"All of a sudden I got this whole new insight," Paulus recalls. "Claude is really kind of a lost soul. He's pretending to be this British boy from Manchester."
Actually, according to Paulus, Claude's an ordinary kid from Queens, trying to understand "Who am I?" — an uncertain, confused young man caught in the turbulent, late '60s political, social, sexual and racial revolutions that are celebrated in this iconic musical.
"When Gavin read the final scene ... and says, `All I want to be is invisible. I want to perform miracles,' it broke my heart," Paulus says. "I understood: Here is a young man (who's) ... not going to make it."
Creel never discussed his audition with Paulus but now says of that fateful day: "I just tried to be as honest as I could. I sang `Where Do I Go?' and `I Got Life' from the show. ... I think it was the energy that I brought into the room that hopefully captivated them in a way (that made Paulus think) `That's the guy for the job.'"
"Hair" has been a satisfying conclusion to a topsy-turvy year for Creel. It began last summer when a planned Broadway revival of "Godspell" was postponed six days before rehearsals were scheduled to begin. The actor was to have starred as Jesus in the flower-power musical.
"I thought, `Am I going to wait around for nine months and see what's going to happen? What am I doing with my life,'" Creel says. "Then I got a call in November. They were going to be re-auditioning for Claude in 'Hair' and I was like: `Yes, please get me into that audition.' And here I am."
"Hair," which won the Tony for best musical revival, has been especially sweet for the 33-year-old Creel. Besides nabbing a Tony nomination, Creel has gained a new visibility since the show opened in March at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Two sold-out July gigs at Joe's Pub, the popular club space at the Public Theater. Renewed interest in his first solo CD, "GoodTimeNation," released in 2006, and now a second in progress, tentatively titled "Quiet."
The actor's first connection with the Vietnam War era musical came years ago at the public library back in his hometown of Findlay in northwest Ohio. The first three CDs he checked out were "Assassins," the Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls" and "Hair."
"I played the other two but I pretty much listened to `Hair' nonstop and thought: `What is this? It doesn't even sound like a musical. How can this be a musical?'"
Now he understands its popularity, particularly after a performance when he's often greeted at the stage door by three generations of theatergoers. Grandparents, parents and children — each having connected in their own way to the musical.
"They all have been affected by the time and by the story," Creel says. "I feel the message is universal. It's about being part of a society's about coming together as a people and standing up for what you believe.
"I don't often get the chance as an actor to stand up and actually have something (to say) that's topical — and it feels topical now," he adds. "We're in two wars. We're dealing with this crumbling economy. We have this new leader. We're not sure where we're going. I really believe that when you come to the Al Hirschfeld ... you see a time and go 'Wow. Things were kind of rough then and we got through it. And we're going to get through this.'"
Creel came by his theatricality naturally.
"I am a showoff, the third of three kids," he recalls. "I have two older sisters who were phenomenal sportsmen. They both were ridiculously (good) basketball players and I couldn't dribble or shoot to save my life. But I could scream and dance around the house. And people would say, 'You're pretty good.'"
Creel majored in musical theater at the University of Michigan and then came to New York in 1998: "My spirit was on fire, ready to go."
Instead, he went out on the road for a yearlong national tour of "Fame, the Musical," which was followed by regional theater productions of other shows.
"I did a ton of readings, too," says Creel of those first baby steps for shows before serious production begins. Among them: "Spring Awakening," "Hairspray," "Wicked," and "The Little Mermaid."
It was through readings of "Spring Awakening" that Creel met director Michael Mayer, who told him, "Gavin, I have this new show that is coming to New York and we can looking for the lead guy. But it's not rock 'n' roll."
The musical? "Thoroughly Modern Millie," based on the Julie Andrews movie about a 1920s flapper and Creel was cast as the romantic lead opposite the title character, played by Sutton Foster.
"I was really proud to be in that show," Creel says. "I will never forget. I got the script to 'Millie' and I'm flipping through the script and saying, 'Boy, I have some lines ... I have a big song.' I was 25 years old and had never been on Broadway before. I got to the end of the script and I was really nervous and excited. I realized I had a lot to do. It was baptism by fire."
And a challenge he handled well, nabbing his first Tony nomination.
"Millie" in 2002 led the following year to "Bounce," the problematic Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical (directed by Harold Prince) that never got past Chicago and Washington — although a revised version with a new name, "Road Show" — and a new cast eventually made its way to New York late last year.
"It was a troubled show because they were still working kinks out," Creel says. "But I know Stephen Sondheim now and I know Hal Prince and I am still in awe of the fact that I ... worked with these people and I hope to work with them again. It was incredible."
A revival of "La Cage aux Folles" followed as did a stint in London, taking over the role of Bert, the chimney sweep, in the West End production of "Mary Poppins."
"It was the best year and a half of my life," Creel says. "I saw the world. I become less obsessed with being on Broadway, being in New York and taking the next step. It was like 'Slow down. Go to Italy. Go to Paris. See the world. Meet people. Explore and become."
And he's found time for some political activism, too, sparked by the passage of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California. The openly gay Creel says, "It just kind of woke me up. I went, `Wait a second. What world am I living in where ... two gay people can't have the exact same rights and protections as two straight people?'"
He's now involved with Broadway Impact, organizing the theater community to get behind the push for gay marriage, particularly in New York state.
Creel's coming out was recent.
"My parents, my sisters and people who are closest to me ... they all knew." the actor says. "They all love me and I said, `Well, so who cares about the rest of the world?' If there is somebody who isn't going to hire me or isn't going to talk to me because of that, then I've got enough people to talk to me.
"It's not frightening anymore because it's not a big deal. Is this going to prevent me from doing something? My life is my life and I'll live it ... and if something doesn't happen because of that, then it's not supposed to be."
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