A Visit with Robert Creighton
By Mary Alderson
Actor Robert Creighton doesn’t have what you might consider the typical leading man look. But throughout his career, people have commented on his resemblance to James Cagney. So Creighton dreamed of playing Cagney onstage. His dream has come true and he is now, indeed, a leading man.
Robert sat down with me for a visit at ‘The Gator’ on the beach in the ’Bend, the day after his show opened. It was so interesting to hear about how a boy from Walkerton made the journey to create a new musical, with stops on Broadway along the way.
Born and raised in Walkerton, Robert has deep roots in southwestern Ontario. He left his home town when he was grade 11 to attend a theatre arts school, then went on to get a degree in vocal music at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. From there he went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City to hone his acting skills, and took dancing lessons, perfecting his tap.
As a student he returned to Grand Bend in the summers, appearing in Gypsy and Annie Get Your Gun at Huron Country Playhouse. He also played the young Prince Chulalongkorn in The King & I at HCP in 1989, returning over the years in several other roles. More recently, he appeared in The War Show.
Between acting gigs in New York, Robert didn’t do the usual waiter jobs. He worked as a legal assistant in Law Firm. “It was a great job, I loved it and learned so much,” he says.
Robert has had an amazing career so far – After several off-Broadway and New York theatre productions, he was cast in Fame, The Musical and The Lion King National Tours. From there he went on Broadway in shows such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Damn Yankees with Sean Hayes and Jane Krakowski. He was also in The Little Mermaid, starting in the chorus, and then taking on the role of Chef Louis. He was playing Timon in The Lion King on Broadway when he got the chance to mount his own production.
When he heard the comments about his resemblance to James Cagney, Robert started thinking about creating a musical based on the life of Cagney. Robert has perfected Cagney’s look and talk, but it’s his dance that really looks Cagney-esque. A check on You Tube of old Cagney footage shows how Robert has the style. In the show there’s a scene of Bob Hope and Cagney dancing together in The Seven Little Foys. Robert is excellent in replicating Cagney’s technique. Check out the original here:
Cagney danced with slightly stiff legs, but astounding footwork, which Robert has completely captured.
Cagney! was about 20 years in the making, Robert says. He started writing it as a one-man show, but then enlisted the help of playwright Peter Colley, meeting the Canadian in California. Christopher McGovern worked with Robert on the music and lyrics, and has come to Grand Bend as musical director.
After much work, Cagney! debuted at West Palm Beach, Florida last year. “I was two months into The Lion King on Broadway, but I had to leave that,” Robert explains, “This was my baby, I had to do Cagney!”
The Florida production gained attention, and was nominated for seven Carbonell awards (given to honour theatre in Florida). Cagney! won the Carbonell for Best New Work.
Robert brought the production home this year, making its Canadian debut in Drayton, and then moving to Grand Bend.
Robert talks about how he wanted to put detail in Cagney’s character, but he couldn’t fit every aspect into the show. He deferred to his collaborators’ expertise when paring down the script. He says Cagney was an observer of life and he wanted to capture Cagney’s key elements such as sticking up for the little guy.
For the most part, Cagney! is historically accurate. In a few instances, Robert took some poetic licence, like having Jack Warner present the lifetime achievement award. In reality, there were several presenters, but Robert wanted to have the two characters back in the same scene. He also imagined how the memorable grapefruit scene came about, knowing of Cagney’s improv abilities.
Robert is friendly, personable and brimming with energy and enthusiasm. He certainly has the charm and talent of a leading man. His career is on the right track and moving forward. We look forward to seeing Cagney! on Toronto and New York stages soon.
See my review of Cagney! at www.entertainthisthought.com