Give His Regards to Broadway: Cagney Back as a Musical

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Cagney

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

He’s a Yankee Doodle Dandy...

Cagney, a spiffy, four star musical about the 1930s-1940s movie tough guy James Cagney, who could tap dance like crazy, wrapped in his grand old flag, opened last week in New York, at the Off-Broadway York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s Church, but the audiences will accept his fond regards there, too.

Cagney is the brainchild of Robert Creighton. He wrote the music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern and stars in the show (the book is by Peter Colley). Creighton has adapted all of the physical mannerisms of the legendary movie star, right down to the way he shakes his shoulders and raises his chin when he speaks. He swaggers around the stage and brings the fabled film star of Public Enemy, White Heat, Angels with Dirty Faces, Boys Town, Yankee Doodle Dandy and dozens of other films back to life.

Cagney lovers, and there are millions, will enjoy the play because it focuses on his film career and takes you behind the scenes of his epic films, such as Public Enemy and Yankee Doodle Dandy. If Cagney wrote the musical himself, it would look just like this. There is a lot of attention paid to Hollywood history, too, and the audience gets a good look at how the studio system functioned in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

The fun of the play for everybody is discovering really interesting things about the actor’s life unknown to most fans, such as his lifelong support of workers’ unions the money he donated to them, to strikers and the witch hunt against him that brought him before the House on Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s on charge of being a communist (he was exonerated). I did not know that he was a close friend of comic Bob Hope, a relationship that is explored in the story.

The play sheds a withering spotlight on Hollywood as an industry. The ruthless, make money at any cost philosophy, in whatever movie you can find, is spotlighted brilliantly. Bruce Sabath plays Hollywood mogul Jack Warner, one of the brothers in charge of Warner Brothers Studio, as a marvelously sleazy, money grubbing, kill or be killed shark in a nice suit who lives in a huge mansion. He loves, hates, and loves Cagney again throughout the actor’s career in Hollywood. Sabath is a wonder. Through the relationship between Cagney and Warner, playwright Colley and songwriters Creighton and McGovern open the door to much show business history back to the early 1920s and the days of vaudeville. You learn a lot about the vaudeville shows, their tank town tours, the poor pay and the new vistas opened up by the movie industry. Actors did not make much money and, as Cagney says in one early scene, they scrounged around not to be stars, but just to make enough money to pay their rent.

The theme of the sparkling play is that Cagney really did not enjoy playing tough guys, even though they made him famous. He left Warners and struck out on his own, starring in a string of non-tough guy films that all flopped. He came back to the studio and his bad guy persona in 1949. His rebellion against the stereotype that made him a worldwide icon is not unusual. Many successful actors fell into the same velvet trap.

What is remarkable about Cagney is not only the fine acting and deft musical direction by Matt Perri and overall direction by Bill Castellino, but the sensational tap dance sequences. We all remember Cagney’s bad boy look, but what always sticks in people’s minds was his stunning tap dancing. In the play, Creighton and others, especially Jeremy Benton, dazzle the audience with their tap dancing.

In addition to Creighton, Benton and Sabath, director Castellino wins super performances from Janette Holden as Ma Cagney, Ellen Zolezzi as wife Willie Cagney and Josh Walden as brother Bill Cagney.

The play is superb, a Yankee Doodle treasure with memorable songs like Black and White, but it has its problems. It is far too long at 2 ½ hours and could be cut by a good fifteen or twenty minutes. The play lumbers along for a solid half hour before Cagney’s film career starts and the plot percolates. That sleepy first half hour could be condensed to five minutes or so.

The play is also far too big for the small York Theater stage at 619 Lexington Avenue. This is a sprawling play with a pretty large cast and it has significant dance numbers, all staged majestically by choreographer Joshua Bergasse, that are shoehorned into this small space. Hopefully, the musical will succeed and move on to a Broadway theater where it can spread its wings and really soar. The play also cuts too much out of Cagney’s long life. It ends with a 1978 tribute to Cagney at the Screen Actors Guild awards show, but the last movie it discusses is White Heat, way back in 1949. He made some twenty films after that, and was in movies right into the 1980s, but all of that is deleted from the otherwise fine story. What was his relationship to his wife Billie (they were married 64 years)? His family (he adopted two children)? Friends? Fans? You need more of that.

The play should also straighten out its history. Cagney was not discovered on Broadway and then put directly into Public Enemy. There were other films before that hit.

Even so, Cagney is a play that tells a lot of show business history and is a genuine hit.

PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by the York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's, in conjunction with Riki Kane Larimer. Scenic Design: James Morgan, Costumes: Amy Clark, Lighting: Brian Nason, Sound: Janie Bullard, Projection Design: Mark Pirolo, Musical Direction: Matt Perri, Choreography: Joshua Bergasse. The play is directed by Bill Castellino. The show runs through June 21.

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