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Inside Robert Creighton's hit musical about James Cagney
Speaking on the phone the day after he and his show Cagney were nominated for three Outer Critics Circle awards, actor/singer/dancer/songwriter Robert Creighton is practically giddy with excitement. "It's kind of mind-boggling, first of all, that it's even happening, and that people are responding to it in such a great way," he says, making sure to add that ticket sales for the rousing musical at the Westside Theatre have just been extended through September. "It's been a pretty exciting day."
For Creighton, who has been working on a Jimmy Cagney project in some form or another since graduating from acting school in Canada, this latest incarnation of Cagney is even bigger (at least budget-wise) and shinier than its sold-old five-week run last year at the York Theatre Company. "People are telling us that everything looks brighter and the sound is better," he says. "We worked hard on getting the perfect balance between the voices and the five-piece band, which is a pretty big group in that house." He's also thrilled that for the first time in the show's many different incarnations, the four men and two women in the cast—who play multiple roles and do some of the best tap dancing seen off-Broadway in years—have understudies. "It's like we're doing a real grown-up show! If someone gets the flu, we don't have to cancel!"
The seed for the musical – which tells the story of Jimmy Cagney's rise from the mean streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side to become one of the biggest box office stars in Hollywood – began when someone mentioned to Creighton that he resembled the Oscar-winning star. "He said, 'You look like him, you're built like him, and I know you like to tap dance,'" Creighton recalls.
Intrigued, he watched a few of Cagney's classic movies, and while he didn't see the resemblance (audience members may disagree), he became mesmerized by the star. "He was such a good actor at the base of it all; you believed every word that came out of his mouth," Creighton says. "And as I started to read about his life, I saw that he was a guy's guy, but he loved to sing and dance. And that's how I was at that stage: I was into sports but also really loved tap dancing."
Soon after graduating, Creighton was cast in a biographical stage show that Cagney's estate was trying to get off the ground. When that project fizzled, he took what he had learned and decided to write his own piece, which would be less of an imitation and more of an exploration of Cagney's journey and motivations both as an actor and as a champion for the working man (a union activist, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild). After he joined forces with book writer Peter Colley, songwriter Christopher McGovern, and director Bill Castellino, the passion project finally came to life at Florida Stage in 2009.
Just as things were moving forward, however, Broadway came calling, and Creighton back-burnered the project while he appeared in a string of hit shows including The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Anything Goes, The Lion King, and Chicago. Then the stars aligned for the York production last year.
Moving from the York to the slightly bigger Westside Theatre, where the show opened in March, involved more than just production changes, however. Creighton admits that the most painful part was trimming and streamlining a musical number he wrote for the first act called "Travelogue" (McGovern wrote about two-thirds of the songs, with the rest penned by either Creighton or an obscure tunesmith named George M. Cohan). In the high-energy bit, Jimmy and his leading lady/love interest pun their way through the stops on a grueling Vaudeville tour. "The song used to be twice as long! As the lyricist, that was a tough change, but I realized it was the right thing to do."
Still, he's happy to share some of the lyrics that wound up on the cutting room floor: "They hit the road in Philly/What a dilly was Spokane/They were for ya in Peoria/Altoona and Fort Wayne/They were dancing up in Lansing/but their stint in Flint was cold/In Toronto, Erie, Oshawa/not a ticket sold."
With the run now open-ended, and the show's ubiquitous "Give My Regards to Broadway" ad singing out on computers all over town, Cagney is reaching a whole new audience, many of whom weren't born yet when the actor was in his prime. "We do get a lot of older people who remember Cagney and get so excited when they see the grapefruit onstage," Creighton says. "But we're also getting a lot of younger people who never knew anything about Cagney, and they go along for the ride and are jumping to their feet at the end."
Now that he's finally headlining the big-time production he dreamed of all those years ago in drama school, Creighton, a dad of two young children, plans to stay put for as long as can. Or at least as long as his knees hold out. "I have to live like a monk to be able to do this role, but life is full, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Marisa Cohen is a freelance writer in New York who can be heard singing show tunes with her two daughters at all hours of the day.
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: Robert Creighton (center) and the cast of Cagney.