On Monday night, inside the packed auditorium of NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, stood in front of the crowd and celebrated a milestone. Just the day before, thousands of gay and lesbian couples had been married in New York, the first day that they had the legal right to do so. Lieberman beamed about the victory to what was perhaps the most receptive crowd possible — supporters of the Civil Liberties Union who had paid to see top-notch Broadway stars put on a benefit concert. The entire hall felt electrified by the same-sex marriage act, clapping and hollering whenever the new legislation was mentioned. Broadway pianist and gadabout Seth Rudetsky, who has hosted the “Broadway Stands Up for Freedom” event for nearly a decade, seemed especially jovial about the night’s perfect timing. He told backstage gossip tales about Bernadette Peters (she flubbed a line at a benefit for the Broadway strike) and John Gallagher Jr. (he almost didn’t audition for Spring Awakening), and showed absurdly funny footage of Florence Henderson tripping during a vintage variety show, apropos of nothing.
The night was packed with big names: Nikki M. James, Beth Leavel, John Tartaglia, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Nellie McKay, who brought her cynical ukelele skills to a wry ditty about feminists lacking a sense of humor. But the arguable star of the night was Hair’s Gavin Creel, who closed the show with an original rock anthem called “Noise,” exhorting the audience to continue to take action. The underlying theme of the evening was this: The fight for marriage equality is not over until it reaches the federal level, and we are here to sing about it.
Creel is no stranger to activism — he founded the organization Broadway Impact, which draws on theater talent to get the word out about gay rights. News broke just last week that Broadway Impact is working with Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Joe Mantello to put on a play based on the Proposition 8 trail, which will premiere in New York in September.
Fourth Wall spoke to Creel about his activist streak (he had it long before playing a hippie) and why the theater community is so energetic about the marriage fight.
Fourth Wall: So, how did you first get started with the whole Broadway-meets-activism movement? It’s been going on for a while now, with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids and Larry Kramer, etc.
Gavin Creel: It kind of started when Prop 8 passed on the same day Obama was elected. I remember thinking, how did that happen under our watch? And I realized I was totally unplugged as a gay man and as a person of power. And it’s so easy to be cynical, like really what can I do? But I know, if you don’t speak you can’t do anything. So we started Broadway Impact in my living room, with my dog panting at my feet. We went to the cast of Mamma Mia, and asked them to write letters to the senate majority leader. That ballooned into 3,000 pieces of mail from the Broadway community. Then we did a rally in Times Square, and there were thousands of people standing on Sixth Avenue, with the governor, the mayor, singing.
And we thought, if we can do that, what’s next? Sutton Foster told me, I’ll give you money and pay for a bus, you put 50 people on to go to march on Washington. And that became 25 buses with 1,500 people going down representing Broadway community in DC.
FW: How did the latest effort — with Dustin Lance Black and Joe Mantello — come about?
We thought about The Vagina Monologues, and all that did for women’s rights. We said, let’s also use our theaters as our home bases and do a premiere in New York. We will raise money for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and then will take phase 2 and go to colleges and high schools and wherever someone wants to put the play up, and show them how, and give them a curtain speech. With the power of theater spread the word of the Prop 8 trial and all the injustice there.
FW: So do you see yourself as a kind of Ned Weeks from The Normal Heart? A sort of neo-Larry Kramer?
GC: Well, I don’t have the ability nor the desire to be so overt, so polarizing. I need a Ned Weeks out there to cut through. I watched that play and thought, I’m not Larry Kramer, but I do think we have to talk. I was never political. I was raised in Ohio and there were taboo words. You didn’t talk about paychecks, religion or politics. I respect that attitude, but I also know it’s not an activist’s attitude. And I want to be more vocal. I’m going out to help HRC launch a campaign in Salt Lake City in August, this road to equality in a bus, going to all the hard hitting places. We’ll be setting up camp, saying we are here, we have things to say, and there are gay people in your community.
I know people are like, oh Gavin, you’re talking about the gay thing…again! And I’m like, you know what, I am going to keep talking about it. Stand up for the weak ones, let’s make some fucking noise.
FW: How did you feel singing on stage the day after the first gay marriages in New York City?
GC: Donna Lieberman has been fighting this fight for 19 years, and I just can’t believe that it’s done. Due to the effort of so many women and men, it’s like holy crap, it’s done! It’s a law! It’s done! It was a huge clarion call from New York City and the state, and I am so proud to have been a small part of it. Some day someone will show children how the marriage fight was fought in New York and it will be history, but being right in the middle of it it feels like a war. And fuck it, we won this round. It’s law. I dreamt of this world, and it’s coming together around me.
As I sang on Monday, “If you stay quiet, how will he know he’s not alone?” Those kids jumping off bridges, they do that because they do not feel there is a world that has room for them. Silence equals death; that’s everything. If anything, Broadway could be louder about this.
Photo via broadwayimpact.com