Pioneer Theatre to tap into power of legendary actor with “Cagney”

Mon Sep 16, 2019 at 3:14 pm
By Catherine Reese Newton
Robert Creighton portrays James Cagney in Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Cagney,” which opens Friday night. Photo: PTC

James Cagney wasn’t a bad guy—he just played one in the movies.

And if Cagney: The Musical About Hollywood’s Tough Guy in Tap Shoes sounds like a fanciful reimagining, remember that Cagney sang and danced his way to an Academy Award for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

“He always wanted to be a song-and-dance man,” said Robert Creighton, the singing, dancing co-creator and star of Cagney. The musical, which had a well-received 500-performance run off-Broadway in 2016-17, will open Pioneer Theatre Company’s season Friday night in an expanded production with Broadway aspirations.

“Going to Broadway is easier said than done,” said director/dramaturg Bill Castellino, a central member of the Cagney team for ten years, who will direct PTC’s production. But he likes the show’s chances to crack the Gotham big time like its star.

“This is a very interesting man, a very interesting biography,” Castellino said of Cagney’s journey from humble beginnings to international renown. “It’s an American story that takes place over a lot of the last century.” Besides that, he said, there was so much more to Cagney than the gangster persona with which the world identified him.

“He proved himself to be a real artist,” Creighton said. “Coupled with that was his sense of justice in every area of his life.” 

Through a string of original songs by Creighton and Christopher McGovern, punctuated by a couple of show-stopping Cohan production numbers, the audience will learn of Cagney’s little-known charitable work, as well as his personal and career milestones. For example, he financed the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine men falsely accused of rape in 1931, and battled incessantly against the studio system

The musical’s spark was lit about 25 years ago by an acting teacher at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts who commented on Creighton’s physical resemblance to the film star. Creighton delved into Cagney’s filmography on his teacher’s advice, then read every bit of biographical information he could. “I felt a connection there, right off the bat,” he said.

But although he’s uncannily well-suited to play this role, Creighton doesn’t want Salt Lake City audiences to expect a familiar Cagney impersonation. “I have taken Cagney’s view of playing Cohan and used it to play Cagney,” he said. That is, if you merely impersonate someone, “you can only do what they did.” Instead, Creighton says that he understands Cagney’s essence and plays him for real. “He had a distinct speech pattern and a certain style of dance, and that is all implied—I do his dance steps—but it’s acting; it’s not impersonation at all.”(Cagney’s choreographer is Joshua Bergasse, who won an Emmy Award for his work on Smash.)

Robert Creighton and Matt Crowl as Bob Hope in “Cagney.”
Photo: PTC

Just out of acting school, Creighton was cast in a short-lived biographical play about Cagney—where, he believed, he was expected to impersonate the star. That ill-conceived project “sort of fizzled out,” he said, but “the fire was fully lit in me to do a show about James Cagney.” 

The fuel he needed came in 2003, when playwright friend Peter Colley signed on. “I really needed someone like him to create the show in a theatrical way, not just from a fan’s point of view,” Creighton said.

The two of them crafted a four-person play with period music, plus some songs written by Creighton, who has a degree in vocal performance from Wilfrid Laurier University in his native Ontario, Canada. Castellino and McGovern joined the team after a reading in New York and helped Creighton and Colley rethink the show.

The presentation of the Screen Actors’ Guild’s lifetime achievement award in 1978 became the story’s framing device, and Cagney’s volatile relationship with studio boss Jack Warner became the central conflict. (There’s a bit of poetic license in the play involving a backstage confrontation between the two men.)

The reworked Cagney, now with some new songs by McDonald and a cast of six, premiered in 2009 at Florida Stage in Palm Beach County and was named best new work at the state’s Carbonell Awards. Five productions later, it was back in New York City, where veteran critic Rex Reed of the New York Observer called it “nothing but joy.” Creighton won the 2016 Astaire Award as Outstanding Male Dancer Off Broadway. A limited L.A. engagement ensued.

What’s different? The lyrics have been polished, and the size of the ensemble has doubled. Originally, everyone but Creighton played multiple roles. (For example, in the New York cast, Danette Holden played Cagney’s mother, Warner’s secretary, a bellhop, the mother of Cagney’s character in “White Heat,” screen legend Bette Davis and more.) With more actors, “we have the opportunity to populate the stage with more characters,” Castellino said. “The numbers are bigger and more realized.”

Equally important, the director said, “technology has evolved so fast and so wonderfully that we can do things that were not possible” when the play was first written. Video projections help tell Cagney’s story, and the first production used nine carousel projectors mounted above the stage—operated by techs on ladders. Now all of that can be accomplished “with a couple of keystrokes and the right software,” Castellino said. “It’s an amazing tool that didn’t exist only ten years ago.”

Creighton had some mixed feelings about the next step.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Sometimes a show is small because it’s meant to be small. I loved [Cagney] off-Broadway. It was really good for what it was; the audience left uplifted.” He asked himself: “Do I want to change it?”

He’s confident of the answer now. “I’m 100 percent sure we’ve arrived at the show this show was meant to be.” 

Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Cagney opens September 20 and runs through October 5 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre; 801-581-6961 or

Catherine Reese Newton reported on the arts for The Salt Lake Tribune for nearly 30 years.

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