When Gavin Creel signed on to play The Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince in “Into the Woods” last May, he expected it to be a short stint. The revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s classic musical was booked for a two-week engagement at New York’s City Center.
But after receiving ecstatic reviews and selling out its run, the show moved quickly to Broadway, where it played six additional months. It’s now embarked on a national tour, which arrives at the Miller Theater (formerly the Merriam) on April 4.
Creel still seemed to be processing the experience when I spoke with him on the phone from Boston. A Tony winner for his performance in “Hello, Dolly!,” the actor assumed that his touring days were behind him. But when the offer came through to take the show on the road, he happily accepted, along with many of his Broadway castmates.
“It wasn’t something I thought I’d do, honestly,” Creel said. “I have my home and my friends in New York City. I’m of a certain age now, and I like my creature comforts. But when I really thought about it, I realized that the pandemic changed my view of employment in the theater. I may have been a bit obnoxious or taken it for granted before, and now having been without in such a major way, I am able to see how lucky I am to have these opportunities. It helps that every night I’m on stage, I’m on stage with some of the best people you can be on stage with.”
What has never been lost on Creel is the appeal of this musical to a wide cross-section of audiences. Premiered in 1987, Sondheim and Lapine crafted a collage of fairy tale characters who represent different facets of life’s journey. The show speaks to young and old audiences alike, and viewers may feel different identifications as they return to the show.
“I think [the show] tricks us, because it seems like this simple sweet thing,” Creel said. “You go in thinking you know what this is going to be, but Sondheim and Lapine have created something that is so rich and deep. As we get older and life gets harder, we all become a little cynical and jaded. This material nods at that and says ‘I know you don’t want to have some greeting-card sayings about life on stage.’ But then it uses these very early and elementary examples to illuminate how life’s complexities are actually quite simple. Treat each other with beauty and kindness. Connect and make a community. You’re not alone. It tricks you into remembering that life is often a lot simpler than what we make of it.”
As a young actor, Creel appeared in the world-premiere production of Sondheim’s musical “Bounce.” This current staging of “Into the Woods” has the distinction of being the first entirely new Sondheim production to debut in the wake of the composer’s death in November 2021, at the age of 91. The loss was keenly felt throughout the process, Creel said.
“It was noted the very first time we circled up in the rehearsal room at City Center,” Creel said. “James Lapine was standing there, and there was a space next to him — there just happened to be a gap there. He made a remark that there was somebody who should be standing here too. It was very solemn and painful, because I know he would have been there. He would have been at run-throughs, he would have been at tech, giving notes and ideas and supporting the process. I also think it’s a lot of the reason we got the reception we did in New York: it was a collective grieving process. Now he’s joined the ranks of his mentors. But of course we all wish he was immortal.”
In addition to his thriving stage career, Creel has always led with activism in his public life. In 2009, at a time when national marriage equality seemed a far-off goal, he co-founded Broadway Impact, an advocacy group established to raise the issue in the public consciousness. He’s continued to speak out on important topics in the ensuing years, and he still sees great opportunities for activism within the performing arts community.
“I see people picking up the torch in such inspiring ways,” Creel said. “I am very inspired by the young people now who are rising up for climate change, for racial justice within our industry, for women’s rights and the protection of women’s bodies, for gender identity and equity. I am inspired and motivated by those people who are now leading the charge.”
As for Philadelphia? Creel had one goal in mind for when he gets to town. “I want to go to El Vez,” he said, referring to the popular Mexican restaurant in the Gayborhood. “I am obsessed with that restaurant. Every time I go to Philly, I’m always like, I need to go to El Vez.”
The national tour of “Into the Woods” performs April 4-9 at the Miller Theater, 250 S. Broad St. For tickets and information, visit kimmelculturalcampus.org/.