What It's Like to Play Your Hero Off-Broadway Eight Times a Week

February 16, 2017

What is it like to bring one of your heroes to life on stage? That’s what Robert Creighton experiences eight times a week as the star of Cagney, the off-Broadway musical currently playing at the Westside Theatre. Creighton conceived and co-wrote the show, which tells the story of James Cagney, from his humble beginnings on New York’s Lower East Side to his reluctant start on the vaudeville stage to his rise to Hollywood stardom, where he became known as the quintessential “tough guy.” But dance was also a major part of his life, and the show is full of infectiously energetic tap numbers, expertly performed by the six-person cast. Creighton talked to DM about dance’s role in the show, his love of tap, and how to play an icon.

Robert Creighton and the cast of Cagney. PC Carol Rosegg.

What first drew you to Cagney’s story?

My obsession with Cagney started over 20 years ago. I was in acting school, and a teacher said “You remind me of Jimmy Cagney.” I started watching his films and just thought he was so mesmerizing. And I, too, felt this connection like, “Wow, I do kinda look like him and move like him.” And then I started reading about his life. I had this fire lit in me that this needs to be a story and it needs to be a musical. He became famous as a tough guy, playing mostly gangsters, but inside he was a song and dance man.

How do you approach the role of Cagney? What is it like playing a real person?

Cagney won an Oscar for playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, which was a bio pic. And he said, “I don’t believe in imitation, because then you can only do what they did. You take their essence and then you play it for real.” So I take Cagney’s advice on how to play a biographical character. When he danced, he moved his hands in certain iconic ways. He always sort of had his index finger pointed out, and he was very forward and up on his toes a bit. I do bring that element to it, but I just sort of let that wash over me and then play it as me.

What was it like working with Joshua Bergasse on the choreography?

He did the choreography starting with our second production, so he’s been with us since 2010. He really uses the strengths of his dancers—he doesn’t just dictate every single step. And we had to pepper in the iconic Cagney moves throughout. The people who are real fans of Cagney would be unsatisfied if we didn’t have some of that in the show.

Creighton and Jeremy Benton. PC Carol Rosegg

Where does your love for tap come from?

My parents loved old movies, so I was really into Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. My neighbors used to keep a hat and cane out, and I’d go over after church on Sunday and make up dance routines for them. I never really had any formal training growing up, although I danced a lot. When I moved to New York, I went nuts on tap dancing. I was in acting school, but on the side I would take tap class all the time. Then when I finished school, I would go to probably four or five classes a week. That’s when I really advanced to a different level.

Do you have a favorite dance number in the show?

I really love the tap duet with Jeremy Benton, who plays Bob Hope. Two-thirds of it we do a capella, so it’s just pure sound. And Jeremy is an amazing tap dancer—it’s like playing tennis with someone who’s better than you; it elevates your game. We literally sound like one person while we’re dancing and it brings me such joy to go for that perfection every time. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.