An American Actor in London
Gavin Creel, who's currently starring as Bert in the West End production of Mary Poppins, tells what it's like to work on that side of the pond.
Now, his fan base has expanded even further: He is in the ninth month of his run as Bert in the London production of Mary Poppins, having replaced Brit actor Gavin Lee, who crossed the pond in the other direction to star in the Broadway transfer. I recently spoke with Creel in his capacious dressing room at the Prince Edward Theatre on Old Compton Street.
THEATERMANIA: You come from a small city in Ohio, and you studied musical theater at the University of Michigan. Your career really took off when you moved to New York. How did you end up in Marry Poppins in London?
GAVIN CREEL: I auditioned for the Broadway production. They wanted to see if they had an American option for Bert, and they liked me, but they wanted to bring Gavin Lee over because he's so authentic. Gavin is Bert.
TM Do you have a deal to take over the role on Broadway when he leaves?
GC: There's nothing official. I'm totally interested, but talk to me in another seven months; I'll probably need a break first. I've extended my contract here till November. That's a long time to be away from home.
TM: Did you have to join British Equity?
GC: I don't know. I think I did! All of that was taken care of for me before I came; I had to get a work visa and a work permit. I'm still a member of American Equity, and I'm here as part of the exchange program. Everybody thinks that I'm an exchange for Gavin, but I'm not. He's married to an American, so he can work on Broadway whenever he wants. I'm actually an exchange for Lisa O'Hare, who's now playing Mary Poppins here; she's going to the States this summer to play Eliza in the tour of My Fair Lady that Trevor Nunn and Matthew Bourne are doing.
TM: Was it a challenge for you to develop a convincing Cockney accent for Bert? Dick Van Dyke's accent in the movie has come in for a lot of criticism.
GC: I know! Over here, they call it "Mockney." Being an American, I was definitely under the microscope. People were waiting to see how I would do with the dialect, so I worked really hard at it. I knew I wanted to play Bert as soon as I heard about the show. It's rare that a part like this comes along, where you're sort of the leading man but you're also the character guy and the narrator -- and you get to dance a lot.
TM: How did you prepare?
GC: Long before they even scheduled the auditions in New York, I went to the Drama Book Shop, bought a Cockney accent CD, and listened to it over and over on my iPod. During my callbacks, the dialogue coach for the premiere company worked with me a lot. Then, when I came here, I had another coach.
TM: I'm sure it's helped just to be around Brits all the time.
GC: Of course. It's all about immersion. There are people in our cast who are more East London than others, so I listen to them. Steve Kerwin is full-on Cockney, and Jamie Farr; she's just as Cockney as can be.
TM: There's an actress in your company named Jamie Farr?
GC: Yes. She doesn't understand why that's funny -- and she doesn't look at all like Klinger from M*A*S*H.
TM: So, have you gotten positive feedback about the accent?
GC: Yes. Our production stage manager's father is a director; he saw the show last week, and he said he never would have guessed that I'm American. Children have come up to me after the show and said [clipped Brit accent:] "You're very good." They're the hardest audience, because they're so honest. If you're not good, they'll just look at you funny. Also, when I do collection speeches after curtain calls, the audience seems very surprised to hear the way I really speak.
TM: I have to ask about the scene where you tap dance across the proscenium. That has drawn so much attention, both in London and New York.
GC: It's more a balancing act than anything else. The harness pulls me up and the board moves with me. I put on the harness and then I have, like, 80 people check it, because I could completely die if anything goes wrong. The hardest thing is that I have to dance with all of the rigging on for the whole number. It weighs about 20 pounds, and it digs into my hips. It hurts!
TM: Has the proscenium dance gotten less terrifying over time?
GC: I was never really scared about doing it; they told me that the wires can lift a house, and the harness can hold two tons. I was more concerned that I wouldn't do it well. It took me forever to get it, but then Gavin [Lee] came in and helped me, and I got it like that.
TM: What have you found to be the major differences between doing theater on Broadway and in London?
GC: To me, the biggest difference is that audiences here are much more reserved. Also, the set-up of the crew is different; stage managers function differently in the States than they do here.
TM: Any other differences?
GC: Musical theater is essentially an American art form, even though the British mega-musical took over for about 20 years or so. When you go see a Broadway show, there's a certain energy, a buzz, that isn't present here. Maybe because the theaters in New York are packed so close together, there also seems to be more of a sense of community; here, it's more spread out. And in New York, every time I had a day off, I could go see people doing concerts or benefits. In London, they rarely do anything like that.
GC: Right. They have membership pubs, but it's not the same thing. The tubes shut down at 12:30, and the taxis are ridiculously expensive. Everything is expensive here! But I have a beautiful flat in Covent Garden, and this great dressing room. I don't know that I'll ever have a dressing room like this again; there's so much less space in New York. London is an amazing city, and it's so easy to travel around Europe from here. I went to Paris on one of my days off. This summer, we're going to have Mondays and Tuesday off; I want to go to Ireland, Scotland, Amsterdam, Wales. I want to go somewhere every single weekend!
TM: How's your music career?
GC: It's great. They're selling my CD in the lobby, and at Dress Circle. You can also get it on iTunes. Rob Roth and I are still writing partners. When we first started working together, I wanted to make a pop record and he wanted to write a musical. We did the record first, but now we're working on a theatrical piece. It's in the early stages; we're writing songs and figuring out the story, but I know I want the show to be new and funky and sexy.
TM: Do you plan to keep working in musical theater and pop simultaneously?
GC: Yes. I focused on music for awhile and met with a lot of people in that industry, but it's a totally different world. I also went out to L.A. for pilot season, but nothing happened for me there; I felt like a piece of meat, and nobody seemed to give a shit about what I could do or who I was. Each time I've come back to musical theater, I've realized what a good thing I have. I love doing it, I love the community, and I love how loyal the fans are. There's nothing else like it.