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Robert Creighton Brings Hollywood's Tap-Dancing Tough Guy James Cagney to the Stage

The veteran of Broadway's Mystery of Edwin Drood and Anything Goes brings his theatrical passion project to the Westside Theatre.

Regular Broadway-goers will recognize Robert Creighton right away. One of the musical theater's great contemporary character actors, he is a former Moonface Martin from Roundabout Theatre Company's 2011 revival of Anything Goes, and stole scenes as Durdles the gravestone carver in Roundabout's 2012 production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He's also made his way through the long-running Chicago (as Amos Hart) and The Lion King (as Timon), among several other shows.

All the while, Creighton was cooking up a show inspired by the life of a subject near and dear to his heart: James Cagney, the legendary Hollywood tough guy whose one Oscar is for the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy. Creighton not only coauthored the show, he plays the title role himself.

Through Creighton's rousing performance and a whole lot of tap dancing, Cagney, cowritten with Peter Colley and Christopher McGovern, thrilled audiences upon its Manhattan premiere at the York Theatre Company in 2015. The acclaim was so great that it prompted a commercial transfer to off-Broadway's Westside Theatre, where it is currently running. As he was in the middle of preparing script revisions, Creighton explained how he realized he "hitched [his] wagon to the right horse."

James Cagney in a promotional image for the 1938 film Angels With Dirty Faces (left); Robert Creighton in rehearsal for his new off-Broadway musical Cagney.
(© Warner Bros./David Gordon)

What was it about the life of James Cagney that made you say, "This is a musical?"
Everybody knows I kind of look like him. When I was in acting school, I had a teacher say to me, "You remind me of Jimmy Cagney. You tap-dance and have that kind of energy." I started to watch all of his movies and became obsessed. I couldn't take my eyes off him on-screen. That led to reading books about him and his life, and vaudeville, and how he learned to dance. He wasn't a dancer, but he would imitate people and pick it up. He was a boxer, too. He was a guy's guy but loved to dance. I felt a real connection. I always wanted to do a show about his life, and then it became obvious that, with the vaudeville connection and his [receiving] his Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, it needed to be a musical.

At what point did you decide there needed to be original songs and not just the George M. Cohan classics that Cagney helped further popularize?
Peter Colley and I wrote the book together and in the first version used period music. Not just Cohan music, but period music. It became clear that we couldn't tell the story enough. We were trying to fit in songs that didn't really tell the story. I started trying my hand at writing songs, some of which turned out really well and are still in the show.

We did a reading in New York for Florida Stage, where we debuted in 2009, and they introduced Peter and I to Bill Castellino, [who is now] our director, which is the best thing that ever happened to us, and [composer and lyricist] Christopher McGovern. We had a retreat in Florida, and it evolved into Christopher writing most of the score I'm a best-idea-wins kind of guy, so I was very glad to have Christopher's help. That's how it evolved into an original score.

Robert Creighton (center) leads the cast of his off-Broadway musical Cagney.
(© Carol Rosegg)

How has the show evolved since the York run?
We got so many great reviews, but within those, there were some good constructive criticisms that we applied. It wasn't a major overhaul to move it, but we really leaned out the story. In the first half hour of the show, we move the story along a little quicker to get to the meaty part. We've taken five minutes of the first act. It's hard for me sometimes, because I lose my little Cagney factoids, but in terms of a theatrical event. I can feel it's tangibly better than it was. The first act goes by much faster than it did.

And the great tap dancing from choreographer Joshua Bergasse is still there?
We even ramped that up one more little notch. There are not many shows around with our kind of tap dancing in it right now, so we really have held fast onto that. At the York, if you're past the first two rows, you sort of have to dip to see our feet all the time. At the Westside, on this stage, because of the rake, everyone is looking right at our feet. We can feel the excitement.

Do you have a favorite of all of Cagney's films?
Yankee Doodle Dandy. I can watch it over and over and never get tired of it. Angels With Dirty Faces. There's one called The Roaring Twenties that he did with Humphrey Bogart, where I think he just shows everything. He's tough but he's so romantic. He's funny. He was really ahead of his time, in my opinion, in his acting. While he had quirks that he did on purpose to build the character, he always believed what he was saying, no matter how stylized the movie was.

What was the most interesting Cagney factoid you learned in the process of creating this show?
When we were in Florida doing a Q and A, a very old gentleman stood up and said, "I was in World War II and Cagney came to do a show at our base. It got rained out, so he couldn't do the show, but he spent the whole night going around to each person in the barracks and shaking every single soldiers' hand." Not a dry eye in the place. He was so moved by who this guy was.

It's been such a dream of mine to create this show, and I really feel like I hitched my wagon to the right horse.

Robert Creighton stars in Cagney, a new musical about the life of James Cagney at the Westside Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)