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May 15, 2015


Come to the York Theatre Company and see Robert Creighton in drag.

“What’s he doing?” you ask. “LA CAGE? ROCKY HORROR? PAGEANT?”

No, a musical about James Cagney.

Now you’re puzzled. How could drag have anything to do with the legendary character actor who squeezed a grapefruit into the face of his on-screen girlfriend? One doesn’t associate sparkle dust, bugle beads and ostrich plumes with the thug who shot holes in the trunk of a car on the premise that he was giving its occupant a chance to breathe but was really giving him a chance to die.

Nevertheless, believe it or not, in 1919 Cagney’s first role was as a female impersonator in a revue called EVERY SAILOR. And, Creighton reasoned, if you’re going to do a musical called CAGNEY, then you must include this scene.

When Creighton was a child, he didn’t give a thought to Cagney. “It was Fred Astaire who intrigued me,” he says. “My parents would wake me at 11 o’clock at night on Saturdays to watch ‘The Late, Late Show’ and I’d watch old movies until I fell asleep and they carried me back to bed.”

And Sundays? Creighton blushes a bit before revealing what those were like. “Almost every Sunday afternoon, I’d go over to my neighbors where they’d put on records. I’d bring my hat and cane and make up dance routines.” He throws his head in his hands and shakes it as if to exorcise the embarrassment.

Not until he was studying at the American Academy was the specter of Cagney raised. “A teacher there said to me ‘You remind me of James Cagney.’ Actually, all I knew about him was YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, which I saw when I was about 20. Back then, it didn’t hit me that I had any similarity with him. Rewatching it, though, I saw it. And then I went out and found every VHS tape I could find.

“Yes, VHS,” he adds, anticipating an editorial comment from his interviewer. “That’s how long I’ve been planning this show.”

The epiphany came when Creighton watched MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, the 1957 bio-pic in which Cagney played silent film star Lon Chaney. Imagine Creighton’s surprise when Lon Chaney, Jr. was revealed to have a son named Creighton.

“James Cagney had said my name!” Creighton exclaims. “Just hearing him cry out ‘Creighton!’ sealed the deal for me.”

Making a musical is, of course, never easy. There was the inevitable consideration of doing a one-person show. Early on, there was a false start with someone connected with, of all things, OH! CALCUTTA!

Then Creighton went to the Drayton Festival Theatre in Ontario to do a play by Peter Colley. The two got along, and when Creighton was playing Timon in THE LION KING in Los Angeles, Colley came to see him. A dinner conversation led to Colley’s signing on to write the book for CAGNEY. “He really found the themes and what was theatrical,” says Creighton.

Also proving valuable were Creighton’s visits to the old Cagney compound in Stanfordville, New York. “I met plenty of his friends, including Floyd Patterson,” he says, referring to the boxer who was the youngest to ever win the heavyweight title. “What I learned from talking to people there was that Cagney was just as friendly to celebrities as to the person who owned the farm next to him.”

Doing research on a Hollywood personality usually reveals every sexual adventure from one-time adultery to full-blown affairs. “Not with Cagney,” insists Creighton, lifting his head a little, narrowing his eyes and stating this with the tone and force of an unimpeachable character witness. “He was married to the same woman for 66 years and the marriage ended only when he died.”

All right, but every musical must have conflict. Creighton gives a curt nod of agreement before saying “Our story centers on the fights Jimmy had with producer Jack Warner. He didn’t want to be typecast as a gangster, for he wanted the world to know he was a song ‘n’ dance man, too. So he walked away from Warner more than once.”

So CAGNEY begins when the two adversaries meet backstage at the 1978 Oscars. “It never happened,” Creighton says with the unapologetic tone of one who learned long ago that virtually every theatrical biography takes liberties. “Then we flash back to 1919 when he started in vaudeville. When the powers-that-be at Florida Stage became interested, they put the two together with director Bill Castellino and composer-lyricist Christopher McGovern.

No, CAGNEY isn’t all jukebox-musical. “We have eleven songs and four big tap numbers and fight scenes,” he says. “I had Mel-Brooksed my way through the score, and Chris fleshed it out. Two-thirds of the score is now his.” The result was that the three collaborators were given the 2010 Carbonell for Best New Work.

“For the scenes where he’s much older,” Creighton says, “I don’t use make-up. I’m a little slower, look a little heavier and less light on my feet. In the three productions we’ve done -- Florida Stage, Drayton Festival Theatre and Vero Beach Riverside Theatre -- no one has mentioned it as a problem.”

Any musical about Cagney would have to include George M. Cohan, and CAGNEY won’t disappoint there. “We do a lot of Cohan during one of Cagney’s appearances at an USO show. He loved to do those.” But don’t look for business as usual. “Our first act finale is actually a deconstruction of ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag.’”

Creighton was born in Canada. “It used to bother me that I was singing ‘Oh, say can you see anything about a Yankee that’s a phony?’ when I wasn’t an American citizen.” Now he can sing out the line with the fervor that Rose wants from Louise, for Creighton recently became an American citizen.

After he came to New York in 1990, one of his first jobs was playing Slightly Soiled in the 1994 production of PETER PAN at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Little did he know that when he signed on to understudy Robert Johanson’s Peter that he’d inherit the part two weeks into the run after Johanson suffered a trampoline injury on the netting that was meant to help create the illusion of flying.

“The crew who flew me was happy,” says Creighton, “because I weighed so much less.”

As a result of this appearance, Creighton was memorialized, albeit as “Jimmy,” in WHO DROPPED PETER PAN?, Jane Dentinger‘s 1995 mystery novel that tells of Rich Rafaelson, the artistic director of the Peakmont Playhouse in suburban New Jersey who decided to play Barrie’s character and didn’t live to tell the tale.

(Dentinger has staunchly denied that she had Paper Mill in mind, but if it looks like a Paper Mill and sounds like a Paper Mill and it – well, you get the point.)

Johanson then chose Creighton to play The Artful Dodger in OLIVER! but neither of these two roles marked his most important engagement there. The one he made with marketing director Whitney Manalio was, for they’ve now been married for nearly six years.

While Creighton hasn’t been yet able to match Cagney’s “Man of a Thousand Faces,” he has shown Broadway quite a few, for after supporting Jackie Mason in LAUGHING ROOM ONLY, he portrayed an inventor in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, a chef in LITTLE MERMAID, the “dumb mechanic” in CHICAGO, a bogus preacher in ANYTHING GOES and the drunken stonemason in DROOD.

And now there’s CAGNEY, whose name Creighton wants to keep alive to a younger public that never got to know him. “He retired in 1961,” he informs, “because he was having trouble learning and remembering lines,” Creighton admits. “After he had a stroke in the ‘70s, his doctor thought performing again would be good therapy, which is why we saw him one last time as the police commissioner in RAGTIME. But otherwise, he stayed on his farm in Stanfordville and took up painting. I want one of those paintings!”

Well, at least Creighton has seen one – and thereby hangs a tale. One night after performing CAGNEY at Florida Stage, he found that Burt Reynolds was waiting to see him. He told Creighton that he’d had a history with Cagney, for when he was a young actor, someone had asked Cagney who the good up-and-comers were, and he mentioned Reynolds.

“So,” says Creighton, “Burt got his number, called his house to thank him and asked for an autographed picture. He didn’t get that, but weeks later a Cagney painting arrived at his house. When he called to thank Cagney, his wife answered, and when she called Cagney to the phone, he said ‘Tell that cheap bastard he can’t have another painting.’ Burt later invited me over to his house and I saw the painting.”

Creighton is of course happy to have the chance to do the show in Manhattan. “Cagney was also a real New York guy, born of the streets, a gritty fighter for the little guy’s rights, whether that little guy be he or someone else,” he says. “If you gave him flack, he’d give it back to you it double. If you were nice, he was the most generous guy in the world.

“But,” he says, “the show does have to have a big grapefruit budget.”

         — Peter Filichia



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