When Robert Creighton was in acting school in New York, a teacher said to him, “You remind me of Jimmy Cagney.”
That comment prompted Creighton to seek out Cagney’s movies. “I saw ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ first, and away I went, trying to find every James Cagney film I could find,” Creighton said in a recent interview. “There was a Blockbuster on the corner that I always bugged to get more Cagney films.”
That movie binge began Creighton’s long fascination with Cagney, the pugnacious star of gangster dramas and movie musicals. For the last decade, Creighton has channeled his energy into developing, co-writing and starring in a stage musical about Cagney’s life.
That musical, “Cagney,” is being developed for a potential Broadway run — and a big step in that process is producing the play at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company, for 17 performances from Sept. 20 to Oct. 5.
“Cagney” depicts the actor, the son of immigrants, from his early days on vaudeville to his stardom in gangster roles — the guy who caused a sensation when he shoved a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face in “The Public Enemy” — and his triumphs as a musical star. (Cagney won his Oscar for playing showman George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”)
Watching Cagney on screen, Creighton felt an instant connection. Cagney was 5 feet, 5 inches tall; Creighton is 5 feet, 6 inches. Creighton, like Cagney did, loves to tap dance. Cagney loved sports and boxed as a kid; Creighton, growing up in rural Ontario, Canada, once dreamed of being the goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“As a person, he was magnetic on screen,” Creighton said of Cagney. “His energy’s always forward. He looks like he’s going to punch you or kiss you. That makes him so engaging.”
‘CAGNEY’ TAPS IN
The musical “Cagney,” which is being groomed for a possible Broadway run, is being produced by Pioneer Theatre Company.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 20, and runs through Oct. 5.
Showtimes • Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., no shows on Sundays.
Tickets • $68 for the main floor and loge; $45 for the balcony, at pioneertheatre.org.
Loge Gallery • “In Good Company,” an exhibit featuring works from the Saltgrass Printmakers collective. Open to ticket holders before and after each performance, and at intermission; free to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
As a younger actor, Creighton learned that Cagney’s estate was developing a play that recounted the major events in the actor’s life. Creighton auditioned for the role — a process, Creighton said, that included meeting the executor of the estate along with old Cagney friends, including the boxer Floyd Patterson — and got it.
The success was short-lived. “We read it a couple times in the city, and then it sort of fizzled out,” Creighton said. But the experience, he said, “got me thinking, ‘This needs to be a show.’”
Creighton wanted his show to be more than a dry biography, and more like “a take on his psychological journey, and his battle with his own persona, and why he struggled against [movie mogul Jack] Warner,” he said.
“I talked to everyone, ‘I’m going to write a show someday about James Cagney,’” Creighton said. He read biographies on Cagney, and watched all the movies, and began sketching out a one-man show.
Creighton befriended playwright Peter Colley when he performed in one of Colley’s plays in Canada. A year later, over drinks in Los Angeles when Creighton was playing Timon in “The Lion King,” they talked over some ideas.
“He really was the first person to start shaping all my ideas about Cagney, all the interesting things I, as a fan, liked about Cagney,” Creighton said. “He’s the one who really taught me about making an autobiographical show something anyone can enjoy, not just a fan.”
Together, Creighton and Colley wrote the first version of “Cagney,” a straight play with period music. When the period music “wasn’t telling the story,” Creighton wrote nine songs for the play. They continued to tinker with the musical, and they held its first reading in 2007, for Florida Stage, a theater group in West Palm Beach.
Then, the play had a cast of four, and later six, with Creighton as Cagney and the other actors each taking a dozen roles. Creighton said the score needed work, and he partnered with composer/lyricist Christopher McGovern to improve the songs. (Colley is now credited for writing the musical’s book, aka the script; Creighton and McGovern share credit as composers and lyricists.)
Creighton took a six-person “Cagney” to Florida, Canada, and ultimately an award-winning 15-month run at an off-Broadway theater in Manhattan.
To prepare “Cagney” for Broadway, though, the Pioneer Theatre production now puts Creighton in a cast of 12 actors.
“I find it’s double the fun to watch 12 people play a lot of characters as it is to watch six,” said Bill Castellino, who directed the show off-Broadway and is directing Pioneer’s production.
“At first, I was a little ambivalent whether I even wanted to do that, because it worked so nicely in our 275-seat [off-Broadway] theater with six people,” Creighton said. “The good news is, at every turn as we expanded — to make [one] song a production number, or divide up the characters differently — it’s organically grown into where I think it was supposed to be.”
Broadway is territory Creighton knows. To develop “Cagney” at Pioneer, he’s taking a two-month leave of absence from the Broadway production of Disney’s “Frozen” (he plays the villain, Lord Weselton).
Cities like Boston, Chicago and Washington are familiar stops for a musical on its way to Broadway — but Creighton and Castellino are finding Salt Lake City a perfect place to get the expanded “Cagney” on its feet.
Creighton sang the praises of Pioneer Theatre. “They have a facility here where they can build sets and costumes, like a New York shop could build sets and costumes, and that has been a gift for us,” Creighton said. “They have an infrastructure in place. The stage managers here are as good as any Broadway stage managers I’ve worked with. It’s a really well-oiled machine, which allows us to just do our work, the creative stuff.”
And, like a Triple-A prospect who knows scouts from the majors are watching, Castellino said, “We’re on the radar of the people in New York that do this.”
Creighton said some of the “gatekeepers to the Broadway theaters” will come to Pioneer to see “Cagney.” “That will be the determining factor of whether we get to Broadway. They come and think, ‘That show will run in New York, in one of my theaters.’ That starts the ball rolling quickly in that direction,” he said.
There are 41 theaters in the midtown Manhattan theater district known as Broadway, according to The Broadway League. About half, Castellino said, are booked with long-running shows, like “The Book of Mormon” at the Eugene O’Neill or “Wicked” at the Gershwin.
Even if “Cagney” could get the Gershwin, Castellino said, “it’s too big. Unless you’re ‘Wicked,’ you don’t want those extra 400 seats,” because not enough people will buy tickets to fill them.
“A lot of stars have to align,” Castellino said, for “Cagney” to find the right-sized theater at the right place on the calendar.
Creighton, flashing the brash confidence of Cagney himself, is sure it will happen. “I already knew we had a good show,” he said, “but now I believe it warrants being on Broadway. And it’s getting better every day.”