Creel's success story sounds like a scenario: Director Michael Mayer spots him in the workshop for a rock musical version of Spring Awakening ("one of the most exciting things I've been a part of") and, even though Creel's hair is "bleached blond and almost to my shoulders," Mayer thinks the actor might be right for the dapper, Flapper-era chap who woos and wins Millie in Millie. "Michael said, 'I want you to come in and audition, but it's not rock--it's a little different!' I had my first audition in February 2001 and was cast on April 3. We were supposed to open last fall, but Annie Get Your Gun wasn't going to leave the Marquis. Then, right after our show was postponed for five months, Annie closed. We were scheduled to start rehearsals on September 10. Then, for a while there [following the World Trade Center attacks], I didn't know if I was going to have a job. Everything came into full perspective. For the first time in my life, besides being some stupid, selfish actor, I was like--I understand."
Fast-forward to the musical's fourth preview: Saturday matinee, March 23, 2002. During one of his few dances in the show, "The Nutty Cracker Suite," Creel's coming out of a circle near the end of the number. "I was doing this move where we hop on one leg, then the other. When I hopped on my right leg for the first time, the knee gave way. I knew immediately that it was bad. I turned to Sutton [Foster, who plays Millie] and said, 'I just blew my knee out!'" In typical show-must-go-on fashion, Creel finished the act, "but in the strangest way imaginable. I was speaking to the spotlight operators the other day and one of them said, 'We saw you down there and thought: He's screwing up big time--changing his blocking, doing whatever he wants.' My right leg was dragging behind me. I turned into James Brown, walking with my left leg, dragging the right one--smiling and trying to make believe nothing was wrong." Creel's understudy (Brandon Sean Wardell) went on for Act Two, while Creel went to the hospital. Believe it or not, David Eggers--the show's dance captain--broke his wrist in three places during that evening's performance. "He'll be back, hopefully, in a couple of more weeks," says Creel. "I'm hoping he's able to do a cameo for the opening."
Out of the show for two weeks, Creel returned on Monday, April 8--but Sutton Foster was ill and that performance was cancelled. "They had a put-in rehearsal for me and Sutton's understudy," Creel relates. "That gave me a chance to get on my feet. Tuesday was tentative with the dancing; but as far as the singing and acting went, it was like being home again." So, how many 'break a leg' jokes has Creel heard lately? "Oh, my God, so many! And everybody that says 'break a leg' thinks I'm hearing it for the first time. I keep telling them, 'Oh, that's a good one.'"
Prior to being cast as Jimmy, Creel watched the film version of Millie. "I knew the show was coming and that there might be a part for me," he says. "I was a little bored by the movie, but when I saw the part of Jimmy [played by James Fox], I said, 'I could do that.' Our production has the essence of the movie but it's much tighter." Based on the 1967 film, which starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing (who received an Oscar nomination), and Beatrice Lillie, the stage musical retains a few songs from the feature but mostly consists of new songs with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Dick Scanlan.
It was during his high school years in Findlay, Ohio that Creel decided to pursue an acting career. "I auditioned at four different colleges," he says. "When I got into the University of Michigan, my parents said, 'Okay, maybe you do have talent.' I'm pretty independent. When I tell them I want to do something--like grow my hair out or dye it blue--they go, 'Oh, you're crazy, but we love you.' They've been unbelievably supportive; Millie is like the best present I could give them." (I wonder aloud if Jimmy Smith's hair will be blue. "No, I wish!" Creel replies. "But I am getting it dyed a little blonder than it is.")
While attending college, Creel spent a semester in London "doing some Shakespeare." In 1998, following graduation, he came to New York and almost immediately was cast as Nick Piazza in a touring company of Fame. "I got to see parts of the country I'd never seen and was making more money than I'd ever made," he says of that experience. "I did that for about a year. It takes a toll." He was next cast in the American premiere of the London musical Honk! at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, directed by Julia McKenzie. "The tech rehearsal for Brits is so different," observes Creel. "They have little glasses of wine and walk around saying, 'Lovely, darling, lovely.' We did that show in February and March of 2000. Then the people from Fame called and asked if I'd come back; the guy who replaced me was leaving and they were going to Hawaii for two weeks. I said, 'I think I can handle that!'"
Other than Millie, Creel's résumé lists only two New York stage credits: he was one of the tribe in the Encores! production of Hair and, in Bat Boy, "I filled in for a month for Doug Storm when he injured his wrist." He's also done "a bunch of workshops," including Mask, Curtains, Hairspray, and Wicked. Creel is most enthusiastic about Spring Awakening, which he says will at some point be produced by the Roundabout. ("I did two workshops of it, but unfortunately I think I'm too old for it now," he says. "It's about 14- and 15-year olds; the girl I played opposite was actually 14.") Oh, and Creel is also "a rookie member" of the Broadway Inspirational Voices Choir.
How does he feel about opening on Broadway just as the awards season is beginning? "I don't think about it," he says, then adds: "Of course, once in awhile in the shower, I may think, 'What if there's a terrific review in the Times? What if, what if?' I'm so honored to be part of this. Everyone's worked so hard. We put in seven changes last night and we're trying to freeze the show tomorrow [five nights before the premiere]. It's a risky property; there's no big name in the cast. But if you like musical comedy, I don't see how you can't enjoy this. It's so fun! It's got heart and great music and some of the most talented actors I've ever worked with, so I have a good feeling about it." (By the way: Thoroughly Modern Millie will be recorded by RCA Victor on April 22 and the CD will be in stores on June 11.)
Busy as he is, Creel is also writing some songs for a solo album. "For the past two years," he says, "I've been collaborating with a friend of mine, Dave Cook, who was a jazz major at Michigan [University]. My lyrics are a little poetic, silly, and fun; his music is funky and jazzy. We call the style 'Art R&B' or 'White Boy Soul.' I'm hoping to play a lounge in the summer, just to do my music. I play piano and trumpet but, if I do something in a club, I'll probably just sing. I have so many passions. I'm just going to keep trying to go forward and see where they take me."