Gavin Creel Admits He’s Sad. Here’s Why Writing a Musical Kind of Helped

This post was originally published on Playbill - Features

Written by: Talaura Harms

Around the Playbill edit table, we’ve referred to Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice as “The Gavin Creelsical.” Partly because we think we’re cute, but also, tying an artist to a show is a shorthand way to keep all the titles straight in a busy season. However, that jokey little moniker may have been more apt than intended. In Walk on Through, written and performed by Gavin Creel, the song-and-dance man is opening up, giving audiences a peek inside his own existential crisis. What began as a first-time stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at its art turned into a hard look at himself. And he’s chronicled the journey in his musical, now playing Off-Broadway at MCC Theater through January 7, 2024.

The Met is America’s largest art museum. Of the over three million people that visit every year, Creel, despite living in New York City for 20 years, had never been one of them. But he was commissioned by the museum to visit, take in its collections, and see what happens. In an early lyric from an intro song (which was later cut), he explains:

“They sent me my new membership card
And I thought, ‘Okay, this is real.’
They said, ‘Observe the art, create a piece, and don’t think too hard.’
And I thought, ‘Have you met Gavin Creel?’”

If you have met Gavin Creel (or have at least seen him on stage), you probably recognize an energetic performer who oozes charm and charisma in equal parts, sweeping leading ladies and audiences off their feet every time he walks the Broadway boards. He’s a Tony and Olivier winner, and prior to Walk on Through, was last seen on stage in the 2022 hit Broadway revival of Into the Woods as The Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince.

But here in his own Off-Broadway musical event, he’s composer and writer, as well as performer. The words he’s saying are his own. The performance is still a powerhouse—with Creel jumping from one platform to another, from behind the keys to atop his piano. But there are moments of pathos and meditation. A look inside his busy, noisy brain, and at the spaces between his thoughts where there is stillness.

“The only thing I could think of doing after studying and looking and walking through, was to tell the truth: that I don’t know what I’m doing here, and I don’t really feel like I belong in this place,” Creel says of his first few trips to The Met. But he kept going. They’d given him a membership after all.

As he began writing, the show began to reveal itself. An early dummy lyric (a scansion placeholder, meant to be replaced with a “real” lyric) in the title song ended up clicking the show into place for the writer. “Where am I in this place? Who am I meant to be in this world, in this space? Can I find me?” the lyric read.

Says Creel: “I read that lyric and I had an epiphany: That’s the thesis. If I can find myself in this building, in this mid-life moment, this sadness…”

Yes. Gavin Creel was sad. Walk on Through became as much about walking through that sadness as it was about walking through the Met. A journey through the museum is a journey through his life, how he got to where he is now, and what is keeping him from moving forward.

In one song, he recognizes his midwestern home in John Steuart Curry’s painting “Wisconsin Landscape.” He sees his noisy brain reflected in “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Jackson Pollack. He sees himself as both performer and as composer in the background in Henry Lerolle’s “The Organ Rehearsal.” He falls in love looking into the eyes of “Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin” by Illia Repin. He revels in his physical attractions to Greek and Roman statues (in the infectious, wiggly pop song “Hands on You”). And he puts off several conversations with the museum’s many Jesus Christ paintings, about the shame imposed upon him as a young churchgoer because of those attractions. (All of the art referenced is projected on stage with permission from the Met.)

Gavin Creel and Ryan Vasquez in Walk On Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice Joan Marcus

Creel is aware that some people do not understand his melancholy. They might even think that a person of his fortune shouldn’t be indulged with any pity or compassion. And for many years, he’s masked what’s really going on inside. “I have this successful career. I have this name, people within our 10-block radius think that I have it figured out. I’ve won an award. I must have it all together,” he intimates. “And I perform a life. I don’t want anyone to worry about me, so I’m quite positive. And it’s toxic. I’m not allowed to be unhappy in my lucky, lucky life.”

He even judged himself for wanting to write the show at all. But then he thought, “If you just keep silencing yourself with judgement and shame, you’re never going to find where you really want to be.’”

Walk on Through is not a solo show. Though many of the songs are first person, direct address from Creel to the audience, there are some songs shared on stage with (in this iteration) Ryan Vasquez. That second performer duets with Creel, sometimes as an artist (like Pollack or Repin), other times as the person who’s the source of Creel’s heartbreak. The grief of that fractured relationship, and the loneliness it’s left behind, is a through-line in the musical.

In addition to Vasquez, Creel shares the stage with his band, who he interacts with throughout the show, singing to and with them, moving among them. As Walk on Through’s orchestrators, they were integral in creating the sound of the show. It is a bit ironic to discuss how five people (Creel, with Madeline Benson, Chris Peters, Corey Rawls, and Scott Wasserman) decide what “lonely” sounds like. But, in Creel’s estimation, the idea that we are all alone is actually the one thing that connects us all universally.

Recounting a discussion with a former therapist, he explains: “The one thing that binds us all together is the one that separates us all. Even a twin pops out alone before the other twin. Even if we are both in a car that careens off a cliff, one of us is going to hit first and go out first. If you can accept that you are alone in this world, then you can accept that you are not.” Creel points to the tattoo on his wrist, the word “both,” inked in simple lowercase typeface. He goes on, “Both things can be true at the same time.”

Gavin Creel and Ryan Vasquez in Walk On Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice Joan Marcus

So, then the question for Creel becomes, “Did it work?” Has he been able to walk through and come out on the other side of his sadness? And did he find himself along the way?

At the end of the show, Vasquez re-enters, this time as a fellow art gawker standing next to Gavin taking in Edward Hopper’s “From Williamsburg Bridge.” With the truss of the bridge in the foreground of the painting, as if the viewer is standing on it, one peers at an apartment building across the way. A woman in white sits in a window. But the two characters studying the painting in the play see wildly different things. Vasquez describes a lonely woman in a gray city. By contrast, Gavin’s woman is full of hope.

Vasquez’s museumgoer is embarrassed that he doesn’t “get it.” “And my proudest line is the next line,” says Creel. “I go, ‘No, not at all.’ That is what art should do. It should invite anybody wherever they’re at. It shouldn’t scold you for not knowing or not understanding.”

Before departing, Vasquez introduces himself. “Oh, I’m Gavin,” he says. “Me, too,” Creel answers.

There’s our answer. Creel does indeed find himself along the way.

It harkens back to his wrist tattoo. “Those are both sides of me. There’s the me that only sees dark and shadows; then there’s the me who’s like, ‘There’s so much possibility and hope.’”

And as for coming out the other side? “You have to keep walking. Keep going,” says Creel. “All I can do is walk on through. I don’t have to figure it out. I don’t have to know anything. I don’t have to be an expert. But I do have to keep going. And I think I’ll find other people who are trying to do the same.”

Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice runs through January 7, 2024 at MCC’s Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater. For ticketing, click here

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