Creighton, whose acting credits include Broadway's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Timon in The Lion King (Toronto/Los Angeles) and Damn Yankees for Encores! Summer Stars, is on leave from Disney's The Little Mermaid to do Cagney!, for which the busy artist also penned songs. It plays to May 3.
Music and lyrics are by Creighton and musical director Christopher McGovern. Bill Castellino directs the show, which has a libretto by Peter Colley and boasts new numbers plus classics by George M. Cohan.
The Cagney! cast also features Darrin Baker (Broadway's Tarzan, Wonderful Town, Laughing Room Only, Footloose, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sunset Boulevard) as Jack Warner, plus Joel Newsome (Broadway's The Producers), Brian Ogilvie (Altar Boyz), Tina Stafford (Florida Studio Theatre's Jacques Brel…) and Ellen Zolezzi (Off-Broadway's Seussical).
According to Florida Stage, "Cagney! tells the story of one of the most iconic and beloved figures in American film and stage history. Cagney came from the mean streets of New York City. An accomplished hoofer, he worked in the dance halls and cabarets of the city, going on to become the cinema's quintessential tough guy, a political and social activist and one of the country's most beloved song and dance men."
Opening is March 27 in Manalapan, FL, in the Palm Beach area. Putting together a musical about James Cagney has been an obsession of Creighton's for 15 years.
"When I was in acting school, a teacher said I reminded him of James Cagney," Creighton told Playill.com March 20. "I knew who he was from [the film] 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' but that was really it. I started watching his movies and couldn't stop. Totally engrossed. Then a year after acting school they were casting a play about the life of Cagney and it was being supported by his Estate. I got the part…and though we workshopped it on Monday nights for a month or so…the project fizzled.
"In the meantime I had been watching every Cagney movie possible and reading every book, and it became my dream to someday bring his life story to the stage.
"As I learned about his life and how he thought — there is a great book called 'Cagney by Cagney' that reads just like he talked, fascinating! — I became more and more engaged. His acting advice: 'Plant your feet, look 'em in the eye, and tell the truth.' Does it get any better than that?"
What's the main conflict of Cagney's life that sparks the new musical?
Creighton explained, "The two main conflicts highlighted in our story are regarding he and [producer] Jack Warner — really about [Cagney's] need for justice and sticking up for the little guy. And Cagney and his own struggle with his being identified as the tough guy when he wanted to be and give so much more than that, which of course he did!"
How did Creighton come to collaborate with Peter Colley, the librettist?
"[We] met on an opening night of one of his plays that I was performing in up at Drayton Festival Theatre in Ontario, Canada, near my hometown there, in 2001," the Canadian actor-writer said. "When I was in L.A. in 2003 doing The Lion King, I invited him and his wife to come see me play Timon. We went out after and, of course, the topic of Cagney came up, and I told him some of my ideas and my dream of doing a show about his life. He was intrigued, and I asked if we could meet and talk more. He knew a great deal about Hollywood during that era and started researching Cagney and shared my passion. We met several times while I was in L.A. to hammer out a story.
"His great gift to me was taking all that knowledge I had and the admiration for Cagney and finding what was theatrical and what someone who knew nothing of Cagney would find interesting when coming to the theatre."
Creighton and Colley worked on and off for five years until a Cagney! reading was presented in New York City in 2007 (during Creighton's Little Mermaid hiatus between Denver and Broadway). Creighton said that over "those five years it had evolved from a one-man show with some public-domain Cohan music to a musical with ten original songs" by Creighton, plus several Cohan songs. (For the uninitiated, Cagney played showman Cohan in the 1942 film "Yankee Doodle Dandy," proving that he could be more than a gangster on screen).
"Now," he said, "it's a full-on six-person musical with mostly original music. Through Florida Stage we came in contact with [composer] Christopher McGovern and [director] Bill Castellino. Christopher is an incredibly talented composer and lyricist from whom I have already learned a ton. I knew that some of my music was what I wanted and worthy, and some was not good enough. Christopher has taken the musical to a whole different level, where I think it could now play anywhere. Bill Castellino has helped us re-shape the script into a much leaner, more impactful story."
What's the nature of the show's music?
"There are some classic Cohan songs in the form of a big USO section and a 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' finale, but the majority of the music is asking and answering dramatic questions and certainly sung 'in character.'"
Creighton said his immediate goal for the show is "to use this time at Florida Stage to make it as good as it can be and to find happy homes for it in the regions so people will remember the man."
Does he dream of a New York home for Cagney! some day?
"Cagney was born and raised in NYC, and he and this show about his life have the grit that New York loves. It will play in New York, someday...somehow. For me...that's the next dream!"
Playwright Colley has had his plays and musicals produced in 25 countries, 48 of the 50 States in the U.S., and every province in Canada. He has received many awards including a 2000 Humanitas Prize nomination for screenwriting, a semi-finalist for the 2006 and 2007 Eugene O'Neill Awards. Cagney! received a 2008 Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award.
McGovern's new musical A Visit to Roswell was read at last season's Florida Stage 1st Stage Festival. He also co-conceived (with Lynnette Barkley) and wrote the book/original songs/arrangements for the Florida Stage hit Backwards in High Heels. He wrote the libretto and score for Lizzie Borden, seen regionally.
The creative team includes Jeff Shade (choreographer), Mark Pirolo (scenic design), Jim Fulton (lighting design), Erin Amico (costume design) and Matt Kelly (sound design).
For tickets and more information call (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837 (outside of Palm Beach County), or visit www.floridastage.org.
Florida Stage, devoted to world premieres and regional premiere, bills itself as the only professional theatre in the Southeast producing exclusively new and emerging plays.