CAGNEY the musical

“Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!”

What James Cagney said in the 1932, Warner Bros. film ‘Taxi,’ famously misquoted as “You dirty rat.”

Photos by Carol Rosegg
Robert Creighton as James Cagney


James Francis Cagney, Jr. exemplified what an all-around performer aspires to be. He acted in over 60 films, danced and sang with style. His talent was immeasurable and the audience loved him for it. Whether he played gangster roles Angels with Dirty Faces, or a popular composer/lyricist George M. Cohan in both Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Seven Little Foys, Cagney was a marvel to watch every time. Canadian actor Robert Creighton also shares that gift. He’s dynamic, engaging and amazing to watch. He possesses a natural energy that will immediately mesmerize an audience. And it helps that resembles the late Oscar winner. Very handsome with piercing eyes.

The story opens with Cagney receiving the Lifetime Award at the American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards in 1974, presented by his former director and nemesis director Jack L. Warner (played intensely by Bruce Sabath). The two are backstage sharing sharp-witted jabs against each other. Warner proudly states that how he discovered “nobodies and made them into somebodies.” In the office, he answers the phone “Warner here. Make me happy.” Tough sounding bastard. He takes ample credit for discovering Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and others. All Cagney can do is nod because arguing with this delusional man will lead nowhere but to an aneurysm in the brain.

The audience has some insight Cagney’s family, he kept his personal life under wraps, consisted of his mother Carolyn, affectionately nicknamed “Ma” (Donette Holden does an exceptional job as the stern but loving mother) and brother Bill (Josh Walden). Cagney’s first job in show business was as dancer Lola Fandango. He strutted his sexy moves wearing a red dress with black polka dots, red flowers peeking underneath a black fedora. He meets his future wife Frances Willard Vernon, known as Billie, her parents expected a boy, and build a romance with the shy dancer. The two marry.

She encourages Cagney to try out Hollywood. He shakes his head and says, “I’m a hoofer, not an an actor.” Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Warner gets word that the hottest property is James Cagney. The movie exec demands to meet this Cagney and see what he’s all about. They meet. Warner offers a contract. Cagney declines because he’s doing well and doesn’t want to leave his mother. Cagney’s personal life was also dramatic, in a good positive way.

He fought for the working man. Better wages. More safety. He felt the crew deserved a lot more than the pittance Warner paid them. He was called a “radical” and refused to pay the “Merriam tax.” The studios would tax their bankable actors and channel the money to then governor Frank Merriam. At the end of the day, Merriam pocketed almost half a million dollars. Cagney wasn’t haven’t it. He refused to pay the extortion.

Then, in 1934 and 1940, he was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer. When asked if he was a communist. Cagney replied, “I’m just an old hoofer who got lucky in the movies.” Creighton looks like an angel dressed all in white in front of a committee wearing matching black robes. Cagney held on steadfast to his beliefs, evolving as the times did. He never backed down. The passion he put in in the movies he applied it to real life. Because, that’s the real world he lived in.
Cagney rose from the hard-hitting streets of the Lower East Side in New York City. He made his film debut in Sinners Holiday in 1930 and continued to make movies until his last role in 1981 in Ragtime. Creighton is surrounded by a wonderful cast that make him shine. Mr. Cagney would have been proud.

Cagney the Musical plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday the 29th at 3:00 p.m., Tuesday the 24th at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday the 25th at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday, the 29th at 3 p.m. Sunday the 22nd is sold out. Dark on Mondays. Playing at the El Portal Theatre’s Debbie Reynolds Mainstage, located at 5269 Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood. For tickets, log on to