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Being James Cagney (Without Imitating Him)

Date: May 28, 2015

How Robert Creighton brings the film legend to the stage


Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Actors playing real people always face a fascinating conundrum: What's the connection between impersonating someone and inhabiting them? In other words, do you have to master a person's voice and walk and hand gestures if you want to capture their essence?

According to Robert Creighton, you don't. In fact, for his star turn in Cagney, the new musical about Hollywood legend James Cagney that's now at the York Theatre Company, he's avoiding mimicry altogether. As he portrays the star's evolution from Vaudeville hoofer to gangster movie archetype to Oscar-winning song-and-dance man, he lightly suggests the actor's gruff voice and intimidating posture, but he doesn't attempt a total transformation.

Creighton, who also co-wrote the show's music and lyrics, says that decision is rooted in Cagney's own artistic beliefs. Referring to the star's portrayal of George M. Cohan in the 1942 classic Yankee Doodle Dandy, Creighton notes, "[Cagney] said, 'I don't believe in imitation because then you can only do what they did.' He said, 'I just play it for real,' which is exactly how I feel about playing him. I've watched all his movies several times. I've read all the books about him. I have sat in front of the TV and imitated him a few times, just to know I can do that, but then when I play it, I just play it for real. I have that essence of him, and I kind of look like him, so I don't try to imitate."

Still, Creighton continues, he's informed by Cagney's physicality, even if he's not aping it. "If I'm feeling like I'm not in it – which with this character doesn't really happen that often – I just lean forward a little bit," he says. "I just put the weight on the balls of my feet. As he would describe it, his hands used to naturally hang in front of his thighs, with his palms facing his thighs, as opposed to most people where their hands face their sides. If you stand up and do that, you'll look like Cagney all of a sudden."


He's also inspired by Cagney's demeanor. "He always looks like he's either gonna kiss ya or punch ya," Creighton says, slipping into a tough guy accent. "That's how I describe it. That's what gives him such intensity. So that, for me, is all I think about. I think about being forward a bit, and if I could walk over, I'd either kiss ya or punch ya. I don't think about specifics in terms of imitation."

A similar spirit has inspired the writing. Creighton and his collaborators – including co-composer Christopher McGovern, book writer Peter Colley, and director Bill Castellino – have been working on the show for years, with the first full production arriving in Florida in 2009. As they've developed the script and the score, they've been much more focused on Cagney's inner life than the dry history of his career. One major thread, for instance, follows the actor's frustration with being typecast as a hoodlum, and another explores his impulse to stick up for workers, immigrants, and minorities who are being treated unfairly.

Creighton says, "Certain things were cut that, as a fan of Cagney, made me say, 'Oh, but that's such a great little factoid!' But that became less important. What was important was sticking to that [larger] theme and making sure we're on point, as opposed to just trying to get Cagney information out there."


Mark Blankenship
is the editor of TDF Stages

Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: Creighton, center, and the cast of Cagney