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Chicago by John Olson

Million Dollar Quartet's Tony Winner, Levi Kreis

Levi Kreis
Levi Kreis
Photo: Gabe Bowling
I don't know if singer-songwriter Levi Kreis ever pictured himself winning a major creative award, but if he did, it's a safe bet he was thinking it would be a Grammy rather than a Tony. As he tells the story, he's said to have been singing since he was a baby in a crib, using a crayon as his mock microphone. He had two solo albums released before joining the cast of the musical that eventually took him to Broadway. Still, on June 13 of this year, he found himself accepting a Tony Award for his performance as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, a role he played in Chicago for 18 months before moving to Broadway this past spring. He'll be back in Chicago for a couple of days, making a cameo appearance in Million Dollar Quartet Sunday night at the Apollo and then headlining the "SidexSide" concert at the Apollo the next night. I caught him on his cell phone late one weekday afternoon to ask how he got to this amazing place in his life and career. His journey seems to have been a result of equal parts determination and destiny.

"I remember discovering the piano at age six, coming home from kindergarten graduation. I picked out "Pomp and Circumstance" on the keyboard by ear, with my brother working the pedals because my legs weren't long enough. Instantly, my parents said 'we need to get you into piano lessons.' From that moment on, they were the most nurturing parents in developing my musicality." The first outlet for this budding performer was his church. "Growing up in east Tennessee, church was the only place we knew where to learn music. I did my first performances in church at the age of eight and by the time I was 12, I was performing in a different church every weekend. By 15, I had my own gospel album and was touring all over the south." I asked him if gospel and country were his "first language" of music. "Gospel? Absolutely. And of course you can't shake those southern Americana roots. I do pop music, but I borrow from what's most precious to me, cutting my teeth on gospel music and listening to country radio in the background."

As a teen, he says, "my parents were carting me off to songwriting workshops in Nashville and enrolling me in a pre-college program at Vanderbilt University studying classical piano and music theory. I was earning college credit while a sophomore, junior and senior in high school. The instinctual aspect was there from the get-go, but the great thing is that my parents recognized great instincts can be broadened if you're given an education."

He didn't pursue acting until he moved out to Los Angeles after college, and that was an impulse decision on his first day in town. He spotted a notice in Backstage West for a Rent cattle call. "What is this thing, Rent? Yeah, I'd never heard of it before ... don't have a headshot, don't have a resume, but what the hell? ... I was 169th in line at the cattle call and six callbacks later I got the part of Roger in the West Coast tour." He's quick to say, "I was only in it for two months because frankly, I wasn't that great in it and they got rid of me. I couldn't really sing it. Roger's an unusually high tenor and I'm a baritone-tenor."

Levi Kreis
Hunter Foster, Levi Kreis
Photo: Joan Marcus
Some other acting gigs came along soon enough. He got parts in small but impressive independent films, playing Matthew McConaughey's brother in 2001's Frailty directed by Bill Paxton; and had a major role in 2002's Don't Let Go with Katharine Ross. "One thing sort of led to another and I can't say there was any particular time in my life, until now, where I said 'I see myself as an actor ... I understand now this is part of my gift and I want to nurture it and hone it and make it a part of my life. Really, only now ... getting to Broadway and winning a Tony Award for my acting ... it was jarring to me at first ... it seemed as though I had really good instincts in creating characters, but I just never thought of myself as an actor. It took Million Dollar Quartet for me to say ... okay this is a part of me, I have to honor it and nurture it and make it a part of the equation."

He says learned dramatic interpretation of song not as part of his formal musical training, but in church. "In church, you learn very quickly, people sing out of conviction. They're singing to let you know that you are loved, forgiven, you can be healed." Church music influenced his songwriting as well. "Coming from gospel music, songwriting became like journal writing for me. My own diary. When I sang a song, it was not only very personal to me, something I had experienced and chose to share with you, vulnerably read you my diary, but it was colored with that rich gospel history that was the only thing that I knew growing up"

"We're Okay," from his second album, The Gospel According to Levi is one of those songs. The openly gay Kreis wrote it for his mother to reconcile the rift between them that emerged after his coming out to her. In telling me about it, Levi begins to speak increasingly thoughtfully and deliberately. He explains that not only was his mother disappointed to learn her son would have a different life from the one she had envisioned for him, but also that his professed orientation was in conflict with her fundamental Baptist beliefs. Levi, while acknowledging the influence of that religious background on him, says his own beliefs have evolved away from hers, and that has added another dimension to their differences. "I believe in a very all-inclusive God, expressing itself through you and through me just as we are. That's not necessarily a fundamental Baptist view. She has I think, a more literal interpretation of the Bible and I have a much broader one."

She refused to listen to "We're Okay" for a very long time and only heard it when she saw its music video, in which Kreis plays a young man coming out to his mother. "She called me and said, 'hey, I never allowed myself to just listen to these words, but I want to thank you for deciding to love despite the differences we have.' He says they've now decided "it doesn't matter if we have the same 'map to love' as long as we are having the experience of love." His relationship with his partner has also been a positive influence, he thinks. "It makes the LGBT lifestyle appear to her not as some crazy, strange monster thing, but just "people who want to love who they love."

On the professional side of his life, Levi says coming out publicly has been positive for his career, contrary to the expectations and advice of others. "I was warned by friends that my career would not happen if I were to come out. How funny is it that I've found the opposite to be true. Does it have its downsides? No, I don't think so. I think that on the onset, after going through eight major record labels ... that perhaps the reason these labels never knew what to do with me was that I wasn't being authentic with who I was. I was hiding from them. I was hiding my life, I was hiding songs from them, telling them I was one person and they wanted me to be the next teen heartthrob. I felt so deceiving and inauthentic trying to be what they wanted me to be."

"It wasn't until I let that go and said, 'alright, it hasn't worked out, I'm leaving this label, my eighth one, what am I gonna do?' I took $200 dollars that I had in my pocket and I begged this guy at a recording studio to let me record some of my songs that the label didn't own so I could create my first album. I knew I wanted it to be an 'out' album. Turns out, it was my very first album, One of the Ones, that has songs that were used on The Apprentice, Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless. It got radio airplay nationwide, my first appearances on national television, and I took off on this incredible tour. It was literally $200 in my pocket that turned into the courage to come out and the surprise of success."

One of the Ones was released in 2006 and followed quickly by The Gospel According to Levi in 2007. But just as Levi's music career was taking off, Million Dollar Quartet beckoned. Some of its creative team knew Levi from his work on One Red Flower, Paris Barclay's musical based on the book Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, and had heard he could play piano. They had no idea he'd grown up listening to the music of Jerry Lee Lewis. He joined the cast for the show's second production, at Seattle's Village Theatre, before moving with it to Chicago in fall of 2008. He and the other quartet members stayed in Chicago for 18 months until they were all cast in the Broadway production, which opened in April of this year, so it's been an extended break from his music career.

"I think what I'm learning right now is how to be able to juggle both acting and a music career. Here I am doing eight shows a week and going out every other Monday touring Where I Belong, my current album, to give this album a chance to be on the road and reach the fans who haven't seen me for the two years I've been with Million Dollar Quartet, so it's a lot."

"[Doing Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway] has been a wonderful opportunity for me to keep doing what I'm doing and hone my (acting) skills. I've been able to work with a lovely lady who's been helping me to find who I am as an actor, know my strengths, know the kinds of roles that are tailor-made for me and really learn my craft. I'm taking this as an opportunity to give myself some very deep roots that when I'm done here in New York City, it feels just as comfortable to go in and audition for a TV thing as it would be for me to sit down and sing a song."

Comfortable or not, it seems unlikely he'll have to wait for 168 guys before him in line at the next audition.

Where I Belong: An Intimate Evening with Levi Kreis is part of his multi-city SidexSide Tour and will also include sets by award-winning singer and songwriter Eric Himan and three-time Billboard charting artist Jason Antone. The performance is sponsored by the Bodhi Spiritual Center of Chicago. Tickets, $18-$25, are currently on sale through the Apollo Theater box office, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave, (773)935-6100. Tickets are available online through www.ticketmaster.com.

For more information and dates on the SidexSide Tour, visit www.levikreis.com.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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