Levi Kreis: ‘The great thing about sobriety is … it doesn’t stop giving’

Courtesy of Rachel Love
Courtesy of Rachel Love

For Levi Kreis, home is a many-splendored spiritual mansion of vibrant rooms of memory intersected by long, dark hallways of shame and self-loathing.

The Ties That Bind UsIt’s the lined face and rough hands of Lee Roy, a grandfather Kreis remembers as a “remarkable man of faith, consistency, compassion and love, for me and my older brother, that still to this day is a lighthouse for me. A guide.”

It’s a nurturing family gathered around the living room, singing and filling young Kreis with a love of song and performance that would land him a Tony Award and a music career that includes the release of a brand new EP, “Bad Habit,” which was unveiled earlier this month. It’s laughter and silliness, love and the bucolic peace of growing up in the small town of Oliver Springs, Tennessee.

Home is also, he pointed out, the internalized shame from a message of Christian fundamentalism that led to a cascade failure of the self, Kreis told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I like to think that while our stories are different, I believe — and I see that reflected in ‘Overcoming Addiction,’ Deepak Chopra’s book — is that what we all have in common is at the core of addiction, the issue of self-worth,” Kreis said. “Whatever our story is, I believe that those of us who have found our way to addiction have, I guarantee, feelings of worthlessness. Of not being good enough, of feeling like a waste of flesh. Whatever that whole ‘self’ thing is, it was always underneath.”

Self-loathing. Self-hatred. Self-doubt. Addiction, he pointed out is a disease of the self, and at the root of it all is self-centered fear. It’s a lonely and loathsome existence, but on the other side of it, in the light of recovery, is a profoundly moving and rewarding one.

“I’m a firm believer that people who suffer from addiction are super-special people, and this is why: Because I think that we inherently need a transcendental experience in our lives,” he said. “We already have that inclination that there is something so powerful beyond the redundancy and mundane nature of life, and that can be turned against us, or it can work for us.

“And if we can make it work for us, we have the ability to become spiritual powerhouses. We already are instinctively drawn to those kinds of experiences, and I absolutely love what our (recovery) community has to offer, when we turn from using that power against ourselves to using it for ourselves, because it’s a great power.”

Levi Kreis: The making of a man

Levi Kreis

Levi Kreis, left, and his grandfather, Lee Roy.

In a way, Kreis has come full circle — back to the ease and peace he knew as a child, before the mixed messages of man sent storm clouds rolling across the landscape of his tender heart. It was early on, going to church as a child in Oliver Springs as the awareness of his sexual orientation began to develop, that those roiling tempests first appeared on his spiritual horizon, he said.

“As someone who’s a licensed spiritual practitioner and had studied the five major world religions, I know this: When you roll back whatever culture or whatever the names your culture has and the mythology of it all, they all basically have a similar saying or belief,” Kreis said. “And that boils down to, ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ In other words, thoughts make the man — the feelings, the belief systems we have, attract the very reality we have. That’s the science behind spirituality, and that’s why prayer works, because through belief impressing upon the universe, we can manifest our reality.

“So If I make an agreement at a young age that I am worthless, that I’m not good enough for some reason, then I’m going to carry that paradigm into every stage of my life. At 8 years old, I knew I was different, but I didn’t know why. I just knew that when the pastor was talking about ‘those’ people on Sunday mornings, he was calling them an abomination to God. So when I came home and looked up what that meant in Webster’s Dictionary, I saw the words ‘detestable.’ ‘Abhorrent.’ And in that moment, I knew that I was detestable and abhorrent in the eyes of God.

“And as a boy, I was so sincerely in love with God, that knowing I could not stand in front of him without disgusting him really set the tone for what my story of worthlessness was all about,” he added.

And yet he wanted nothing more than to stand in the presence of his Savior and bask in the light of love and acceptance. He fought an internal war for years, pursuing what others felt was “normal,” no matter how much it felt foreign or uncomfortable to him. In so doing, he pointed out, he ended up doing himself even more spiritual damage.

“I had a girlfriend in the eighth grade, and I went to her church, where they had Christian counseling — and I checked myself into conversion therapy, behind my parents’ backs,” Kreis said. “For six years, I was told and reinforced the very message I heard at 8 years old — that it was environmental, that it was circumstantial, that I could choose differently, and that only reinforced the worthlessness.”

The only place he found respite from that inner turmoil was in music. He started playing piano when he was 5, and by 12, he was performing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” at family reunions. Brenda Lee — the ’60s rockabilly and country icon who turned “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” into a holiday standard — became a family friend through Kreis’ mother, Connie, who was president of Lee’s fan club, and the star took a shine to the budding performer.

“I had the opportunity to be able to be with her on her tour bus for a couple of summers, and I got to watch her on stage and off,” Kreis said. “She and Elvis were in top rotation in my house with my mom and dad. All of that genre was part of my DNA growing up: Brenda Lee led me to Jerry, and Jerry led me to Sun Records. From there, I just learned about it all. I would sit with a boombox, and it would be Jerry or Harry Connick Jr., whatever mood I was in that day, and I would just play the boombox and learn their licks.”

Levi Kreis: A star is born

Courtesy of Rachel Love

So great was his talent that he began to court attention from record labels at 14 and 15, while still a student at Mount Pisgah Christian Academy in Oliver Springs. After graduation, he headed to Nashville to attend Belmont University, where a career as a contemporary Christian artist was within his grasp. A deal was signed, plans were drawn up and Kreis seemed to be on his way.

“I remember being in my dorm room, with three different translations of the scriptures laying before me, including a concordance with the original Greek and Hebrew, studying everything related to (his sexuality),” he said. “I had never talked about it outside of Christian counseling, but then my roommate came in and saw me studying these books, and he asked, ‘What are you studying so earnestly about?’ And in that moment, I decided to trust another Christian, a brethren, and told him everything.

“He left and requested prayer for me at the Baptist Student Union, and being that I was such a prominent figure in the Christian music ensemble, the Baptist Student Union decided to go to the board of directors of the college with this. They deliberated on whether to kick me out of college, and the whole time, I had no idea what was going on. I was completely inexperienced on all levels, to put it mildly, so I made a decision that semester not to return.”

It got worse: A fellow student who was an intern at the Christian music label to which he’d signed a deal informed label executives of the scuttlebutt surrounding Kreis’ sexuality. Deciding that they couldn’t be associated with something that seemed so squarely at odds with conservative Christian doctrine, they pulled his deal. Kreis, understandably, was devastated.

“I couldn’t minister through my music, and I couldn’t do good in the world because I was broken and detestable in the eyes of God,” he said. “So I left East Tennessee and moved to L.A., which is where I found the wrong people and started using crystal meth.”

For a while, he was able to maintain a budding career as an actor and secular musician. As a functional addict and alcoholic, he starred in the 1997 national tour of the musical “Rent,” and in 2001, he landed a plum role opposite Matthew McConaughey in the psychological thriller “Frailty.” He released his debut album, “One of the Ones,” in 2005, and his early music was breathtaking in scope, beauty and subject matter, showcasing his immense talent as a pianist of all styles, and a singer with a staggering range. That talent landed him on a 2005 episode of “The Apprentice,” in which the competing teams were charged with packaging and selling his music to XM Satellite Radio, and his talent only served to bolster the reputation of a budding Broadway musical in which he was involved: “Million Dollar Quartet.”

It developed out of another production, “One Red Flower,” which was built around letters home from combat soldiers in Vietnam. By August 2001, the production was Broadway-bound, but the violence and tragedy of Sept. 11 made producers squeamish about staging a war drama so soon afterward. However, they approached Kreis about coming in for a table read to another, more light-hearted work, and at the first meeting, he volunteered to read for the role of “The Killer” — Jerry Lee Lewis, the “Great Balls of Fire” rocker he started imitating at 12 years old.

“And then, when they found out I could play piano a little bit, I never even auditioned for the role,” he said. “I was there at the beginning, and when I walked over to the piano and did what I do, there was no more discussion about who was going to play Jerry Lee.”

A crash, a burn and a rising from the ashes

Levi Kreis (right) stars as Jerry Lee Lewis in the Broadway run of "Million Dollar Quartet," which also starred Hunter Foster (left) as Sam Phillips.

“Million Dollar Quartet” premiered in Florida in late 2006, which gave the show’s creators time to fine-tune the production in anticipation of a Broadway run. Kreis was just getting started on the journey that would lead him to a Tony Award, his addiction was on the verge of coming to a fiery end.

“I found myself on a downward spiral, and it began to be an issue, increasingly, until 2007, when I finally turned to someone and said, ‘I need help,’” Kreis said. “As it turns out, the guy I went to, the guy who took me on and became my first (12 Step) sponsor, was actually one of the first guys I ever partied with, and he had been living under a bridge, been to prison and lost everything to crystal meth.

“I wasn’t there yet, but I had super-compromised my health, and it was getting hard to hide it in other areas of my life. I had no control over when I wanted to do it. Before, I thought I could control it and do it whenever I wanted, but it had gotten to a point where I was not the one making the choices — the drug was.”

Despite reaching out for help in 2007, it would be another two years — until May 27, 2009 — before Kreis finally found that the promises of 12 Step recovery were true. Along the way, he was able to maintain his career, working toward a Broadway debut in “Million Dollar Quartet” and releasing additional albums, including “The Gospel According to Levi” and “Bygones.” By the time 2009 dawned, however, his personal desperation had grown so much that he found himself at a breaking point.

“I hit a bottom, and that bottom was severe, and I still don’t publicly talk about what that bottom was — but I will say that I’m a guy who believes that mercy, without severity, is weakness, and I believe we need the yin and the yang, the female and the male,” he said. “For me, for my personal lesson — and I can only attest from that — I wish that other people had not tried to soften my fall. I would probably have gotten to the bottom quicker. I think a hands-off approach that I wish people had would have allowed me to reach the end more quickly and more immediately.

“We’re hard-headed when we’re in that space, so I think we need to see the results of our choices before we make that shift. For me, it was fear of death. I didn’t want to die, I didn’t want to lose my life, to live on the street, to feel like a waste of flesh anymore. We all get to a point, and it all hinges on one word: surrender.”

In a moment of creative serendipity, Kreis revisited that moment of surrender on the title track to “Bad Habit.” It’s a bluesy dirge undercut by weariness and dread, and in it, Kreis underscores the need to give up the fight that had sustained his addiction for so long.

“That’s exactly what the song is all about: I’m not that strong by myself, and that’s why I’m asking for help,” Kreis said. “The song is actually written for that moment, because it’s asking: ‘Am I going to (mess) up or do this?’ The whole song is actually a prayer.”

Levi Kreis: From 'Bad Habit' to spiritual salvation

Levi Kreis accepts the 2010 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

And so began Levi Kreis’ slow and steady journey back into the light — and back to the home that was such a nurturing place before the puritanical interpretations of spiritual matters began to corrupt it. He began attending 12 Step meetings regularly, and he obtained a sponsor — a “no-nonsense lesbian who was not taking shit off of me!” he said with a laugh.

“I love her, because she laid down the law, man,” he added. “She told me to go to 90 meetings in 90 days, and instead I did that for six months, because I needed to. She was there to do the Steps with me, and she was not satisfied until the second or third time. She pushed, but she knew that she could, because she knew I was tough and could do the work.”

More than anything else, he began to seek counsel with the God he once thought despised him because of who he was. As he left Los Angeles to follow the Chicago run of “Million Dollar Quartet” prior to its Broadway opening, he took his first tentative steps back onto a spiritual path he left behind as a teen because he felt there was no place for him upon it.

There, waiting, was the smiling face of his grandfather.

“He was the only person I’ve known in my life who had a daily spiritual practice,” Kreis said. “Every day, he would come home for his lunch break, make a salad — every day, the same way for years! — get his green pillow, sit down and pray. It was just like breathing to him. I knew from him, and I realized in that moment that being committed to a daily spiritual practice — whatever that is for you — would be my saving grace.”

In Chicago, he began to attend classes at a spiritual center. He began to meditate. He poured himself into works of spiritual thought. And, four years later, he emerged from that time as a licensed spiritual leader of the New Thought Christianity movement. As he grew in his sobriety and transformed his spiritual thinking, he began to see how wrong he was to think that the God of his understanding could ever regard him as anything other than perfectly made.

“I feel like the spiritual discovery is that I am made in the image and the likeness of God,” he said. “I am an individualized expression of the divine — it’s like if you take a bucket out into the ocean and fill it with water. That bucket is not the whole of the ocean, but it contains the properties of the ocean, just as who I am contains within itself all the properties of God, and it reveals itself in my health, my finances, my relationships, my mental state.

“The more I lean into the truth of who I am as an expression of divine intelligence, the more I understand that there is nothing in nature that doesn’t qualify itself to a state of perfect wholeness. And when I realized that, fundamentally, I went from feeling like I’m an abomination, I’m detestable, I’m broken, I’m a product of original sin to realizing, that is not so! Not for me. For me, I’m going to look at all of God’s creation, and I’m going to stand in what I clearly deserve, because intelligence, divinity and love are always available to me to the degree by which I realize it.”

Happier, healthier and more invested ... in everything

Courtesy of Rachel Love

He couldn’t help but notice the parallels in his personal and professional developments as well. After premiering on Broadway in April 2010, “Million Dollar Quartet” earned three Tony Award nominations, and Kreis won for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. It closed in 2011, and Kreis, who had broadened his appeal with albums and television appearances during the musical’s run, continued to make records and secure television and film placement deals for his music, including on the shows “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Sons of Anarchy.” He even moved back to East Tennessee, and last fall he starred in “Million Dollar Quartet” on the campus of the University of Tennessee — this time as uber-producer Sam Phillips instead of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Throughout it all, he’s continue to grow in both matters of sobriety and the spirit — because, he pointed out, the two paths often intersect and intertwine.

“There’s something about how once we catch that vision or glimpse of what our life can be once we shift from dark to light, from our pained bodies to our power, then the possibilities are endless,” he said. “The great thing about sobriety is that year by year, greater possibilities occur to me. It doesn’t stop giving at 6 months or two years or 10 years. I can’t believe that in my 10th year of sobriety that I’m dreaming bigger than I ever dreamed before, that I’m healthier than I’ve ever been before, that I’m more committed to my relationships than I’ve ever been before.

Life expands itself in our favor to the degree we allow it. And while I’m going to be fearful and cautious and continue to surrender, if I truly believe that we are all part of the essence of God, I’m actually only broken to the degree that I believe that I am.”

It’s heady stuff, but then again, Jesus was a metaphysical dude, Kreis laughs, and matters of the spirit are the conversations that enrich his life and prime the pump of his creative mind as well. “Bad Habit” is a lush song cycle that showcases a man who’s Higher Powered but more importantly has found that the home he left in shame all those years ago is actually a different place than the one he left.

After all, it’s populated by the brothers and sisters who are trudging the road of happy destiny alongside him.

“I don’t know any of us who hasn’t said, ‘I don’t belong with those people! I don’t believe in that stuff!’” he said. “Whether people choose long-term recovery or not, I don’t care — but when you stop isolating yourself, and put you in the middle of people just like you, you’re going to realize that these people are just like you, and there’s something about that that demystifies all of the misconceptions and yanks them away, so that you can truly see how beautiful life can be.”