Creel the night he finally won his Tony Photo by Little Fang for Vanity Fair

Broadway star Gavin Creel recently completed a month-long run with his buddy Sara Bareilles in her musical Waitress.  I met Gavin before the show one night to talk about his Broadway career, his art being in service to Trump supporters who come to his shows, his own activism, and the new musical he’s writing for himself.

KEVIN SESSUMS:  I saw Waitress last week.  It was the show at which you did the karaoke thing with the audience afterward.  I didn’t stay for that though.  I did read a snarky comment on Twitter from a guy named River Hassett who posted a short video of you dancing during the karaoke post-show and commented, “Why do you look like a dad who has never been to a concert before?”

GAVIN CREEL:  That’s not the meanest thing I’ve ever heard.  That karaoke thing was really special.  I had a great time that night.  There were these three young kids who came up and were so terrified.  They got their names called.  One of them was in the wings crying and didn’t want to come out.  And another one was shaking so I just put my arms around him.  It was awesome.  It was really cool.  By the end of it the audience was on their feet screaming for them.  So I will gladly be that dad at the concert.

KS: When I first saw Waitress after it opened I was so-so about it.  But you and Sara are quite special in it.  And I’ve grown to love the two songs You Matter to Me and She Used to be Mine.  This afternoon just released your “wild, wild, wild berry pie” version of She Used to Mine.  I just posted it on Facebook before I came here.  I’ll link to it in the interview – here

GC:  Thank you.  I’m really not good at social media.  My manager is helping me come out of my shell about that, in fact.  He told me I had to join Instagram so that was my first story – an earlier version, just a minute of it.  A few chord colorings.  I got a call after I did that telling me they wanted me to come in and do the whole thing. (Here is Gavin’s Instagram link.) 

KS:  And there is that moment when you give one word in a lyric this knowing little inflection, which I appreciated because as much as I love the song and I understand, of course, why the word and the metaphor has to be used, it still sticks out because it is so different than the song which surrounds it,  It’s when you say ….

GC:  … pie.

KS:  Yes. 

GC: Sara has even said that is her most self-conscious moment of writing in the musical.  She had to make peace with it herself.  She has always said that, “I’m so self-conscious about the word ‘pie’ in my fucking song.”   But if you’ve never seen the show and you hear that song that one word and its metaphor tells you that this is from a musical and not a pop song – because you would never do that in a pop song.

KS:  The first time I went to Hello, Dolly! you were out sick in previews and I saw your understudy Christian Dante White who was wonderful. He’s not playing Freddy in My Fair Lady which I saw last night.  Laura (Benanti, who plays Liza Dolittle) was in She Love Me with you.  Everything connects.  My favorite moment in that show with your understudy though was when Bette Midler  took her bow then turned and brought Christian forward and gave him the last star bow of the evening. 

GC:  Bette did that every time an understudy went on.

KS:  I saw you in it when I went back to see Bernadette Peters in the title role.  You were wonderful – a performance, well, worthy of a Tony.

GC:  I”m still not over that.   I’ll honestly never get over winning the Tony.

KS:  You’re now 42.  Not only own your age, but own how good you are.  You’ve grown into this career.  Own deserving that Tony.  You’ve put in the time.

GC:  That’s what it was for.  I was proud of my work but for me it is the ultimate hat tip from the community.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I was the best.  There’s not justice to those stupid awards. 

KS:  When Glenn Close wins the Academy Award we’ll call it her Gavin Creel Oscar.

GC:  I was so moved though.  Don’t get me wrong.  I said that once I got my first nomination that I would never have to get another one because I’d always be a Tony nominee.   I’ve lost much more than I’ve won.  But  now I never have to win another one because I will now always be a Tony winner. I was also humbled yet  also very proud that it happened. Plus, I really wanted to make that speech on TV.  I really wanted to win to make that speech.   It was neat.  (An excerpt of Gavin’s speech here.)

KS:  I read an interview with you right after Trump was elected and you said that you had gotten too old to get out in front of the activist community and you would just start to follow.  Do you still feel that way two years in?  You did such great work for marriage equality when you co-founded  Broadway Impact, a grassroots organization of the theatre community aimed at educating and inspiring the public to join that fight for marriage equality.

GC:  I did go inward.  I don’t recognize America right now.  So far, to do anything would deplete what I have left in me.  I will not watch any video of Trump.  I will not listen to him.  If he ever speaks on NPR – I always listen to NPR – I turn NPR off.  I refuse to acknowledge that he is the president.  I will read the news and I will listen to NPR when he’s not talking.  But that’s as much as I can do right now.  And I’m donating to candidates that I hope will win. 

KS:  It’s interesting for you being a Broadway star in that much of your audience is made of tourists and many of those tourists are Trump supporters I’d guess.  So you are in service to them and bringing joy into their lives. 

GC:  Oh, yeah.  My aunt and uncle are two of them.  My parents are registered Republicans in Ohio but they did not vote for Trump and have voted Democrat for the the last 20 something years.  They’ve got two gay kids out of three children so it makes sense.  I have two older sisters and one of my sisters is gay.

KS:  I have a sister who’s a lesbian.  It’s genetic.

GC:  For sure.  For sure.  I have some gay cousins as well.  I’m so proud of my parents in their progression.  I came out to them right before I did my first Broadway show, Thoroughly Modern Millie.  Because I had been pushing them away weirdly.   But with people who are Trump supporters or are crazy zealots or are Republicans or Born Agains or whatever, I do sort of go: they are not that first.  They are human beings first.  There has to be a way that we put down all the labels and see each other’s humanity.  We’re all on this fucking rock together.  And yet, it’s not going to happen with that man is in the Oval Office taking zero responsibility. 

KS:  But I do think we have to be careful giving  Trump’s cultists a pass for if we do give them a pass then we are giving him one –  and by normalizing them we are normalizing and rationalizing him.   Saying we have to understand them and empathize with them misses one important thing:  they never have this discussion about understanding and empathizing with us.  They weaponize our empathy against us.

GC:  That’s the problem.  But his supporters didn’t just think, oh, wouldn’t it be funny to support this guy in some unserious way.  They were led to vote for him because they were angry and pissed and disenfranchised.  They found something in him that spoke to their being sooooooo mad.

KS:  But we must never forget he rose to political prominence on the racist trope of birtherism.  They might be angry, but the reason they seem to forgive him his lies and criminality is that he gives their bigotry and darkest impulses agency.

GC. The fucking Tea Party is The Racist Party.  Yeah.  But, bigotry aside, all of us have dark impulses.  That is what makes me have compassion for those people.   I want to throttle them.  But I’m 42 years old.  If I don’t start exercising compassion now, when will I?  I start to police myself anytime I feel judgement.  I go: stop, have you done that?  Have you felt that?  And why do you think they are like this?  That takes objectivity.  That takes compassion.  And that takes patience.  That is what Michelle Obama was saying when she was telling us that when they go low, we go high.  The problem with that – I admit – is, okay, I go high but then they take a machete and hack my knee up and now I’m hacked down to their level and I was trying to be the better person. 

Creel teaching Marco Ramos at the Performing Arts Project. Photo by Hooman Bahrani.

KS:  This afternoon I was talking with Gideon Glick and he was talking about trying to practice radical honesty.  I think you’re talking in a way about radical compassion.  But sometimes we just have to focus on the radical part. 

GC:  Yes.  You still get to get your anger out.  But you get to scream back and go: No, I will not turn away from you.  I will not concede to you, but I will see that you were led to be here. But you have to exercise that back to me.  A lot of what we get into with this us vs. them scenario is that we will then be told, “Well, I’m sorry, my Bible says X,Y, and Z,” to which I go: that’s like trying to argue with a child or to rationalize with a child.

KS:  I also spoke to Emily Mann for this iteration of sessusmMagazine.  She thinks of herself as a citizen artist.  Do you think of yourself as a citizen artist?

GC:  Yes.  My best friend Celia Keenan-Bolger and I are very proudly staring a scholarship at the University of Michigan together.  It is the Celia Keenan-Bolger and Gavin Creel Activist Artist Scholarship.  We call ourselves “artivists.”  Celia has such a better grasp on all of this than I do because she is just so tuned in and so smart and always reading and studying and finding ways to fix things.  I’m a little more my parents’ kid in that we don’t trumpet it, but we try to be of service.  My parents are the most generous people.  They are unbelievable. 

KS:  Do you think of your art as an act of service?

GC:  Yes.  I try to.  Even a thing as simple as doing these concerts in the coming year which will give me an opportunity to do my civic duty to tell them the truth about my being a gay man.  I’m in Indianapolis, Indiana, next month doing a couple of concerts.  (Link here.)  That’s a really red spot.  I’m going to tell them truth.  I’m not talking about talking about my private life.  I don’t talk about my private life in the press.  It freaks me out when people start asking me, “How’s your boyfriend.?”  And, “How’s your dog?”  I did it for a while but I didn’t like the way it felt. 

KS:  Which goes to prove my point I’m always making about saying you’re gay or asking someone if they are gay is not a question about one’s private life.

GC:  But I am going to tell you the truth though my art.  I am going to tell you the truth through Rogers and Hart and Jeanine Tesori or Rufus Wainwright or this new song I’m obsessed with right now by Jason Isbell and the 400 called If We were Vampires.  (Link here for Isbell performing the song.)  It’s a stunning song.  Go listen to it. 

KS:  Jason Isbell is a citizen artist.  He’s an “artivist.”

GC:  Yes.  Big.  Big.   I want to do a concert in the south.  I want to get booed off the stage. 

KS:  And yet Armistead Maupin the other day put up a photo on his Facebook page of him with a group of high school kids from Bloomington Indiana, who were on a trip to San Francisco to study gay history.  He ran into them when he was going to breakfast in the Castro.  His Tales of the City was part of their curriculum.

GC:  I don’t know Armistead but he tweeted me the other day that I shouldn’t shop at the Salvation Army when I posted a photo of a table that I wanted to buy there for only $40.  He told me to shop instead at Goodwill because the Salvation Army is  homophobic.   I then read up on it.  Good to know. They call it the pink pound over in London.  Maybe it’s called queer bucks here.  But we can make our voices known by the way  we spend our money. 

Creel teaching college student Eli Miller. Photo by Hooman Bahrani i

KS:  Do you miss London?  You’ve spent so much time there performing on the West End.  You’re a stage star there too.  You won a Laurence Olivier Award for The Book of Mormon there before you won your Tony here for Hello, Dolly!.

GC:  Yeah.  I did Mary Poppins for 19 months.  Then Hair for six months.  And Book of Mormon for 19 months.  I even studied there for four months in college when I first got a taste of it.  I love it there but by the end of Mormon I was ready to come home. 

KS:  Do you ever feel homesick for London?

GC:  When I see British movies.   I do have my haunts in London.

KS:  Since you’re out as gay, do you get offered lots of gay parts – although you’ve played lots of straight roles, too.

GC:  It’s lots of fun to play straight in Waitress. But I’m never going to be the matinee idol.

KS:  What are you talking about?  You’re very “matinee idol.”  You’re very sexy.

GC: Why thank you. 

KS: Own it.

GC:  But it’s not where I’m powerful.  I know where my power lies.

KS:  In Hair you were a matinee idol.

GC:  Who was strangely bisexual.  I found an in to that.  Look, if I never play a straight character again, so be it.  Because that’s to say there’s only one gay character someone can play.  But in TV it’s not often I don’t get called for “the gay character.”  The thing I try to teach when I teach young people is all we care about is truth as human beings.  We want authenticity.   But I dream of doing the sexy stuff I do with Sara in Waitress with a guy onstage because that too, is honest and it’s real.  I dream of getting to do The Inheritance: The Musical.  I want to sing in shows.  I like musicals.   I like singing. 

KS:  You have really carved out a musical career – there’s not a lot of straight plays in your resume.

GC:  I love musicals.  I love singing.  I also think musical theatre gets a shitty rep.  And I also think that musical theatre when it’s done correctly transcends all the art forms because its palatable to the masses.  Buut it’s also the hardest thing to get done right because there are so many collaborators. It’s not often when the Bob Fosse’s of the world who are director/choreographers  – the control freaks or whatever  – can give us one constant focused vision of one world. 

Creel in The Book of Mormon.

KS:  Do you want to direct?

GC:  Honestly, I’d rather be a professor and direct in that realm because  in the commercial theatre directing just becomes babysitting a lot of egos and managing a lot of people’s opinions and having to deal with producers and creative teams.   It seems you’re just trying to keep the ship floating, whereas when I’m teaching it’s more like, “Okay, everyone. We’re going to try this and you’re all going to try it because you’re taking my class.”  I know that sounds controlling. But  or me I love teaching because I actually don’t know what I’m doing but with the students I am willing to give it a go.   I did a six-week course called “The Process Project” back at my alma mater the University of Michigan in which we experimented in living only in the process with no promise of a product, no promise of a presentation.   It was hard.  A lot of the students were saying, “Then why are we doing this?”   And I told them, “That’s the question that I’m asking:  can we actually go deeper and deeper and deeper and mine stuff and then when the class is over go, ‘Bye!’”  Ninety percent of it was successful and ten percent was not. 

But to get back to the musical theatre question.  I think there is a bit of shame behind it. 

KS:  Shame that you feel about it or a shaming of you that comes from the outside?

GC:  From the outside. I  studied in the 90s – from 1994 to 1998 – and there was a real stigma about. Musical theatre was the bastard child of acting, singing, and dancing.  You’re not a classical ballet dancer.  You’re not a classical straight actor. And you’re not really a singer.  Now the tone has changed a bit because it’s so successful. 

Creel talking with Zachary Quinto at Rick MIramontez’s Tony party at the Carlyle Hotel. Photo by Little Fang.

KS:  Are you satisfied having a musical theatre career on Broadway?

GC.:  Yes.  The Book of Mormon was when it happened.  I did it a year and a half in London and the National Tour and then a year on Broadway. But it was opening night of the National Tour in LA and I went:  okay,  I’m on a National Tour.  It was all about my ego.  At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it.   I wanted to originate roles.  I wanted to be in NY.  I didn’t want to replace Andrew Rannells. He’s a pal of mine.  I can’t do what he did.  He’s a comedy genius.   But this is a really good job.  I need the money.  I’ll go do it. And what I found were all creative discoveries.  It was comedy and timing and exercising storytelling and leading a company – and i loved it.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But when I was in LA, I’ll never forget it. I was taking a piss in my dressing room at the Pantages and I realized this is everything I ever wanted.   I  am being paid more than I’ve ever been paid.  I’m the lead in a show that is brand new that everyone wants to see. The only thing that it is not is that I am not in the original Broadway company.  So I thought: Am I going to let this moment pass me by because I don’t have that one piece.  And I thought: Fuck no.  I am going to put my dick back in my pants and I am going to seize this moment.

KS:  That’s the pull quote.

GC:  My mother’s going to hate it.  But yeah.  Stop dicking around.  Stop waiting for something better to come along. This is as good as it’s going to get.   I have to savor this moment.  I have to stop trying to hop out of the lane of musical theatre. 

Creel performing at Joe’s Pub.

KS:  Do you want to write a musical? 

GC:  I am working on a musical right now called Loud Nite which is about a 42-year-old guy in a relationship with a 22-yer-old guy.  I am writing the music and lyrics.   I call it a “concical.”  It’s a musical, a concert, a song cycle.  It explores story.  I don’t know quite what it is yet really.  I don’t have a signed contract yet with the place I hope to debut so I can’t talk about that aspect.   I did some of it at Joe’s Pub with my band.   I want it to be something where people come and feel changed. I’ll be in it.  The character will be named Gavin.  It will be about my life with some fictionalized stuff to heighten it.  I don’t know if there will be a through line.  There will choral singing. I want to play with the form of musical theatre a little to see if I can create something that excites me that doesn’t necessarily  follow the rules of musical theatre and yet you’ll feel like you saw a musical. I’m in my 40’s now and I can’t be that guy who turns 50 and still has all these ideas.   I was talking to director Diane Paulis after I debuted in Waitress, which she directed.  She was complimenting me on what I was doing and told me to keep exploring.  I told her, “I want to explore something new with you, let’s make something new.”   And I told her we don’t have to be good.   My theme this year is I want to be bad before I’m going to be good – and not be afraid of being bad.  I want to make stuff.   It’s time to stop talking about it. It’s time to make it.

There is a scene in Loud Nite in which the two guys sit in from of a Pollock painting the Modern.  The song is called Scattered.  They are staring at the same painting and each is asking the other what he is seeing sitting from where he is sitting.   It’s all about looking at chaos and feeling peaceful because someone else was  feeling what I feel.   I want it to be a way for  those two people to see each other by looking at the painting. 

KS: I think all artists create their art by putting the chaos they feel that sparks their art into a framing device.   Art gives them the boundary of the frame in which they can organize their existence as artists.  There is a heightened sort of trust that occurs when art is being made because of the safety of the boundaries of art.  Ironically, with those boundaries there is utter freedom.  People who don’t experience the boundless freedom within the boundaries of art never experience the kind of trust one mines in that territory where art exists. Art is organized chaos.

GC:   Yea.  It’s terrifying and it’s magic.

KS:  It’s mystical.  You’re lucky to exist within it. And we are lucky that you are lucky.  Thank you for the joy you have brought us through your artistry, Gavin.   Thank  you for organizing our chaos by organizing yours. 

CG:  I really appreciate that.  Thank you for saying that. 


  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

  • Show Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *