Gavin Creel is sort of easy to love. He’s smart and sweet and passionate about his causes. And he can certainly rock a pair of basic blue jeans like no one else. But here’s what I love most about Gavin Creel:
He sang the single greatest note I’ve ever heard sung on a Broadway stage.
I can’t claim decades and decades of Broadway experience—I do not have firsthand memories of Liza at Carnegie Hall—but I’ve seen some great theater, and heard some great notes. Lea Salonga’s vibratoless laser beam of a note at the end of “Love Look Away.” Stokes bringing the house down with “The Impossible Dream.” Alice Ripley singing her lungs out in any number of shows. (My favorite is still the 2002 revival of The Rocky Horror Show where she and Raul Esparza were seemingly in some sort of trachea-tearing contest.) These are the great musical performers and performances of my times. And then there was Gavin.
I first saw him, of course, in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, when he was giving the most underrated performance in the most overrated show of the year. While Sutton Foster got all the attention and awards, Gavin was on the same stage, singing circles around her. He navigated his way through all those vintage-y crooner numbers—hard stuff to sing—with so much panache, and with such ease. To this day, he makes that cast album worth listening to, even just to pick out his big notes in the chorus numbers.
Now fast-forward to Hair. I’ll admit it: I was one of those people who was totally dubious when they cast Gavin.
Jonathan Groff’s performance as Claude in Central Park was so winning, and so totally unexpected. Nothing about him in that role should have worked—he was too guileless, too lacking in rockstar chops, too awkward in anything but knickers—but everything did. His exuberant version of “I Got Life” ranks among my favorite performances of all time for its shear audacity, for all the work Jonathan had to do to carry it off. Never have I seen so much spit or sweat fly in the name of musical theatre, and it was pretty amazing to see.
That song is, of course, the show’s lynchpin. The actor playing Claude has to land it, or nothing else in the show works. When I saw the show on Broadway for the first time, that song was all I really wanted to see. Not just because it would be interesting to compare, but because I remembered so well what Gavin could do with that buttery, endlessly flexible voice of his. Land the number he did, and with so little effort. In fact, he hardly broke a sweat throughout the entirety of Hair. Claude is a great role, but it’s a cakewalk for him, vocally and otherwise. I’d wager that Gavin Creel sings more complex stuff in the shower on a Thursday morning than he does at any point in Hair.
Which brings me to The Note. After that first time in the summer, I saw the show a couple of additional times (ahem) in the autumn. That’s right around the time when something started to happen to Gavin’s vocal performance in Hair. It changed. There’s no telling why, but I think he just got bored. Because usually, vocal performances stay the same over the course of a show’s run. For example, while Caissie Levy is giving a top-notch singing performance in Hair, it’s the same every time you hear it. She hits the notes the same way. She goes for all the same riffs. And that’s by edict as much as anything else: Stage managers and directors are generally not cool with actors making after-the-fact adjustments to a performance in a long-running Broadway show. It’s just not done.
Except… Gavin Creel totally did. And does. Every single night. And he gets away with it because his choices are subtle, and brilliant.
One the night that The Note happened, Gavin was having one of those nights: A Night on Which Gavin Creel Sings the Shit Out of Everything. These are not particularly rare nights in the life of Gavin Creel. If you’ve seen Hair even twice, you’ve probably caught at least one—a night on which Gavin spins every single note for maximum beauty and drama. Entirely new riffs fall out of the sky. High notes materialize out of nowhere. You won’t hear anything like this on the cast album, which presents Hair, and Gavin’s performance, in the most straightforward, unembellished way possible, as though the album were a grim historical document and nothing more. These little changes feel so organic—so off-the-cuff. The effect is wonderful—as though he’s singing not simply to tell a story or convey an emotion, but to sing for the utter, shear joy of singing.
And during that performance, in the middle of “I Got Life,” Gavin did something so incredible that we actually couldn’t remember it immediately afterwards. It would be a week before we could fully sort out what happened, the exact mechanics of that note and how it made its way from Gavin’s throat to our ears.
Here’s how it worked: On the lyric, “I got freedom, brother,” when he sang it for the second time in the middle of the song, Gavin popped up the octave on the word “freedom” and held that long “e” for as long as the gods would let him. I don’t know for sure what that note was, because the song could be written up or down for him, but Google tells me that if Gavin is singing the traditional arrangement, it was a D. (That’s D as in damn, y’all.) And for all the musical theatre nerds keeping score: That’s a high D on an “E” vowel in chest voice. You know, just for fun on a Wednesday night. It was an act of showoff-y bravura—hitting a huge note simply because he could—but it also made such good dramatic sense that the effect in the moment was head-wrecking. You could feel the audience come up off their seats afterwards.
Other notable fallout: This is the note that drove me to the stage door.
I am not really one to wait for actors at the stage door after a show, mostly because I never have anything smart or coherent to say. And how do you communicate, really, how a show moves you, or resonates in your own life? Five seconds and an autograph do not exactly do the trick. But this time, I certainly had something to say.
And when Gavin came out, I went for it.
“Gavin, I just wanted to tell you that you sang the greatest note I’ve ever heard on a Broadway stage tonight.”
“What?” he said, a little taken aback. “When?”
“During ‘I Got Life’.”
“Seriously? What did I do? Can you remember?”
“It was in the middle somewhere.”
“Was it on the ‘Amen’ at the end?”
“No. Definitely in the middle.”
This, of course, is my favorite part of this story. That this person did something that very few people can do—and he had no idea. He couldn’t remember it or pinpoint when or how it happened. It reminded me of the piece David Foster Wallace wrote about world-class athletes, how they often can’t even begin to articulate or process what their bodies do. It’s all reflex and muscle memory and talent. It’s the thing that makes locker room interviews so inane, the thing that makes stage door encounters so unfulfilling, so humdrum compared with the performances that happened before them.
At some point, though, Gavin Creel must have remembered. Because he kept singing that note. I’ve heard it a few times now, and it’s always mesmerizing. After a while, you start to see the incredible mechanics of how it happens. The act of getting it out is truly physical—his arms go over his head, his entire body shoots upward. It is as magical and transcendent as Broadway gets.
If you’re seeing the show before Sunday, when the original Broadway cast plays its last performance before heading off to London, you will probably hear The Note. And you will want to hold onto it so badly, that “e” sound ringing so clear and bright. Freedom, indeed. But it will disappear, and the song will continue, and the show will end, and Gavin Creel will do other stuff, and sing other mind-blowing notes. But that’s why you go to the theater, right? Because the disappearing of that note—its evaporation into the ether—is what makes it so sweet in the first place.