Who was James Cagney? There was a time when fans around the world could have easily answered the question. He was one of the top movie stars, most noted actors and recognizable faces, having starred in many dozens of films including “The Public Enemy,” “White Heat,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. But, as older generations are eclipsed by their successors, the popularity of his films — and this entertainment icon who died in 1986 at the age of 86 — has significantly declined.
If, during his life, you had asked him or the studio system, though, “Who is James Cagney?” you would have gotten a very different answer. Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros. studio would have told you Cagney’s spitfire persona made him, simply: profitable when playing a tough guy. And he was half right. To fans, Cagney was, and in some respects still is, the epitome of this persona proven by classic, hit films (and some less popular), in which he played the stereotypical gangster or some other iteration of it.
But Cagney would have said he’s equally a song and dance man. He made his first foray into show business as a “hoofer,” dancing as a means to help put food on the table at his family’s home in New York City’s Lower East Side. He would tap and sing in vaudeville shows, before becoming a contract actor at Warner’s studio.
But, it took a real tough guy to break out of their limiting, albeit successful stereotype and prove that he could go from tough to tap — but he did, winning his only Academy Award, for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in the hit, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Now, the lesser known life of this “tough guy in tap shoes” is being explored in the off-Broadway show, Cagney. Led and co-authored by Broadway’s Robert Creighton (Anything Goes, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), the show received critical acclaim in a limited run produced by the York Theatre Company in 2015.
Now, Broadway producer Riki Kane Larimer (On the Town, Fiddler on the Roof) is bringing it to the Westside Theatre.
Center On The Aisle (#COTA) editor in chief, Steve Schonberg spent some time with Creighton to explore Cagney’s legacy and learn about bringing him back to life through this insightful new musical.