Broadway star Gavin Creel performs and develops his own show at the O’Neill in Waterford

Gavin Creel (Contributed)

Gavin Creel feels very much at home onstage, and he has developed a flourishing career there. Among the plaudits: The singer/actor won a Tony in 2017 for his performance alongside Bette Midler in the revival of “Hello, Dolly!” Before that, he was twice Tony-nominated, for his Broadway debut in 2002 in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and for the 2009 revival of “Hair.”

For someone so deeply rooted in the arts, though, he has never been a “museum person,” he says. That’s true to such an extent that, during his two decades living in New York City, he never went into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not once.

Until, that is, a friend of his who works for the museum’s MetLiveArts program asked Creel to participate in the project where performers — who have included actor Alan Cumming and singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash — dream up and perform pieces inspired by the Met’s collection.

Creel overcame his anxiousness about being in a museum — more on that later — and wrote a work that he presented in concert form at the Met last fall, to considerable acclaim. He is continuing to develop it during the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford. The show, “Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice,” was selected as one of the three musicals for this summer’s NMTC.

Creel, 46, was elated that “Walk on Through” was chosen by the O’Neill.

“It’s something I don’t quite believe happened to me. I have had a lucky, lucky career. But this is one of the biggest things that has ever happened to me in my career,” he says.

Creel is coming to the O’Neill in the midst of yet another run on Broadway, this one in the new, acclaimed revival of “Into the Woods.” He plays Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf, alongside fellow cast members who include Sara Bareilles, Brian d’Arcy James, Patina Miller, Phillipa Soo and Joshua Henry.

“I’m so pleased to be a part of (‘Into the Woods’) and proud to be with this group of people. It’s really a beautiful collection of unbelievable (talents). It feels like it’s ‘Ocean’s 11’ onstage, all these people I’ve dreamed of getting to work with, all in one show,” he says.

Creel left New York Sunday after doing Saturday performances of “Into the Woods” to drive to the O’Neill. He’s here for just shy of two weeks. After the last performance on Aug. 5 in Waterford, he’ll drive back that night to New York City because he has two shows the next day.

Of the 14 performances of “Into the Woods” that he’s missing, his understudy is doing four, and his pal, fellow actor Cheyenne Jackson (they both were in their first Broadway shows with “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), has agreed to come in to act in the other performances.

Concert, meet musical

Once Creel decided to do a MetLiveArts piece, he went to the Met and wandered through its halls.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the only story he could tell based on his experience at the Met is the story of a guy named Gavin Creel “who has never freakin’ been to the Met before and is being asked to make this piece,” he says.

Walking through the museum’s collections, taking notes on paintings he liked and why he liked them, he saw certain themes arise, with the four he kept returning to being color, light, sex and story.

“I would stop at something I really liked, and I always found at least one of these major components within each piece I fell for. It was really wild,” he says.

Probably 85% of the songs in “Walk on Through” are entirely new, he estimates. The other numbers are ones he had written before that worked perfectly within the context of what he wanted to say about himself and his time at the Met.

He calls the piece a “concercal,” a combination concert and musical.

“I’m hoping what you see will feel like a concert. You’ll see me onstage, I’m talking to you in the audience, I’m identifying this assignment in front of me and how terrified I am about not knowing what art, life, love needs from me. Over the course of the night, you will by the end, I hope, go, ‘I’ve just seen a musical.’ That’s my dream,” he says.

Being transported

“Walk on Through” was among 350 musicals submitted for consideration for this year’s National Music Theater Conference.

Alexander Gemignani, who is the conference’s artistic director, says, “The minute I heard the music (from ‘Walk on Through’), I was transported …

“I think when you have a career like Gavin’s, which as an actor has been very much in the spotlight and is generally lauded, incredibly and correctly so, for his work, it’s an exposing thing to try to put on another hat and expose a different part of your artistic soul.”

But hearing the effect the Met’s art had on Creel and how it changed him, it’s clear to an audience that this is a perfect marriage of songwriter and subject, Gemignani says.

“The result was this beautiful, exposed, vulnerable, really deeply human piece of writing,” he says.

Creel and Gemignani have known each other since both were students at the University of Michigan; Creel was a senior when Gemignani was a freshman.

That doesn’t mean there was a bias in choosing “Walk on Through” for the O’Neill. Gemignani isn’t the only one to consider pieces for the National Music Theater Conference. The O’Neill has multiple readers for submissions, and Gemignani says that the readers were very enthusiastic about “Walk on Through.”

“Everybody who touched it was like, this is off-the-charts beautiful,” he says.

Gemignani says the piece ultimately is “about what binds us as human beings. It’s about leaning into what we’re afraid of … It’s about facing down something that is unfamiliar to us and diving into it anyway.”

A pop-music dream

Creel has been writing music since he was 20.

“I’ve always dreamed of writing a theatrical piece, but I have a funny relationship with music theater where most of my career, I’ve wanted to quit. I’ve been dogged by fear, I’ve been dogged by, ‘Do I really enjoy this? What kind of musical do I like? What do I want to make?” he says.

He has done a lot of musical revivals, but the Ohio native grew up listening first and foremost to pop music.

“I was a top 40 kid, every week running home after church to listen to top 40 radio,” he says. “Most of my love of music is based in the pop idiom and contemporary popular music.

“I will tell you, I was determined to be a pop star and play stadiums. I was in my late 20s, and I met with a bunch of producers and companies when I was starting to write my own stuff. It was discouraging, to be honest, because (I was told) I was too gay, too old and too Broadway to be in pop music.”

It wasn’t until he was in “The Book of Mormon” — on tour and in London, where he earned an Olivier Award — when Creel, then age 36, recalls realizing, “You’re in a Broadway show which is the most popular thing in New York right now and you’re playing the lead guy. What more do you want? Like, slow down and concentrate on who you are and what you want to do.”

So he began leaning more into writing.

When he’s writing songs, he’s informed by music theater and its style and storytelling, but he says he also loves to find a sound and a story structure that plays on all the pop references that he adores.

Pandemic project

Creel began working on “Walk on Through” in 2019. And then came the pandemic. The pandemic was rough for Broadway actors, who saw career opportunities evaporate, along with health insurance. Having “Walk on Through” to focus on during that period was hugely important for Creel.

“The one thing I had was my imagination of what those (Met) halls looked like and the pieces of art I had taken pictures of and started notes on,” he says. “When I could emotionally get myself to do work — I just wanted to watch ‘Games of Thrones’ and cry — I just went to the piano and tried to write, and these songs continued to save me. This assignment was imperative.”

‘Museum person’?

Creel says he wants “Walk on Through” to tell “people like me who feel dumb in a museum and feel intimated by the world, really, that if you can find the power to walk on through and engage in a way that feels authentic and empowering to you, then life turns out not to be so terrifying.”

Even so, when he’s asked if he is a “museum person” now,” Creel responds, “I think I will always feel a tiny bit like a poseur. Because my attention span is very challenging, it always makes me nervous. I always get a little overwhelmed by going to a museum. But I will say I have new appreciation for what is required of a person like me in that space. And I’m proud that I know how to breeze through it.”

IF YOU GO

What: Staged reading of “Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice”

Who: Book, lyrics, and music by Gavin Creel; performed by Creel

When: 7 pm July 30; 8 pm Aug. 3; 7 pm 5

Where: National Music Theater Conference, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

Tickets: $30

Contact: theoneill.org, (860) 443-5378

IF YOU GO

What: Staged reading of “Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice”

Who: Book, lyrics, and music by Gavin Creel; performed by Creel

When: 7 pm July 30; 8 pm Aug. 3; 7 pm 5

Where: National Music Theater Conference, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

Tickets: $30

Contact: theoneill.org, (860) 443-5378

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