Usually when Broadway stars make their way to Nashville, we find them onstage at TPAC as part of a national tour (like Broadway legend Betty Buckley coming April 30 - May 5 in Hello, Dolly!) or at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center performing a pops concert with our Nashville Symphony. On Saturday, April 6, however, one of the Great White Way's bright and shining stars lands at Nashville Children's Theatre (NCT).
Tony Award-winner Gavin Creel is set to provide a night of entertainment during NCT's Grand Night Gala. In addition to Creel's performance, the 21-and-older fundraiser benefiting NCT's scholarship program includes gourmet hors d’oeuvres, fine wines, a seated multi-course dinner, and live and silent auctions.
Creel is passionate about arts education, and in regard to getting him to Nashville, it doesn't hurt that he's buddies with NCT's Executive Artistic Director Ernie Nolan. They attended the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance together.
"Gavin is a passionate advocate for arts education and funding. I think he’ll blow the audience away with his singing, and he’s a heartfelt spokesman on the power of the arts,” says Nolan. “I am so thrilled that Gavin is going to share his glorious talents with us at Grand Night,” he adds.
A BRIEF LOOK AT CREEL’S CAREER
Creel took interest in acting as a child when he saw his sisters perform in elementary school. But it was the Findlay, Ohio, native’s sophomore year of high school when the stage became more significant.
“I did my first musical, Camelot. I had a tiny, tiny part, but I remember that’s when the theater bug bit me,” Creel reflects.
The 43-year-old actor remembers the devastation he felt once that high school production of Camelot came to an end.
"When we had to strike the set at the end of the show, it was devastating and so sad. I was thinking, 'What is this great sadness I feel?' That's when I realized I truly love this," Creel says.
At that time, Creel's newfound passion was taking root, but he didn't realize the potential of it becoming a career choice, until his junior year in high school, that is.
"I did Bye, Bye, Birdie, and so many people were telling me, 'You should be doing this for a living,' and I was like, 'Really???'" Creel says.
Thanks to the encouragement of those around him, including his "totally supportive" parents, Creel set his sights on the stage. Right out of college, in 1998, Creel landed a job on the North American tour of Fame playing Nick Piazza. Just four years after graduating from the University of Michigan, Creel found his dream coming true. In 2002, when Creel was 26, he originated a role on Broadway: Jimmy Smith in Thoroughly Modern Millie, starring opposite the amazing Sutton Foster. His performance earned him his first Tony nomination, and it freaked him out.
“It was terrifying! Having a dream gives my life purpose, and I still have other dreams now, but when so much of that came true so quickly, I was like, ‘Oh, crap! What do I do now?’” says Creel. "It sounds silly to say, but it was freaky at the time. I was terrified. I was still figuring out how to belong in New York City and be in this business," he reflects.
Since then, the multi-talented performer has appeared in a slew of shows. He was the original Jean-Michel in the 2004 revival of La Cage Aux Folles. He got a second Tony nomination for his role as Claude in the 2009 production of Hair. He originated the role of Sven Kodaly in She Loves Me (2011). In 2013, Creel picked up a Laurence Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony) for his role as Elder Price in the West End production of The Book of Mormon (a role he also played on Broadway from January 2015 - January 2016). His most recent stint on Broadway was this past January 2019, stepping into the shoes of Dr. Pomatter in Waitress alongside Sarah Bareilles.
Prior to that, though, was the role that earned Creel his first Tony Award ...
HELLO, DOLLY! ... HELLO, TONY!!!
Along comes 2017 — a year that would catapult Creel into a whole new arena on Broadway. He got cast as Cornelius Hackl in the sensational revival of Hello, Dolly! starring the "Divine Miss M" herself, Bette Midler, along with the mind-blowing talent of David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder. Creel performed in the entire run of the show (with the exception of a short stint off due to a back injury) — after Midler and Pierce left the show in the winter of 2018, the grand dame of American theater, Bernadette Peters, took on the role of everyone's favorite meddler with Victor Garber playing the miserly bachelor. The last six weeks of the Broadway run, Midler and Pierce came back to reprise their roles.
I was lucky enough to experience both the Midler/Pierce and Peters/Garber casts. I will never forget the powerful, show-stealing performance that Creel delivered. He made everyone in the Shubert Theatre sit up and take notice of his outstanding goose-bump, hair-raising, jaw-dropping performance. He has a voice that makes anyone with a pulse swoon, and his acting chops are superb. The Tony Award he got in 2017 for "Best Featured Actor in a Musical" was much deserved. Kudos, Mr. Creel.
“I can execute musical comedy pretty well, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at it, but it’s not without the help of [director] Jerry Zaks that I was any amount of success in that show,” says Creel of his Hello, Dolly! experience. He also gives props to his fellow co-stars Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy) and Taylor Trensch (Barnaby Tucker) for the impact they had on him. “I learned a lot about comedy and cleanliness, economy and just really understanding how to serve a story and get out what’s important,” he adds.
Creel reflects on fond memories of his Dolly experience.
"Frankly, to watch those legends ... to serve them and their story ... to truly watch one of the greatest human beings alive, David Hyde Pierce," Creel begins. "I marveled at him [Pierce] because he has a huge career and is a very famous man. He so graciously navigated the waters of the mega-mega international iconic superstar Bette Midler," he adds.
For Creel, it's all about the friendships that forge during the shared experience of a show.
"The backstage relationships are the most meaningful experiences," Creel says.
And no doubt, it's pretty cool to be friends with Bette Midler! The Divine Miss M gave Creel a few albums when she heard he was adding to his vinyl collection.
"I was listening to some records that Bette gave me, and I texted her to thank her again, and she wrote back three minutes later saying, 'I'm so happy that you're happy!'"
Three days later after that text exchange, Midler performed on the Academy Awards broadcast. Creel texted her, telling her how beautiful she looked and how she brought back a bit of authentic old-school class to the production. Midler shot back at him with a dose of her genuine sense of humor, "I was in that makeup chair for TWO HOURS!"
CREEL’S NCT APPEARANCE & THE IMPORTANCE OF ART EDUCATION FOR KIDS
While Creel says he knows what songs he’ll sing (expect Broadway and standards from the “Great American Songbook”), he aims to keep things in the moment, which may spontaneously result in audience participation via a Q&A.
"I like to see what the audience is like, because sometimes they just want music, and sometimes they're hungry for stories," Creel says. "I love to talk, and I have a tendency to get too excited and ask questions, and we get into a full-on interview in the show. I love keeping myself on my toes and the audience on its toes. I’m excited to celebrate theater education and what it does for young people and what it did for me. I’m excited to explore that with the crowd,” he adds.
For Creel, the impact of arts education on his life is all about the sense of community and belonging. In fact, he says he wouldn't have friends without the arts, and his imagination is how he met his base of friends. He applauds the fact that diversity and inclusion are becoming more and more the language in our country, and he loves the fact that the arts provide a place where everyone is welcome, regardless of ability, gender, religion or anything else — the arts provide a place where everyone belongs and is celebrated.
"It's less about why music is good for you ... it's about what music DOES and what it can do for you," Creel says. "The arts spark imagination and teach empathy. It's not about teaching a kid to sing a D scale; it's not about that specifically. It's about what it can do for your spirit and your sense of belonging," he adds.
HIS DREAM ROLE
Now that he's in his 40s, Creel aims to expand his creativity. His fans are sure to be giddy with the fact that he's creating something brand new.
"I'm writing something right now; that's my dream role!" Creel says with excitement. "I'm working on a piece that's semi-autobiographical. I'm creating a piece of theater that excites me, and hopefully will excite other people as well," he adds.
This creation is in its early days, although Creel says he's doing some workshops in New York. He also hints that something's coming next year that he'll be experimenting with in a new space, but he can't officially announce it just yet.
"I'm hoping in my 40s to be more of a creative force — certainly that if I'm performing, I'm collaborating on the stuff that I'm working on rather than just showing up and hitting marks," Creel says, adding that he's also interested in film and TV if the right project comes along.
CREEL SALUTES HIS ALMA MATER
With so many kids in Nashville pursuing dreams of the stage, Creel shares his thoughts on why they might consider his alma mater — the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance.
“It just keeps improving, and the talent level gets higher and higher and more competitive with more auditionees,” Creel says. “The reason Michigan is of value to me is that it’s conservatory-style training positioned in an internationally renowned university. There’s such an interconnectedness and somewhat annoying pride that comes with being a University of Michigan graduate. GO BLUE!” he adds.
ADVICE FOR YOUNG THESPIANS
While I was coming up with questions for Creel prior to our phone interview, I thought it would be fun to find out what a local kid would want to ask a Tony Award-winning Broadway star. So I went to my favorite pint-sized pal, Zazou Gray. She's the 9-year-old daughter of my good friends Shalene and Jason Gray. She's also fiercely talented. She's performed with the Nashville Opera, Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Nashville Children's Theatre and is a regular with The Theater Bug. She's been bitten by the acting bug and has her sights set on Broadway.
This is what Zazou asked me to ask Creel: "If you could go back and tell your 9-year-old self anything at this point, what would it be?"
Being enthusiastic of a child's pursuit in the arts, the first few words from Creel were, "Zazou, WOW! I LOVE THIS!" Then he had this to share:
"My 9-year-old self. That would put me in third grade. It feels like an impossible thing sometimes to live as a 9-year-old, and the ones who do are the ones who excel. I'd say be as weird and different as you can be regardless of what people say, and LOVE IT if they have a reaction. Don't do it on purpose, but don't be afraid of being strange if it brings you joy. If it doesn't bring you joy, then don't do it.
"I'm a firm believer that the weirdos are the ones who change the world. If you can embrace that now as a young person, you'll really be celebrated like, 'Oh, that's Zazou! She's already a real spark in the world!' or 'Here comes Zazou! She's the cool one — she's always doing weird stuff, and we love how weird she is!' Weird isn't a bad word anymore.
"Find the people who are quote-unquote 'weirder' than you and become best friends with them. Be kind to everyone, even the people who threaten you or make fun of you because you're different — because ultimately you disarm them that way. You can be exactly who you want to be, and no one gets to take that away from you," Creel says.
IF YOU GO TO THE NCT GALA:
NCT’S GRAND NIGHT GALA
WHEN: Saturday, April 6 at 6 p.m.
WHO: Ages 21 & older
WHERE: Nashville Children’s Theatre (25 Middleton St., Nashville)
TICKETS: $250 reserved; $375 VIP (includes private meet & greet with Gavin Creel)
INFO: 615-252-4675 | nashvillect.org