Creel organized fellow company members to participate in pro-gay marriage rallies and other events in New York City. He convinced the producers of “Hair’’ to cancel a Sunday performance in October 2009 so the whole cast could attend the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. Broadway Impact mobilized the Broadway community to participate, coordinating two dozen buses (sponsored by the likes of Sutton Foster and Audra McDonald) to transport not only the cast of “Hair’’ but 1,500 other performers and behind-the-scenes people to Washington, while organizing volunteers. At the rally on the Capitol lawn, the cast of “Hair’’ performed in front of thousands of demonstrators.
Pulling the lever in the voting booth, Creel says, should be just the first step in a person’s civic engagement. With Broadway Impact, he wants to provide people with concrete ways to take action. “You put these politicians in office, but then you’ve got to tell them what you want them to do,’’ he says. “And it’s intimidating to most people. I was intimidated by it. I mean, calling my senator or writing my senator? I’m like, what do I say? What do I do? But we’re showing people that the political process is actually less intimidating than we think. And we continue to teach people: That is how you have power.’’
Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Jenny Gersten, who was associate producer at the Public Theater when it transferred its Central Park production of “Hair’’ to Broadway, recalls Creel discussing his personal transformation and his yearning to be part of social change.
“I was so struck by that,’’ she says by phone. “He took the spirit and the energy of the characters in ‘Hair’ to heart. Somehow being cast in ‘Hair’ was an affirmation of a call to action that he was already feeling.’’
When the New York State Legislature passed its gay marriage bill in June, Creel was ecstatic.
“Our community had a small but significant part in making that happen,’’ he says. Next month, Broadway Impact is cosponsoring a celebrity-studded public reading at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City of “8,’’ a docudrama play written by “Milk’’ screenwriter Dustin Lance Black that uses court testimony to chronicle the federal suit challenging the legality of Proposition 8.
Last winter, Creel’s “Hair’’ director, Diane Paulus, cast the actor in the title role in Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Bound’’ at the American Repertory Theater. Creel says he was drawn to the Greek classic because of the hero’s fight against tyranny. In the play, Prometheus is punished for helping humanity, but unwavering in his defiance against Zeus.
Creel says he struggled at times with playing a deity whom he saw as having something of a martyr complex. But he deeply identified with the journey of the Daughters of the Ocean, who first mock Prometheus’s cause, then are inspired by his conscientious stand.
“Those scenes were about: Join me in this fight. There is right, and there is wrong. And wrong is when you are oppressing or harming other people. And right is when we are all free. And those words can be so powerful and moving coming from a man who is chained and bound and broken,’’ he says, adding with a laugh, “and who now has a permanent shoulder injury because of that show.’’
At the moment, Creel is hard at work on his third solo record, “Get Out,’’ which was created with co-writer and producer Ben Cullum and will be released next spring. He says it’s his most personal and introspective work so far and describes the sound as epic pop. But for his shows in Provincetown, Creel will be singing Broadway classics by the likes of Irving Berlin, Bernstein, and Sondheim, songs from his best-known roles, and some unexpected choices, accompanied by host Seth Rudetsky.
“It’s very low-key. I don’t like to hold too much formality in concerts,’’ he says. “It’s not that I don’t like seeing people who are really polished and put together. But I’m more excited by things that are a little bit breaking apart as you’re watching them.’’
Indeed, he says his freewheeling, semi-confessional banter between songs is something he’s become known for among fans. “A few years in, I thought, oh, I’ve got to stop talking so much. Then I did a concert, and someone was like, ‘What happened to you?’ ’’ he recalls with a grin. “ ‘That’s our favorite part - when you just go off the script and talk about why you’re singing the songs or what you’re thinking about today or what you read in the paper this morning.’ I like having that dialogue with the audience.’’
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.