Last fall, Gavin Creel found himself back at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, teaching a course called The Process Project. "I forced students to live in the process," Creel says in his dressing room at the Shubert Theatre, where he plays Cornelius in Hello, Dolly! "It's an icky space: I'd tell students, 'Forget about what your hands are doing, forget about hitting the high note. Let's just talk about what you're doing in this moment and just play.'"
A few months later, Creel found himself struggling to "practice what I'm preaching" when Dolly rehearsals began. "I was hating my life," he remembers. "I couldn't figure it out." So, he put his faith in the hands of his director, Jerry Zaks, who first directed him in the role of Jean-Michel in La Cage aux Folles in 2004. "He drives the car," says Creel. "and you want a director who says, 'I'm driving, get in, and if we go into the ditch, I drove us there.' He'll never embarrass you. He'll tell you what to do and wink at you when it works."
Creel became the student once again, allowing himself the freedom to make mistakes and play around with Zaks at the helm. His delightfully comic performance, and boffo rendition of the classic "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," netted him 2017 Tony and Drama Desk nominations, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Hello, Dolly! is Creel's sixth Broadway show in 15 years, and it marks his third Tony nod (he received two others for Thoroughly Modern Millie, his 2002 debut, and Hair, in 2009). "The best way I can describe it," he notes, "is as a beautiful hat-tip from the community." It's also a marker in his own mind that he's made the right moves after all, despite feeling like he has "a tumultuous relationship with what I do for a living."
Growing up in Findlay, Ohio, "I looked at Us Weekly and said, 'I want to be famous,'" he says. It only took four years for him to land on Broadway after getting his B.F.A. from the University of Michigan in 1998. As Jimmy in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Creel watched the way Sutton Foster, the leading lady in her breakout role, set the tone for the entire company with her generosity. "Sutton started bringing bagels for the cast and crew on Saturdays. It became something people counted on. I thought, someday if I'm ever the leader of a company I want to do something like that."
In 2006, Creel found himself on the West End, as Bert in Mary Poppins, and he got to make good on his promise to himself. "I was new to the company, and I had to make them like me. I bought Krispy Kremes and said, 'Every Saturday, I'll have donuts for you, but you have to come to my dressing room. I want to see people.' The crew came. The cast came. It became something people counted on."
As Creel's star rose higher, he continues making those kind of connections with his fellow cast members. He received his second Tony nomination for his Claude in Hair, where he instituted Saturday evening, pre-curtain dance parties. A few years later, he won an Olivier for originating the role of Elder Price in the London mounting of The Book of Mormon, and later played the role on Broadway. In 2016, he costarred as the dashing dastard Stephen Kodaly in She Loves Me, opposite Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, and Jane Krakowski.
It was She Loves Me that helped shape the way Creel has looked at the future of his career, and it's all because the various awards committees didn't recognize his performance. "I was really proud of what I did in that show," he notes, "but it was a little…" He leaves us to infer the word he leaves out. "It's really hard to go into a creative process and not think 'I might or might not get nominated for a Tony.' And in a way, She Loves Me last year, being brutally honest, was a great way for me to celebrate the show, celebrate my peers who are recognized, and still get up there every day and do good work. That's the best thing about being a theater actor."
Then, Dolly called. Well, actually, Dolly called in January 2016, during the second week of rehearsals for She Loves Me. But Creel had to keep it a secret until September. And it was worth it. "This is the most 'Broadway' experience I've ever been a part of," Creel says with glee. "The sets and costumes are so big. And it's an amazing cast, with two legends leading the company."
Bette Midler, who takes on the title role, was one of his idols growing up. He still doesn't actually believe he shares the stage with her. "Andrew Rannells, when he saw the invited dress, said, 'I love the show, you were amazing, but there were moments when I was watching you, and I said, 'My friend is touching Bette Midler!' And I go, 'I know! I'm having those moments onstage.'" He — and the rest of the company — went just as bananas as the audience does on a nightly basis when they see Midler perform the title number for the first time. "We all just lost our minds," he says with a smile.
Midler, he says, is the consummate professional, and leads by example. "She's so human," Creel says. "She's not grand in that way. She's like, 'I just gotta do the work,' always." But he's just as complimentary of other costars. Creel calls his scene partner Kate Baldwin "effortless, with the most amazing mix ever." Beanie Feldstein, who makes her Broadway debut as Minnie Fay? "She's a pro." And Taylor Trensch, the Barnaby to his Cornelius, "Godsend of godsends."
They're a tight-knit company, made even tighter by Creel's methods of connection-making. Not only does he continue the Saturday night dance parties he started at Hair, but he also commandeered four shelves outside his dressing room, bought jars from the Container Store, and created a free candy shop. He's happy to refill them whenever they get low, but now the cast and crew have taken to doing it, as well.
At 41, Creel realizes that it's not about fame anymore, it's about doing work that he's proud of. "I want to be respected by my peers and do really great work, even if it gets panned, even if I get raked across the coals. I want to know that I'm proud of what I'm doing." (He does have dream roles, happily letting it slip that he'd love to play Harold Hill in a Broadway revival of The Music Man that's as high-quality as Dolly is.)
At this point, there's a knock on his dressing room door. It's Jerry Zaks, the man who helped him realize that he does have it in him to do better than he ever has. Creel apologizes to Zaks that he doesn't have much time to chat. "Don't worry about it," Zaks says calmly, before giving Creel a big hug. "I just wanted to come by and say, 'I love you'…And…isn't it neat?"
For Creel, it definitely is.
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