Mary Poppins has been a sell-out success since it opened in London two years ago, bringing the characters of PL Travers to life on stage. Nearly as famous as the eponymous super-nanny herself is the story’s friendly neighbourhood chimney sweep Bert. Ohio-born Gavin Creel talks to Caroline Bishop about what it’s like to come to the UK, join the Poppins family and follow in the footsteps of his Laurence Olivier Award-nominated predecessor, and a certain Dick Van Dyke…
“I tell you – baked beans for breakfast; when I first got here I was like, what?!” says Gavin Creel. “But what did I have for breakfast this morning? Beans and eggs – I’m obsessed with the beans!” After two months in London the American actor is obviously assimilating well into British culture.
Of course, developing a taste for baked beans is not the overriding reason for Creel’s stay in the capital. He arrived in the UK from New York on 14 June to start rehearsals for his West End debut in the role of cheeky chimney sweep Bert in the Laurence Olivier Award-winning musical Mary Poppins. He has taken over from his namesake, Gavin Lee, who in turn has hopped across the Atlantic to introduce Bert to Broadway. The experience so far has been “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” says Creel. No, he doesn’t really, he actually says: “It’s a bit crazy. It’s a lot to learn in a very short amount of time, but it’s going well.”
It’s a week before his first performance in the show and he’s sitting on the floor of the foyer of the Prince Edward in shorts and a T-shirt, having just finished rehearsals for the day. Tall, with a wide smile, big hair and an athletic physique, Creel doesn’t look much like a cockney chimney sweep, and with his Ohio accent he doesn’t sound much like one either. To ensure the transformation from Gavin to Bert is successful, Creel has been giving it his all – in a slight exaggeration he has, he says, sweated most of his body weight away rehearsing in 30-degree temperatures.
Joining such a monster hit show, and following an actor who was Laurence Olivier Award-nominated for the role must be hard, but Creel is not daunted. “I’m not watching it. I actually work at it during the day and then I go home and try to forget. Because then I can like, lay in bed and let it soak in. Gavin [Lee] is amazing and if I watch the performance I’ll end up copying it, or steal the good bits. It’s daunting enough to have to tap on the ceiling and learn a new language, basically, and dance my brains out. That’s the daunting part.”
He is receiving voice coaching to get the accent right, but won’t entertain the thought of comparing his newly acquired British intonation to that of the famous celluloid Bert, Dick Van Dyke, a name that takes on Voldemort proportions in Creel’s presence. “A lot of people say ‘Oh, are you going to do D-?’; I say ‘don’t even say his name,’” says Creel in all seriousness. “It’s hard, it’s like learning a new language. I think as I do the show, months in, I’m still going to be evolving. When you turn on the radio, the TV, you walk down the street, the sounds are everywhere, so it’s starting to permeate.”
"I find in the States generally people just stand up at the end. Even if the show isn’t good"
Getting the part in Mary Poppins happened very suddenly for Creel. He auditioned for the new Broadway production of the show, but the producers then decided they wanted to bring Lee over to play the role in the US, and asked Creel to join the London production in his place. It seems it was good timing for the Broadway actor, who “wasn’t really comfortable in New York anymore,” and had already tried to escape the city by moving to Los Angeles for four months. That decision didn’t turn out quite as he wanted it, but this one “feels way better,” he says. “I have something to do here, I have a job and I’m really excited to be a part of the show and I wanted to play this part so I’m really glad it worked out.” If the Broadway production is as successful as this one and other Mary Poppins productions spring up around the world, Creel hopes he’ll still be involved when his contract in the London show comes to an end next May, saying: “I hope to be a part of the Poppins family for a long time.”
Though it’s his West End debut, 30-year-old Creel is a seasoned musical theatre performer who has racked up many credits in major US shows since graduating from drama school. Thinking about it, he’s amazed that his parents let him “major” in musical theatre at the University of Michigan. “I think it was the fact that all these professional institutions all accepted me and that sort of proved to them ‘well, he must be good’. And they’re supportive. They probably just said ‘follow your dream’. It sounds cheesy but it’s so true.” Since graduating in 1998 he has performed in the US in Fame, Hair, Bat Boy, the premiere of Sondheim’s new play Bounce and The Mystery Plays, not forgetting two big Broadway shows – as Jean-Michel in the stage version of the hit French comedy film La Cage Aux Folles in 2004, and Jimmy in Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which he picked up a 2002 Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. His hometown of Findlay, Ohio, is very proud of its son’s success – according to Creel’s website, 29 April 2006 was named Official Gavin Creel Day by the town’s mayor.
Now the boy from Findlay, Ohio, has made it to London, England, but it’s not for the first time – as part of his degree 10 years ago he studied for four months at the Holborn Centre for Performing Arts. However, this is to be his first experience of West End audiences. When we speak he hasn’t yet stood in front of one, but expects British theatregoers to be “a bit more reserved”. He emails once he’s started in the show, to say he’s “having a blast” and that audiences “are very generous”. However, “You don’t just get a standing ovation,” he feels. “In New York, standing ovations don’t mean anything; I find in the States generally people just stand up at the end. Even if the show isn’t good, people stand up.” He gives the example of a production of Fame, which he toured with around the US in 1998-2000. “In Fame, God bless, it’s not brain surgery, it’s not the greatest show. The audience’s response throughout the show would be disastrous, and then they stand up at the end, and I don’t think it’s because they like it. If you get a standing ovation here they really mean it.”
He also says there’s a distinct difference between British and American humour, which he feels may account for the mediocre reviews that Broadway transfer Avenue Q received from the critics – Creel was in the first night audience and felt many critics missed the point. “One review that I read was blatantly anti-American,” he says, “and I thought, ‘I don’t think you’re speaking for everybody here’.”
Creel has not suffered any anti-American feeling being over here, rather, he thinks if anything the two peoples now have something in common: “Our idiot President and Tony Blair in bed together – there’s a common language, a common disdain amongst our people in a weird way. I think the rest of the world hates our country.” He’s quick to point out that he was one of the 59 million Americans who voted against Bush in the last election.
"I love being able to stand in front of an audience and be completely honest, bare my soul"
Whether it’s politics, the theatre, or life in London, Creel is very easy to chat to, especially when you get him started on his other passion, music. When he’s not treading the boards in a major musical Creel writes songs, and has just released his first solo album, GoodTimeNation. His eyes light up when I mention it. Co-written with Robbie Roth, Creel’s debut album is “feel-good pop; it’s not meant to be healing the world yet… but we didn’t want to make a record that’s 13 tracks that all sound the same. I wanted to take people on a journey, and I’m really proud of it.” He credits influences like the Scissor Sisters, early Elton John and James Taylor in its eclectic mix of sounds.
I love writing; I love to be able to say something and sing it and mean what I say,” he continues, eager to stay on the subject. “Being an actor is a total challenge, but it’s someone else’s thoughts that you have to get into and make it look like it’s your own thoughts, whereas it’s coming from me always when I write. So I love being able to stand in front of an audience and be completely honest, bare my soul and watch them go ‘I get it, I know that’.”
Songwriting is evidently not just a sideline, however, he’s as yet unsigned to a record label, and has no plans to give up his theatre career for the solo spotlight just yet – he enjoys life on stage too much. “Every show I do, at the end of it I say ‘okay I’m quitting now’, but then I get that hunger and it won’t stop until the hunger goes away,” he says. Anyway, he feels he can combine his two passions to mutual advantage, making people aware of his music by raising his profile in the theatre. He’s “working the two together” successfully at the moment – his album is on sale in the foyer of the Prince Edward during shows.
"I’ve always been the kid who wants to do a million things. I think it’s a great quality to have but it can also exhaust you"
He also feels this way he will have more control over the music he wants to write, rather than signing to a label that won’t let him do what he wants. “I’m old enough to know I don’t just want to be somebody’s puppet,” he says. “I want to keep my music close enough to me to still say what I want to say. I’m a dork on stage, I like to dance, clown, tell stories, but I want to maintain that.” He’s now working with Roth on his second and third albums back to back, one of which will be a musical theatre concept album.
He’s intending to do some gigs over here, as well as writing the next albums, all the while fitting in eight shows a week in Mary Poppins. In his blog on his website Creel says he finds it hard to slow down – that certainly seems clear. He says he’s a perfectionist: “I’m always pissed [pissed off], I’m always like, I can do better. The creative team is like, relax, stop beating up on yourself. And the minute you do stop beating up on yourself you have a really good day of rehearsals, and it’s so much more fun when you just take it easy.
“My sister is a psychologist and she thinks I have a bit of selective ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder],” he laughs. “I’ve always been the kid who wants to do a million things. I think it’s a great quality to have but it can also exhaust you. I’m realising now, stop and smell the roses, you know. I’m promising myself this year, especially in this experience, I want to enjoy it.”