I love Tony night. There’s something about seeing so many people riled up about a live, in-person, artform that really makes the air in New York crackle and spark. Especially now, when entertainment has become almost wholly digitized and instantaneous, going to the theater to see a performance that’s happening right then, in front of you, in a unique way that can’t and won’t be exactly duplicated ever again, is a holy novelty.
I visited New York a handful of times before formally moving here. The allure of the city was so great, I couldn’t keep myself away for too long or my soul began to ache. The rhythm and hum of the city, the pace at which life moves, the seas of people striving to “make it there” – it agreed with me and I craved it. On one such trip with two of my best friends from college, we celebrated the end of the school year by waking up far too early to see Adam Lambert sing at the Today Show, by walking through Central Park in the rain and by doing all the things in the city that made us smile. But the most lasting and valuable things on our agenda were the Broadway shows that filled our evenings.
We saw a few great shows that weekend but for weeks leading up to our trip, all I could think about was how much I wanted to see Hair. My friends had their sights set on a different musical, but I knew I needed to see Hair then, on that trip, on that day, in that moment. There was a sense of urgency that fired through my synapses; something inside me that knew I needed to see this show. That desire wasn’t rooted in anything, I had no previous associations with the show or anyone in it, but I somehow knew it was imperative I be there.
I was fairly new to the Broadway thing. I didn’t first visit New York until I was 21 but when I did, I took to it instantly. It was the match that lit on its own, a firey connection of art and artist. Though I’d spent time on stage during my childhood, I didn’t truly understand that connection until I saw my first show on Broadway, Beauty and the Beast. Sitting on the left side of the balcony in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Belle looked at me as she sang “A Change in Me,” right into my eyes on the front row. It was a kismet moment for me, a person-to-person connection I’d never experienced before that blew open the doors to the power and possibility of this medium. It felt like she sang only to me, as if I was alone in a funnel. In hindsight, the lyrics of her song aren’t lost on me either.
And I – I never thought I’d leave behind
My childhood dreams
But I don’t mind
For now I love the world I see
No change of heart a change in me
Something did change in me. It’s so sappy and gross, like a plot point in of an episode of Glee or a bad first attempt at a cabaret, but it happened. I saw theatre differently than I had before and became instantly hooked on that thrill.
When I approached the TKTS counter on our graduation trip, I bought my ticket to see Hair and my friends bought theirs to see a different show. I was determined to see this show even if it meant going alone. Truth be told, I didn’t mind going solo. Sitting alone in a theatre is something I’ve found to be both enjoyable and enriching. It’s selfish but as a theatre-goer, I don’t want to be disturbed. I love the unbroken, focused concentration of plugging into this real-time thing that’s happening in front of me. It’s intoxicating and addicting. That’s what makes live theatre so magical, so tactile, so lasting, and as such, I don’t have a problem going to the theater alone because once the show starts, it’s just me and the story.
That evening, Hair resonated with me in a way no show had before or has since. The songs, the message, the power of these voices – it echoed through me like cathedral bells, clanging and chiming and shaking free all that’d become fasted and dried out. Every character’s story churned something up inside of me. I’m from Dallas; I know racism. I’m from the Bible Belt; I know intolerance for others’ religions. I’m from Evangelicalism; I know marginalization on basis of sexual orientation. But no character affected me as deeply as Claude, played by Gavin Creel.
Claude, the unemployed boy who’d rather be invisible than be seen by the military or his parents or authority, played with such earnest and such grounded honesty by Creel, captivated me. It was his portrayal of Claude’s internal struggle, the grappling that took place as he tried to sift through the voices declaring to him what his life should look like. Against the barrage of those voices, he leads the tribe in an anthem about their vitality and the innateness of their spirit.
I’ve got life, I’ve got my freedom
I’ve got life
I’ve got the life
And I’m going to keep it
I wanted that. I wanted that freedom, that reckless abandon, that determination to love what you’ve got, who you are and what you can offer.
Claude finds himself in the throes of war. It’s war in the physical sense of Vietnam, but it’s also a war of ideals, of his beliefs, of who he’s told he should be and of what he’s expected to do. He cries out for all the things he believes in, for the things he doesn’t, and for being trapped in the middle of it all. It was a feeling I knew all too well and I wept cleansing and freeing tears. My shell cracked open and my soul and my sin and my sadness and my shame seeped out. The things I was scared to admit out loud, the parts of my person I thought I had to hide, the trepidation of being the self I was created to be, it all broke that night under the overhang of the balcony in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
Somewhere, inside something, there is a rush of Greatness.
Who knows what stands in front of our lives.
I was Claude, caught between two ideals and two worlds – the world of my upbringing and the man I was growing into – and without ever addressing, meeting or talking to me directly, this actor who I didn’t know reached the real me.
The fundamentalism of my upbringing and the pulpit proclamations of “Do as I say because I said so and because that’s how it’s always been done” made me to feel boxed in and trapped. I wasn’t the full me because I’d been told God didn’t like if I walked, talked, dressed, acted, or loved in certain ways. But God isn’t a God who cages, traps, barricades or corners us. God is a God of free air, healing breezes and an ever-widening expanse of love. I kept trying to figure out why the God I felt in my heart – the God of my childhood, of love, of giving and caring for others – and the hellfire and brimstone God of the pulpit felt so diametrically opposite. Yet in a show about free love and resisting authority, I found a satchel’s worth of truth that blew open my preconceptions and invited freedom inside.
Offstage, Gavin was proud to be the man he was. More than that, he championed and fought for others, people who were marginalized, people whose rights were denied on basis of their wiring. He fought for those people, leading the charge and refusing to be complacent, silent or still. We should all being doing the same; it’s our universal human calling. I knew who I was at my core when I saw Hair, but I kept that Ryan under a blanket, tucked away and afraid, dare I say ashamed, to set him free. I lived a life of half-full, lukewarm confidence. Oh, I feigned being strong and self-assured but in reality, I shied away from expressing and celebrating the whole me. By the curtain call, that broke open like a cracked egg.
Today, I run an online creative culture magazine and I’ve spent the last seven years interviewing and featuring artists from every ilk and variety. From award winners to those just getting started, the one through-line among all of the actors I’ve had the privilege to talk to is that they just want to affect and be a catalyst for change in others’ lives. They aren’t in it for the awards or the fame, but for the ability to do what they love and hopefully change someone’s life in the process.
When I’ve had the opportunity to interview actors who were a part of that cast of Hair, I’ve teared up in front of each of them, thanking them for being a part of something that changed me in such a pronounced and course-altering way. It wasn’t something that affected me that evening and once the music stopped, I went back to being who I was; it was a change that became a part of the everyday fabric of my life. It was change at a cellular level. The Claude I saw on stage was the Ryan I kept close to the belt. It wasn’t about becoming someone new, it was about loving myself enough to know all my facets, my faults, and my feelings were valid parts of me.
This year, I got to see the man who so impacted my life, walk on stage and win a Tony for his work in Hello Dolly. My heart swelled as he took the stage and the gathering of people I watched the show with, some of whom are actors themselves, whooped and hollered as his name was called. Some cheered because he’s a friend. Some cheered because they’re a fan of his work. I cheered because he changed my life.
Congratulations on your deserved Tony Award win Gavin. You’ve inspired me, a man who isn’t a performer, to be a better, more giving, more authentic, more fully-me, me.