Experience Waitress and Sara Bareilles Through the Eyes of Gavin Creel
For a few weeks, two souls are meeting onstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and it's lightning in a bottle.
"She is a person who understands the world in a way that I hope I can catch a glimpse. She is this unicorn soul." There isn't time enough in the day for Gavin Creel to reach the end of his compliments for Sara Bareilles.
The two became close after being paired up at a benefit for Boston's A.R.T. in 2015. "I walked in and I was like, 'I know you,' " Gavin remembers, "and we've been texting and calling ever since." (Last week, they took a couple of days off to chill upstate with their significant others, and Sara treated the whole crew to a listen of her upcoming album — which Gavin calls "next level.")
Now, the pair's whirlwind friendship has culminated in a brief stint starring as lovers Jenna and Dr. Pomatter in Bareilles's Broadway hit Waitress — and their moments together onstage can best be characterized as lightning in a bottle. It's a feeling Tony winner Gavin says he only felt once before in his career: in his first Broadway show, playing opposite Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002. "But that was my first thing," he laughs, "and so I had no idea what a bottle was or what lightning was."
With Sutton, he recalls, it was pure magic: "We just knew how to take care of each other onstage in a way that I didn't think I would see again…" But he is seeing it again. "It's totally different, but I'm having it. And the reason I know is — I am gay as a three-dollar bill, but I am hot for Sutton Foster, and I am really hot for Sara Bareilles."
A Pretty Good "Bad Idea"
Though they were friends, Gavin and Sara had never interacted as actors. But their onstage chemistry was beyond what he'd hoped for. "It took about 40 seconds," he said, "and suddenly it's like, OK, I see, we're in. And what's great with this is we have such a love for each other, that work is done."
Now, he says, the trick is reminding themselves they can't be over-familiar onstage — at least at first. "Like in the park bench scene," says Gavin, referring to their second shared onstage moment and the first real moment of their budding romance. "I want to be considerate of her. I need to make sure that my body stays in my own plane. But by the end of it, it's like holy sh*t…now I can't unknow what I know about us."
Creel remembers watching Drew Gehling, who originated the role of Dr. Pomatter: "He slides off the bench and looks at her — she doesn't see him looking at her — and he's thinking, 'What the f*ck just happened?' And then a smile and you're out."
That moment is something Gavin believes everyone can relate to, and the feeling it embodies also happens to be the basis of his love for musical theater: "It's the best feeling ever! It's the first 20 minutes of kissing somebody you've never kissed before. It's seeing somebody that you have an instant crush on, and it's like there's no one else is in the room, and all you want to do is stare at them. No drug can capture it. And that's why I think musical theater is so incredible — because it dares, oftentimes terribly, to capture that — in art. When it gets it right, there's no form of art that does it better, because it is emotion, it is information, it is transcendent beauty."
From the quiet scene on the park bench, things heat up quickly for Jenna and Dr. Pomatter (and Sara and Gavin) — in the sexiest montage in musical theater: "Bad Idea," a series of encounters set in Dr. Pomatter's OBGYN office.
"When we do 'Bad Idea,' " says Gavin, "the sex cannot be silly. When we sing, 'Hold me close while I think this through,' I want to feel aroused. I want it to be real. Sara comes with that." And for Waitress's all-female creative team, Gavin explains, it was essential that every time there is an aggressive sexual moment, Jenna is the one inviting it. "She's the one," he says. "She pulls my butt into her. At the end of the song, she pulls me down to her."
"I wish you could see her eyes. She is not messing around. She goes, 'It's a pretty good bad idea…' and leans back and you're like, Whoaa!"
You Matter to Me
But the heart of Waitress, according to Creel, is about even more than passionate, empowering sex. For him, the show's soul lies in the lyric of his favorite song, "You Matter to Me": "It's literally you just want to matter to one, at least one other person."
In "You Matter to Me," Dr. Pomatter comes to see Jenna when he hasn't been asked, on her turf rather than at the clinic, and as Gavin says, he's breaking their unspoken rules. "I'm on a knife edge. Now it's like, 'Can I touch you?' It's discovering her for the first time."
Compared with the intensity of "Bad Idea," what happens in "You Matter to Me" feels more like genuine closeness. "Before that, we're having sex, and we're doing the thing that everybody thinks is what making love is. But it's not love — it's infatuation, it's heat, it's pain, it's need. This is real intimacy. That's sexy."
"The audience is barely breathing at some points," he says. "They're thinking, 'I want to matter to somebody,' and I hope everybody f*cking thinks that. That song — that scene, is something I will carry with me for the rest of my career."
In the story of Jenna and Dr. Pomatter, the tender moment of "You Matter to Me" is just as much the beginning of a goodbye as it is a discovery. "We sort of hit each other at this perfect intersection," says Gavin of the characters. "We are each other's agent for change."
When they say goodbye for the final time, after Jenna has just given birth, Gavin imagines that Dr. Pomatter goes home, sits down at his kitchen table, and waits for his wife to get home to say, "We have to talk." "I love that," says Gavin. "Before you, my life was one thing. After you, my life has been blown apart in every possible way. Sara says that about Waitress. I feel the same way about Sara."
Getting emotional at the thought of the end of his short run in Waitress, Gavin says, "The sad thing is this was just this great moment. Having to stop and not do it again, I don't know what that's going to be like." And he doesn't think he could ever return to the show. "If she comes back I would," he explains, "but I can't do [it] with anyone else. I could never do it with another Jenna. It's just magic."
But Gavin insists you haven't seen the end of the Creel/Bareilles collaboration. "I'm going to handcuff her to my piano," he laughs. "We're gonna make something new together, and I have an idea of what I want it to be about."
"I know from my own experience how this is pure electric lightning in a bottle. So when I say goodbye to her onstage, I'm hoping it's just an ellipsis…"