The pandemic forced many people to confront the truths and lies they’ve been living, and Gavin Creel was no exception. The Tony-winning Broadway star, most recently seen in Into the Woods, found himself questioning the art form in which he’s spent the bulk of his life, and he’s processing his thoughts by making art about being inspired by art. All it took was a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, where he’d never been, and it helped him figure out a way to make sense of our crazy universe.
The result is Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice, now being presented off-Broadway by MCC Theater. Creel wrote 17 original songs inspired by his trips to the Met, which he performs alongside singers like Sasha Allen and Ryan Vasquez. Here, he gives us a little history about the piece’s development.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Did this show come from your being allergic to museums?
Well, certainly my overcoming the allergy is what brought me to it. I have been wanting to write something my whole career. I wanted to contribute something to the canon. I didn’t know how or what or if I even knew how to do it. I’ve been spit balling ideas for like 20 years.
My friend works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he told me about the MetLiveArts series, which I obviously never heard of because I had never been to the Met. Basically, if they respond to your energy and think you’d be a good fit for the program, they give you a membership card and say “Go.” You come up with an idea, it can feature one piece of art, an artist, the architecture, literally anything in the museum that inspires you to want to make a piece, and they produce it for a one-night concert at the Met.
In the beginning, I thought I would just present what I’ve been working on for a while, like, for 50 percent of songs that I’d already written, I’d find art to match and explain why, and then I would do 50 percent about art that I responded to. That path really scared me, and now I would say that 90 percent of the music is the latter.
But literally, the show is about Gavin Creel going into the Met and being like “What the fuck am I doing here?” I’m allergic to museums. I feel like a fraud. I don’t feel smart enough, cultured enough, city enough, educated enough. When I’m in them, it feels like it’s for smarties who know stuff and have patience and attention spans. And yet, museums are for everybody.
If I go to a museum, I’m not one to read the text panels or even stop for a while. I look and move on unless it’s something I’m really interested in. I have to it my way, and not the sort of prescribed way.
It’s the only way. You have to respond to what you respond to. If it’s like “I only like purple paintings” then go find them. I respond to Egypt. I don’t respond to the European section. The biggest response I had was probably the modern contemporary section. I was really inspired by people’s imaginations. I have this thing, imagination interpretation inspiration. You dream this thing up and then you try to interpret it, and then because of that, you’re inspired. That’s kind of the math.
I also had four things I was always looking for, and they’re not novel by any means: color, light, sex, and story. That’s colorful. I want to walk towards that colored light. The use of light in a painting or light on the arm of a sculpture, or the windows and the light in paintings fascinates me. I love sex, and I found a lot of works that are extremely arousing and sexual. I sort of made my own metric and rules.
One day, I went and out my airpods on and blasted EDM and everything came alive in a new way. That was the day I discovered how much love was in the building. Everything I was looking at felt like love.
Was that the turning point of the show?
When they asked me what I thought I wanted to do, I said “The only thing I can write about is this guy named Gavin Creel, who’s having a bit of a midlife moment and appears to have his shit together but is having a tough time in his life and doesn’t know how to talk about it with anybody.” And the Met building becomes an allegory for the world. If I can figure out where I belong in this place, I can get to know myself a little better outside of this place. And that’s what the show is about.
Did creating the show help you through that crisis?
It’s helping me through the crisis that I’m at now, where I’m a week out from the show and I’m like “Fuck, are people going to like this? Are people gonna get it?” I have such anxiety. I’m learning so much about these things that I thought just cracked out of the magma of the earth, but were literally just Sondheim and Bernstein sitting around a piano going “Should it be this?” It’s all just somebody trying to figure out what it is. Even in rehearsals last week, people are like “Do you want to say which order this should be in?” And I was like “I don’t know, I just made that up.”
My show is hopefully a hybrid…It’s autobiographical, but I still want it to live and breathe like a musical. I want it to have build and climax and a resolution that an audience member will find as a release. What’s hard, is that since it’s about me and by me and starring me, if there are moments where something’s not working, I’m like “Is my life just not that interesting?” It’s painful and beautiful and hilarious to me, but it’s confronting to be like “This part isn’t worth dramatizing.”
But to answer your question, I had a really hard time during the writing of it, during my life during the pandemic, losing everything that I thought gave me my identity. And I said, I’m gonna write this piece to try to heal and let go and find a way forward, and I think I’m on that path. I’m finally owning it, and it’s terrifying to put it on stage, and yet, this is the theater that I want to make, if I’m lucky enough to get to create more.