The character actor Robert Creighton, currently playing the Purser (and Joel Grey's understudy) in Broadway's
Anything Goes, talks about his new album of songs from the early 20th century.
Robert Creighton is a compact song-and-dance man who has played Nicely Nicely in Guys and Dolls
(at Paper Mill Playhouse), The Artful Dodger (regionally, including in his native Canada), Amos Hart in Chicago
(on Broadway) and Moonface Martin in Anything Goes
(subbing for a sidelined Joey Grey recently on Broadway, where he's usually playing the Purser), among many other roles. He seems like one of those actors who was born in the wrong age. If these were vaudeville days, the feisty triple-threat would likely have made the leap from two-a-day touring to Broadway and Hollywood stardom, like his onetime idol Fred Astaire.
Creighton made it to Broadway on his own, without a boost from vaudeville, thank you very much. The Broadway stage was a childhood dream since his upbringing in Walkerton, Ontario, population 5,000, where his folks exposed him to classic movie musicals, and where school choir and community theatre piqued his interest. He would discover James Cagney later — and he fashioned a new biographical musical about the stage and film star as a vehicle for himself. The show, Cagney!
, won a Carbonell Award for its premiere in Florida, and there is hope for a future life for it. A couple of songs from Cagney! surface on "Ain't We Got Fun!," Creighton's new CD that the LML label is releasing in February; it's now available at LMLmusic.com, and everywhere else on Feb. 14. The disc — with many arrangements by Georgia Stitt, plus guest vocal artists including Joel Grey, Kate Baldwin and Heidi Blickenstaff — bursts with songs from the first 40 years of the 20th century. For fans of the American Songbook, it's essential listening. (Catch Creighton 9:30 PM Feb. 12-13 at the Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street.)
Your new album is right up my Tin Pan Alley.
[Laughs.] Yeah, good. If you like that era, some of those songs you never get tired of, you know?
What attracts you to that period?
I think it started early for me. Those are the songs that I sort of grew up humming and knowing and singing with the family and that kind of thing. And, really when I was in acting school, and later digging into the whole Cagney!
[research] thing and Cohan music, I started to be exposed to more and more of it. I guess you naturally are sort of attracted to things. That music — I just enjoy it.
I read in your liner notes that your mom exposed you to movie musicals.
Yeah. I watched them on TV. I remember the black-and-white sort of movie musical — Fred Astaire. What I remember loving as a kid was watching singing and dancing on the TV.
Whose style were you most drawn to?
Well, it's funny, because as a kid, I used to go over every Sunday after church and entertain for the neighbors and say, "Hey, I'm Fred Astaire." [Laughs.] And, as it turns out, I couldn't be less like Fred Astaire, but he was the guy who I grew up loving, and then Gene Kelly. Now, of course, in terms of the acting and everything — and he's such a great song-and-dance man — I'm a big James Cagney fanatic, as you know. But, Fred Astaire was the first guy where I was like, "Oh my gosh." Just the way he moved, you know? I loved it.
You were a hockey fan as a kid. Your other dream was to be a goalie.
[Laughs.] That's true. Well, I grew up in a small town in Canada, so, you know, hockey was sort of my thing until I was 15 years old. I don't play it anymore, but I still am addicted to it. But I knew pretty early on that [a hockey career] wasn't — well, that's not true, you have your dream! But I was also just as involved in singing. I sang in a boys choir starting at age seven and would do all the music competitions and play piano like everyone does, and I knew performing was in my blood. I knew that from a very young age, for sure.
Creighton with Michael Mulheren in the Encores! production of Damn Yankees.
photo by Joan MarcusI know your work, and I know your physical stature. Because you're not 6 feet tall and a baritone, I think of you as a character man. Did you know early on that what your "type"?
When I was 14, I went to the audition for Oliver!
at this place called the Grey Wellington Theatre Guild. It's about 20 minutes away from my hometown. They had the audition where you could get up, and all the kids got up on stage and sang their little song, and all the other kids and their parents were in the audience. I sang "Where is Love?," and I went back and sat down and heard everybody sing. At that age, my voice hadn't changed yet. I was a better singer then than I am now. [Laughs.] So, I'm like, "I'm going to get Oliver!" That's the part I wanted because the show is called Oliver!
, and I wanted to play Oliver. The director called two boys — myself and another guy — and he said to the other boy, "I'd like you to play Oliver," and he looked to me and said, "I'd like you to play the Artful Dodger." In that moment, I was devastated. I was like, "No, I should be Oliver! I was the best singer here, I know it, and I want to be Oliver!" That was a significant moment, in a way, because he saw what I didn't even see: "Hey, he's a character guy," you know? I ended up playing that role three times, and [each time] had real importance to me. That first time was the first real show I did that wasn't in school — it was in a community theatre, where I think my parents said, "OK, this might be what he's supposed to be doing." Then I played it at Rainbow Stage in Winnipeg and got my Equity card in Canada. It was my first professional show. I played Artful Dodger at age 19. And, at age 25, believe it or not, I played it at Paper Mill Playhouse. [Laughs.] I still looked, you know, 16, and Jack Dawkins is, whatever, 17 in ["Oliver Twist"]. But, I played it at Paper Mill when I was just coming out of acting school, and that was a big, big deal for me. Very exciting deal for me here.
But, that first production was your first recognition that you were a certain guy — you had certain strengths?
Yeah. I also realized that that's what I love to do. I love being the song-and-dance man and the funny guy. That is sort of home base for me — that's the stuff that comes really easily, and, as you say, that suits who I am. You can't fight it, and nor would I want to.
Creighton in Cagney!It must have been maddening to choose this song list for your album because you've only got only so many slots. You only have so much time. Was there a list of 50 things you wanted to record?
Yeah. There was a list… Not quite 50, but there was probably double of what I have on the album. I settled very early on the title "Ain't We Got Fun!" I knew I wanted to do that song, and I liked that title because it sort of goes along with my character thing. Like, I wanted the album to have a tone of fun. I'm not Paulo Szot, you know, I'm not Sinatra! I'm a character guy who loves to sing, and so, I wanted it to be fun. So that's how the song list evolved. And there are ballads on it. "I'll Be Seeing You" is my favorite song, and "My Buddy" was a song I couldn't get out of my head. I think it's one of the most beautiful melodies.
It's interesting that "My Buddy," as you know, was written in 1922, after World War I, and has kind of a male significance in an interesting way. I've always loved that song.
It is a song that sticks with you when you hear it. As you listen to it, everyone will put it through their own filter, which makes it significant to everyone in their own way.
Joel Grey famously played George M. Cohan in the musical George M! You're his understudy in Anything Goes. Were you nervous to ask him to sing with you on the album?
I was and I wasn't. Joel is so accessible as a gentlemen of the theatre and as a friend, now — he's just Joel. This is months ago, obviously, when I recorded it and when I asked him. And, I was a little nervous, and we chatted about it. I sort of hemmed and hawed, and he said, "Why don't you let me know exactly what you're asking?" So, I wrote him this fun little letter and left it in his dressing room — and he got a good kick out of that — telling him exactly what I was hoping for and why I wanted him to sing on the album.
We have many crossover points in terms of our careers. I really look up to him. He originated the role of George M!, and I have sort of made it my passion to play Cagney, who won his Oscar for playing George M. He played Amos — originated this role of Amos in the revival of Chicago
on Broadway — and I got to play that role on Broadway. And I left that to understudy him as Moonface in Anything Goes
. Just lots of interesting touch-points there, and I was so grateful when he agreed to do it.
You sing "Give My Regards to Broadway" with him, with your Anything Goes dance arranger David Chase on piano. It sounds like a very intuitive session, very relaxed and of-the-moment.
David Chase is just like "the man" right now in terms of Broadway arranging and musical dance arrangements. We didn't rehearse. Joel said, "Let’s just go do it. It'll be fun. We'll just do it." So, we got in there and just sort of figured it out. We did two takes behind two mics. Joel would start then I'd come in, and Joel kind of directed. He sang a bit and then he looked at me and I started singing. We were just looking at each other singing. We didn't have [sheet] music, we didn't have a plan, we just did it, and that's what came out on the album.
David Chase's piano playing is so nimble on the disc. That was improvised?
All improvised. He's phenomenal. I feel so lucky in both those friends, David and Joel. I'll have that for the rest of my life — that little moment with Joel Grey. It was fun.