Hadestown actor continues his quest to tell great stories and stay excited
Levi Kreis, in his Broadway debut, won a Tony® for Best Actor in Million Dollar Quartet, and he’s currently touring the country playing Hermes in the National Tour of Hadestown. He’s fought through homophobia from both the church and the entertainment industry and suffered through “poor timing” of shows he was excited about, only to see them slip away. Kreis’s talents, personality, and storytelling skills are on full display for our Out in Jersey readers.
You came from Oliver Springs, a small town in Tennessee, and grew up in the church singing and playing the piano. How did you end up on Broadway?
Levi Kreis: I was on the road as a gospel singer, songwriter by the time I was 12 years old, at a different church, or venue every weekend with a little cassette. I always knew I would be in gospel music until landing in that world at 22. The fact that I was gay and did gospel entirely, was problematic, they didn’t know what to do with me.
So, I focused on being an ‘indie music guy,’ going to my LGBT community and telling our stories and talking about our issues until I went on a cattle-call in Los Angeles. Just to take in the energy of the city, feel what these actors feel, give me a sense of the soul of the place, the soul of the city. In the cattle call, I was 159th in line at this thing I’d never heard of, called Rent. Five callbacks later, I landed the role of Roger in the Broadway National Tour. That was the scariest thing in the world for me because I had nothing but raw talent and great instincts but was completely wet behind the ears. I was not great in the role; thank God it was only a three-month contract.
I came back to Los Angeles and auditioned for one of the best acting schools and got in. I started my education and then got involved with Emmy Award winning director Paris Barclay, who we know from everything from Glee to Sons of Anarchy to just a ton of TV stuff. He wrote this gorgeous musical called One Red Flower, which is based on a book called Dear America, Letters Home from Vietnam. This book is only a compilation of letters from soldiers written back home and tells the story of five guys, during their one-year tour of duty in Vietnam.
We workshopped this all across the country and were slated for a theater in 2001 and then, September 11th happened. Literally, about a month or two before we were starting plans to move the show to Broadway, the producers felt like “this story isn’t going to be digestible right now.” So that was the end of what was an investment and would have been my Broadway debut. But in 2004, the producers of that show had this little ‘hillbilly skit’ that landed on their desk called Million Dollar Quartet. It was very undeveloped, they didn’t know where it was going but they asked me, ‘Hey, we heard you play the piano a bit,’ little did they know, ‘and that you’ve developed Southern characters really well. Would you like to do a table reading of Jerry Lee Lewis?’ I never auditioned for the role again. I was perfect for it. As a matter of fact, “Great Balls of Fire” was one of our family reunion party tricks. At 12 years old, my mom would say, ‘Go play that Jerry Lee stuff!’
It was synchronicity, in a way, that I was given a role of a character who I already grew up knowing and loving his music. I was already equipped to do it and we workshopped that from 2004 to the 2010 Tony® Award.
I see on your website that you have done some “custom recordings” of original works for your fans. Is this something you started doing during the shutdown? Is it something you plan to continue doing?
LK: The first time I explored personalized custom songs or “song commissions”, it was during my first Kickstarter campaign in 2011. That album, Imagine Paradise, is an entire collection of song commissions inspired by the lives and stories of my biggest supporters. Since a lot of my supporters are LGBTQ+, the album became a collection of songs that speak to our experiences specifically, socially and relationship-wise. This experience was so rewarding to me. It felt like a real gift to make a theme album for my community. When the shutdown happened, it seemed like a good time to bring that opportunity back to people. I needed support and others needed encouragement. So, it worked again. I love it. It’s such an intimate way to connect with fans.
I see you did a “Christmas Special” with your husband, Jason Antone. How did this come to be?
LK: Eight years ago, I started an annual tour called Home For The Holidays. Since we couldn’t tour during the shutdown, the local theatre in my hometown partnered with me to create a retro-light Christmas Special. I cast my husband, who is a classical crossover recording artist and for fun, I cast my mom and dad. It was a riot. They were very invested in doing their first “television” appearance. My mom even sang, which may have not been the best idea. No, it was a blast! Very cute.
Was it music that put Jason and you in the same circle? Is that how you met?
LK: My husband and I were both public figures of what was called the OUTMusic movement in the 2000’s. We had our own tours and press, but we both did the Pride circuit every summer. We were always crossing paths but never really met. We had the same publicist at the time who reached out to Jason (my husband) and told him he should come see this musical I was involved in. He did, and the moment I saw him from the stage, I knew in my gut he was the one. We hung out as friends for a long time before we admitted what was going on between us. He made me wait three months for my first kiss!
You’ve had your share of discrimination because you are gay. We tend to think of “the arts” as being inherently diverse and open minded. Was there a time when the shock hit you that that’s not necessarily true?
LK: This is a huge question, and my answers could fill a book, the one I’m writing to be exact, with everything from the six years of conversion therapy that I went through, surviving a gay bashing in Hamilton Park, NJ, to surviving gay domestic violence from physically abusive partners. But more direct to your question, and to be all too brief, I’ve been denied education by a Southern Baptist college for being gay, and as a result, outed on campus when I wasn’t ready to be out. I’ve also been denied employment by eight major record labels for being gay, in the 2000’s when no one knew how to market an openly gay artist. I was given a wealth of fame-making opportunities that most people will never see, all to watch each of them be taken away the moment my sexuality came to light. I’ve had gay film executives flat out tell me that their leading men can’t be gay.
It is a lie to think that anything but the dollar bill matters in entertainment. If tolerance is perceived to be the norm in the arts, it’s because we as a community are tolerant, not necessarily all the executives at the top of the food chain. We should never blindly trust the “corporate support” that seems to be so common these days. It’s all dollar driven in my opinion. But maybe I’m cynical because I’ve seen and experienced so much as a Gen-Xer who had to fight so hard to be heard. I love that the generations behind me appear to be more optimistic. Times have changed. We have made a lot of progress since the 2000s.
What role are you dying to play and why?
LK: I can’t say much about this yet, but I’m rather far along now in the process of creating a musical based on my life and if all continues to unfold as it has been, this will be the role of a lifetime for me. and something I think will be very impactful for our community to experience.
What do you have next on your horizon?
LK: My new musical will be my focus after leaving Hadestown.
If you could speak to someone living or dead, who would it be and what would you say?
LK: Jesus, because I would love to hear him expose all the ways he’s been taken out of context for centuries.
Any words of advice for our LGBTQ readers?
LK: Yes. You matter. Your voice matters to this world. The world voice is not complete without YOUR voice. Let go and give voice!