It’s December 2022 and it’s opening week of Creed: The Musical, but the previous week was the first time the full cast had rehearsed together, Jesse Montagna — the play’s writer, director, and star — tells me. They had come a long way since I began attending rehearsals, in October, but with only a few days until opening night, Montagna says, “There’s still so much to be done.” When only some of the eight-person ensemble can be in attendance on a given night, nailing down musical numbers and choreography has been difficult. “This isn’t a paid gig. They get called into work or cast in something that pays — this sort of takes a backseat,” he explains. Any time not spent rehearsing has been used to get the word out about the show’s three-night run at Producers Club — an Off-Off-Broadway venue on West 44th Street, in Hell’s Kitchen. Montagna’s Instagram has been a 24/7 ad reel for the show’s fast-approaching premiere.
One of the most popular “butt-rock” bands of the millennium’s turn, Creed is appreciated today more as a meme than as Grammy Award winners. But in the age of “cringe,” the play’s premise had intrigued me, and I asked Montagna if I could shadow the cast and crew as they prepared for opening night. He obliged.
Montagna has shoulder-length brown hair and a deep voice. The San Antonio native trained at the prestigious Second City improv theater, in Chicago, where he wrote and performed in an original sketch show called “Don’t be a Dick.” He studied audio engineering at Nashville’s Belmont University and worked as the in-house engineer at Gray Matters Studio, a recording studio owned by the Grammy-winning Christian alt band Jars of Clay. Montagna still works as a freelance audio engineer, although these days most of his clients are podcasters.
“Why Creed?” I ask him. “Because of the ‘Creed sucks’ jokes?” Creed’s infamously mawkish lyrics and melodramatic music videos could fit the absurdist tendencies of Off-Off-Broadway theater, where misfits in eyeliner and a Hot Topic wardrobe taking themselves too seriously are always welcome.
“I’ve heard all the jokes,” Montagna replies, referencing the evergreen social media takes on Creed’s sappy spiritualism and pseudo-edginess, “and that will definitely help ticket sales, but I truly love Creed.” He shares a memory from childhood of riding shotgun in his dad’s Ford F-150. “He took a CD out of the center console and said, ‘Listen to this,’ and I haven’t stopped listening ever since.”
Montagna threw himself into Creed when another musical he’d been working on (based on a close encounter he’d had with a religious cult awaiting the arrival of UFO deities, while hiking in the Cascade Mountains) stumped him. The task of writing and composing an original musical was too much to bite off for a first attempt. So he decided he would write something around the music he already knew and loved.
Creed: The Musical is the story of Scott Stapp (name-checking the lead vocalist of Creed), a soon-to-be-father who is arrested for playing frisbee golf after sunset — in the play, a crime in Montana, where the story is set. Ratted out by his supposed best friend, Chad Kroeger (played by comedian Nick Sessler and named for the lead singer of the only band equally as pilloried as Creed — Nickelback), and sent to prison on the day his wife gives birth to their daughter, Scott Stapp Jr., Scott’s cellmates rally around him to break him out so he can be there to raise his baby girl and hold her with “arms wide open,” a not-so-subtle reference to Creed’s only No. 1 song.
When I first met the cast, in late October, they were gathered around a piano in the Greenpoint Reformed Church, where Montagna is a parishioner and regularly volunteers; he’d be here handing out candy on Halloween, he tells me. Montagna met two of the cast members, Sam Hernandez and Ben Nowak, at a dubious sketch comedy show the three appeared in. “A puppy mill for sketches,” is how he describes it: a brand of Midtown show designed solely to lure in tourists who click on the first result that comes up on Eventbrite when they search “sketch comedy.” Singer/performer Brooke Searcy is a Midwestern transplant to New York who plays the baby, Scott Stapp Jr., rolling around in a crib and sucking on a pacifier for most of the play. Abby Docherty and Lindsey Sweat, who double as cast members and choreographer and musical director, respectively, have known Montagna the longest, going back to their shared Nashville days.
Docherty plays Scott’s wife, Scott Jr.’s mother, and shares the spotlight with Montagna for the show’s maudlin rendition of “With Arms Wide Open.” Montagna met Docherty while both were students at Belmont, where Docherty honed her passion for musical theater. But the two really connected during their shared misery as tutors for a wealthy family in suburban Nashville, the stories from which sound similar to the plot of the 2019 film Parasite. Although Creed marks the first time Montagna will formally perform with Docherty or Sweat, he and Sweat — an accomplished songwriter with credits on the soundtrack for Nickelodeon’s Monster High: The Movie — were known to break out in song together at Nashville house parties, a habit they’ve brought with them to Brooklyn.
At the first rehearsal I attended, after vocal warm-ups (no “doe a deer” for Creed but a more guttural-sounding der-rih-meh-fer-ser-ler-ti-der), the cast broke into two groups. The bulk of the ensemble would rehearse harmonizing with Lindsey at the piano while the others practiced the choreography and blocking for what ended up becoming the show’s climactic musical number, in the jailbreak scene, the performance of “Higher,” the 1999 hit from Creed’s second studio album, Human Clay. In this scene, Mark — Scott’s older, wiser cellmate, played by Chicago improv veteran Andy Junk and named for Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti — offers Scott insight into the only possible escape from the prison.
This is a softer, acoustic reproduction of “Higher,” in which Mark and Scott gradually build up to the song’s second chorus, with bandmates Tremonti and Stapp’s original lyrics providing clues to Mark’s plans to break free. “Let’s go there / Let’s make our escape,” Mark sings, standing atop his bunk and gesturing to the ceiling. “The roof! The roof is how we’ll escape!” Scott shouts as Mark helps him to his feet to join him in singing, “Can you take me higher? / To a place where blind men see / Can you take me higher? / To a place with golden streets.”
Scott’s escape goes awry, however, and with prison authorities closing in, the cast performs a melancholic rendition of “One Last Breath,” arguably Creed’s sappiest track in what is a pretty gooey songbook. Scott, standing just feet from the edge of the penitentiary’s roof, mimicking the song’s macabre chorus in the show’s “To be or not to be” moment, contemplates suicide. If he can’t be with his wife and daughter, what’s the point of going on?
At its core, this was decidedly not an unserious production by unserious people. This was six-plus weeks of unpaid labor and a kid from San Antonio’s dream on the line. Broadway shows pay; Off-Broadway not so much, Off-Off-Broadway even worse. And the premise alone invited scoffery. It was possible that some in the cast might not take it seriously as an artistic endeavor.
But they did. Between jobs and personal obligations, anyone who could showed up in their sweatpants and Birkenstocks, three nights a week, four hours a night. Most shows rehearse for a similar length of time, albeit with a more rigorous weekly schedule, but this was a labor of love for everyone involved. Montagna was realistic about how much he could expect from his volunteer cast, but if he’d just wanted to play dress-up and goof around with friends he could have spared himself the move to New York and gone back to Texas. Early in the rehearsal process, he spoke to the cast and shared what he termed his “Hierarchy of Action”:
Invest in the ensemble, to improve the individual, to create a show.
To guide you to grow, believe and express yourself.
At that point, he opened up the floor to the cast. Many voiced what they hoped to get out of the process, each doubling down on their commitment to its success. Montagna later told me that this moment confirmed for him that they were all invested in the group effort, to build a fuller, more expressive, more powerful unit.
Montagna might never have stopped listening to Creed since that fateful day in his dad’s F-150, but the play offers the rest of us who have stopped listening permission to indulge while gently teasing our indulgence. Throughout rehearsals, I was reminded of how truly catchy Creed’s music was, and still is. At the beginning of the show, the entire cast performs “Are You Ready?,” the first track on Human Clay. The choreography for the number matches the upbeat tempo of the tune: from a Gangnam Style horse-riding dance to a quick Thriller-into-Macarena to a chug step into a line formation that concludes with the chorus’s rhetorical question, “Are you ready for what’s to come?”
Over the week leading up to opening night, Montagna spread the word through his frequent Instagram posts and write-ups on BroadwayWorld.com and amNY. He even printed ambiguous messages on neon-yellow paper and posted them on store windows, cafe corkboards, and streetlights: “CAN YOU TAKE ME HIGHER?” the flyers read, with “Creedthemusical.com” printed across the bottom. The marketing efforts paid off — all three nights were sold out.
On opening night, I arrived at the Producers Club to find a packed room in the theater’s bar area. Friends and family of the cast mixed with random Creed fans and Midtown hotel guests waiting for ushers to open the doors to the theater. Accompanying the cast on opening night was a three-piece band: a percussionist, a bassist, and a multi-instrumentalist providing guitars and piano.
The fears Montagna had expressed during our conversation a few days prior — that there was still so much left to do, that the cast was still learning choreography and blocking right up until the last rehearsal — were on my mind as I sat waiting for the play to start. At soundcheck the night before, cast members complained that they couldn’t hear themselves over the volume of the band, and Montagna and the assistant director, Caleb Rudge, had struggled to learn the lighting board’s labyrinth of knobs and faders. As the lights dimmed, I worried too that the audience might not fully appreciate what I had witnessed over the past weeks, a troupe of dedicated and talented performers whose work transcended the inherent silliness of the premise.
Then the band burst into “Are You Ready?” Seated at the rear, I could see every move the audience made as the cast met the music with equally high energy. Each member took a different verse of the opening number, and by the third verse, audience members were whooping and clapping, swaying in their seats. The number ended with the entire cast singing the song’s facetiously menacing countdown from 10 before blacking out, to prolonged applause.
By the time Scott Stapp Jr. is born and “With Arms Wide Open” begins, this might as well have been a concert. The crowd sang along as the cast embraced in wide-armed hugs. The emotional trajectory does an about-face at Scott’s arrest and sentencing, and Montagna’s heartfelt performance of Creed’s first single, the titular track from their debut studio album, “My Own Prison,” the inspiration for the play’s inciting incident, meshes with ominous red and black lighting to create one of the play’s most intense moments.
Arguably the most creative spin on Creed’s music comes with the female cast members’ performance of “Don’t Stop Dancing,” a semi-forgotten track from 2001’s album Weathered. The original recording is consistent with Creed’s wannabe grunge aesthetic; this rendition sounds like something off Mariah Carey’s Daydream album, with a bouncy groove and a dance-pop rhythm. (After the show, this is the scene that receives the highest praise from the patrons I speak with.)
The play is an emotional clown car more than a roller coaster, with sharp turns at love, grief, betrayal, and hope along the way. With the audience singing along to every tune, the 50-person venue was buzzing. Nights two and three go just as well, save for a minor mishap on night two, when the bottom falls out of Scott Stapp Jr.’s crib during the show’s final song, “My Sacrifice.” Searcy, in character and sucking on a pacifier, had to hang onto the crib’s sides to prevent a crisis. Luckily she was at the back of the stage, blocked from view by the rest of the ensemble’s choreography.
A week after the conclusion of the show’s run, Montagna has let his facial hair grow out; he tells me he is grateful it has been slow at work. I ask him what comes next. “I don’t think I’m done with Creed,” he says. Extending the hour-long show by an additional 30 minutes is something he is considering. But he’s trying not to rush it, instead allowing himself time to breathe.
When I ask if the three-night run lived up to his expectations, he says, “I’m still waiting for that congratulatory call from [the real] Scott Stapp,” and laughs, adding, “No, everything went perfectly.” His mother and stepfather were even able to fly into town from San Antonio to see the show, which was special, he tells me, as he recalls the support they gave him early on in his creative pursuits.
I ask if he thought back then that he’d ever write, direct, and star in a musical premiering a couple of blocks from Broadway.
He answers with a story. “When I was printing off flyers at the print shop near my apartment, the owner’s daughter was working, and she asked me, ‘How do you find time for creative projects in a city that requires so much energy just to keep your nose above water?’” She was a musician, Montagna explains, saying, “It can be easy to feel left behind in New York, and I just tried to tell her, ‘Dive into whatever it is that is important to you and you’ll eventually get to where you need to be. It just might not be as fast as the A train.’” ❖