From an interview with Robert Creighton March 14, 2017.
The past year has been a good one for Robert Creighton, the creator and star of Cagney. The project that has been his passion for nearly 20 years has just celebrated its first year Off Broadway and, although it is closing at the West Side Theatre, there are plans for future productions. It started back when Creighton’s teacher, Jack Melanos, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts told Creighton he looked like Cagney. This sent Creighton off to research Cagney, and he pretty much fell for the guy.
TM: What was the pull you experienced regarding Cagney?
RC: When I started watching his movies and going deeper into his films, I realized that there was no one really like him. He spoke in a unique way. Carried himself in a unique way. He had a ferociousness at times that jumped right off the screen. The more I studied him and thought about the craft of acting I realized that, no matter how stylized the films were, you believed every word out of his mouth. The pull was watching him on film and feeling a connection. There was something in me that was drawing me to his work. I am not a getting-obsessed-over-actors kind of guy but I kept wanting to watch more and watch more of him.
When I was a year out of acting school his estate was trying to put together a play that was not really a play and wanted someone to imitate Cagney. I got the part, and it was exciting to be connected to the project and the people and to audition upstate in front of all his friends. The project fizzled, but that was part of the lightbulb going on – that I had to create a show about this guy’s life and it needed to be a musical. His connection to vaudeville was rich, and of course the Cohan music and story were right there, so there was no way it was not going to be a musical.
Of course none of this happened in a vacuum, and further down the path Creighton joined up with his collaborators Peter Colley (Book), Christopher McGovern (Music and Lyrics), Joshua Bergasse (Choreography) and Bill Castellino (Director).
RC: I drew the right people to me because of my passion and because of sticking with it, no matter what. I defer to all my collaborators because they all have more experience than I do on how to create a musical. I contributed in other ways. I know now, because of Cagney, that the most important thing in starting a new business or creating a new piece of work is having enough passion to overcome the obstacles. There are always going to be obstacles, but if you believe enough in what you are doing, and it’s important enough, and you are waking up every day wanting it badly enough, when obstacles come you just keep going and they eventually end up in your rear-view mirror. You see them coming. Then they are there in front of you. And you push against them. You push because of the passion. And all of a sudden they are behind you, and on you go.
TM: How are you and Cagney alike?
RC: Love of dance for one. Cagney loved to tap dance. That was how he got in shape for movies. He would go to the dance studio and dance for hours. For me tap dancing in various projects is blissful. I didn’t start until I was 18. I wanted to tap dance since I was 5 years old. I remember being 5 years old sitting with my parents watching Fred Astaire movies. I never had formal training. I just danced. With my family and for them. My neighbors used to call me Fred. After church I’d go over to their house and they would put on Glen Miller. They had a cane and a straw hat for me, and I would pretend I was Fred Astaire. I have the hat and cane still. I wanted to dance, and I finally learned to do it. When I am doing the USO number, even if it is a slightly off day for whatever reason, in that moment I literally think HEY, I AM TAP DANCING AND GETTING PAID FOR IT. It is a moment of conscious gratitude for what I am getting to do right now.
Anyway we share that love of dance. He wanted to be known as a song and dance man and I am a song and dance man who would like to be known as an actor but we share that love of dance.
TM: What have you learned because of this production?
In exploring Cagney’s story and how he moved through the world I discovered what a good man he was. He didn’t like bullies and didn’t suffer bullies well. He had no time for that. He was honorable and also stood up for himself. And in the last few years I have incorporated more of that into my personal life – being in a new position in my career because of this show. You know, I’m from Canada where we apologize all the time. You want everyone to be comfortable. I’m getting better at owning where I am in my life and my career. Valuing that. Standing up for that when it needs to be stood up for. That is something that Cagney reinforced in me.
Cagney also reinforced my belief in treating everyone with respect. When I am in a show I hang out with the crew as much as anybody else. I try to be friends with everybody – Cagney was like that too. That’s how my dad is. He’s a doctor in a small town in Ontario. He was always “The Man” because he was the only doctor. But he treated everybody the same. The mayor or the guy repairing his car. I think that was how Cagney was and that is how I want to go through my life.
TM: How wonderful that you get to playing a man who is so inspiring.
RC: You are exactly right. I think I hitched my wagon to the right horse. Sometimes it is easy to create a biography of people who have a little more scandal in their life. But we found the story’s conflict in different ways. I am constantly inspired by this guy. He questioned what he was putting into the world because it was all gangster related. And he was good to everyone. In the end he left his mark and is remembered for his integrity as well as his great work.
TM: How are you different?
RC: He grew up not wanting this work at all. He did it as a job at first and ultimately wanted to create more artistic pieces. His burning passion wasn’t to do what he was doing which is why he left the business at 63. He probably could have made 50 more movies, but he chose to go to his farm, raise horses and paint. We are different in that way. I am bit more of a dreamer rather than a pragmatist, because I do want it. This career is what I wanted when I was growing up. And I was passionate about wanting that. Not just thinking of it as a job but almost as a calling. For him it began as just a job, and within that it was important to him what he had for roles. I started because this is what I was supposed to do in the world. I believe that these are the talents I have been given and I want to use them to their maximum level, and if I don’t that’s where – if you have been given the talents you need to use them fully. Believe that. Also – I love it. You put me on stage or in front of a microphone and that lights my fire – for whatever reason. Some people it terrifies. Other people do it but you know they would rather be doing something else, but for me, honestly when I am up there doing it and feeling good there is no place I would rather be. So that tells me I am in the right place. It is hard to even articulate what that is. It’s just the way I’m wired.
TM: Why is this the perfect show for you to be doing?
RC: First of all, he was the same size as me. This show has given me an opportunity to use my full skill set. I love doing that. Funny AND dramatic. Really have to sing. Really have to dance. It is a challenge to be in that position as opposed to playing a character role which I am more used to doing. It is great to get to lead the show.
TM: It sounds like your skill set onstage and off stage has all come together.
RC: I am lucky because I am working with people I love. We are like family now. I do feel responsible sometimes for the tone of the company and do what I can to take the lead on that. I think that is an important thing. I have been in several companies where I watched other people do that – like Sutton Foster. She is always 100% onstage and always kind and thoughtful offstage. It makes it hard for other people to act in any other way.
TM: It is like your father. You are the doctor of the little town called Cagney.
RC: That’s very good parallel. That’s right.
The next day I saw Cagney again. Of course the dancing was off the charts, and as if to underscore his stated belief in being 100% on and off stage I noticed a tiny salute that Creighton threw to a musician after a scene featuring a little musical sleight-of-hand. No big deal. Just a gesture that says “Thanks,” sent to a musician who appreciated the nod.
Seems as though Robert Creighton is doing that a lot these days, being grateful and showing it. And the world is responding in kind – one tap at a time.
Creighton is starring in Cagney until May 21.
The Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd St. 212-239-6200, http://www.cagneythemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.