When I saw Cagney, The Musical a few months ago, I was so taken by the show. A great old-fashioned musical about one of Hollywood's biggest actors as well as a whole lot of top-notch tap-dancing! One of my favorite characters in the show was that of "Jack Warner" (head of Warner Brother Studios), played so eloquently by Bruce Sabath. I loved the way Bruce portrayed Jack's excitement, wrath, and business tactics. His chemistry with Robert Creighton's "James Cagney" is spot on and I loved the scenes when they sparred.
Cagney: The Musical plays at The Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street, between 9th & 10th Avenue) through May 28 only! Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I can answer that in two ways. In the more conventional "inspirational performances" sense, it started with movie musicals I saw as a kid - Sound of Music, Westside Story, Oklahoma, and of course Fiddler on the Roof. Then I remember being amazed by Kevin Kline and Kevin Spacey (the Kevins). Kline who starred in Sophie's Choice and then A Fish Called Wanda, and Spacey who starred in, well a gazillion films, both amazed me by the depth of their craft, AND that they seemed to defy pigeonholing. They were simply great actors. I remember thinking that if I was an actor, that's the kind of actor I would want to be.
Of course being an actor was never on the table for the first part of my life. That wasn't something people in my world did. I believed (really believed) that if you had the ability, you should pursue a traditional profession - doctor, lawyer, business man. A Job-job. And I had that kind of ability, so that path was the obvious choice! At least it seemed that way until I found myself very unhappy and lost. So when a high-powered high-potential colleague of mine at American Express told me one day that she was leaving the company to pursue painting, it blew my mind. I think that moment may have been one of the most inspirational moments of my life.
2. You had quite an interesting journey to becoming a full time actor. Prior to acting, you were a businessman, but very unhappy with your work. After one of your "I hate my job" rants with your wife, she helped you find the strength for you to really pursue acting full time and that was over a decade into your business career. Do you remember the exact day you had this discussion? What do you think it was about this particular talk that made you go, "I can do this!"? I remember it well! I knew I wasn't happy on Wall Street, in strategy consulting or in the corporate world. I was trying to figure out what I should do next, but everything on my list was really more of the same. I had literally written a spreadsheet to compare the pros and cons of various unattractive options. So one morning, Karen said "toss out the spreadsheet for a minute. If you could do anything, anything at all, what would you do? How would you spend your time?" And without even blinking, I responded, "Well, if I could do anything, of course I would be an actor." Pause. "But of course I can't do that!" I proceeded to list all the logical reasons why "I couldn't." And then she hit the nail on the head. She said, "But you KNEW, in a split second, what you would want to do. How could you not pursue that? And as I let that sink in, All my belief systems and "rules" melted away. I had always acted as a kid, I was GOOD, and there was nothing I loved to do more. But "the rules" said to put that away, "grow up." But that morning, I realized I had to do this. And it never even occurred to me that I couldn't make it a reality. It was truly who I was.
3. What was that first morning like when you woke up, not having to go to work, but actually getting up to pursue your true passion? I remember telling my boss at American Express that I would be leaving to pursue acting, and surprisingly, he thought it made perfect sense. I had several weeks during which I finished projects I was managing, but that whole time I was figuring out exactly what it meant to really pursue acting. The most important part of that was finding The Wiliiam Esper Studio. But while I was still working I remember going to the theatre, and instead of that despondent feeling I had experienced before, I now felt euphoria, thinking, "I'm going to do that!!" Chicago was one of those shows, and coincidentally, Chicago was one of the first shows I did as an Equity actor (playing "Amos Hart" in summer stock at West Virginia Public Theatre).
But the greatest feeling was when I walked into The Esper Studio that first day, knowing I was going to learn the craft of acting from one of the greatest teachers in the world. I was ten feet off the ground. I spent nearly three years studying with Bill Esper. His mentoring was critical to my becoming a skilled actor.
4. What made you want to be part of Cagney the Musical? Here was a show about a legendary film icon who played gangster after gangster AND he could tap dance! The minute I heard the concept I thought, "This is perfect! How is it possible that no one has ever made a musical about "James Cagney" before now!?" Well, lucky for me they hadn't. When I read about the character of Jack Warner and how he figured into Cagney's story, I knew I had to be a part of this.
5. As you mentioned, your primary role in Cagney the Musical is that of "Jack Warner," President of Warner Brothers Studios. How did you prepare to portray such a famous figure in entertainment history? Originating a character in a new show is one of my favorite things to do in the theatre. When that character is an actual person, it brings in additional elements. Of course I researched Warner through biographies, documentaries about him and his brothers, references about him from those who knew him, and video clips - everything from news reels to home movies. The trick was to be true to the real Warner, while developing a compelling character for the musical theatre. I was doing this research while we were rehearsing the play, so sometimes a historical tidbit would resonate in a scene we were working on, and help shape my approach to it.
6. What do you relate to most about "Jack"? What is one characteristic of his you are glad you don't possess? "Jack" and I are both incredibly persistent. Some might say "stubborn." But "stubborn" people hold onto their positions even when they are wrong. Like" Jack," I'm never wrong (joking).
But seriously, I do admire his tenacity, his perseverance. He and his brothers forced their company into existence in an environment that did everything possible to make them fail. There was rampant anti-semitism in the early movie industry, and the Warner Brothers fought tooth and nail to succeed in spite of it. As he progressed in his career however, he became disloyal, cruel and deceitful. He betrayed almost everyone in his life: his colleagues, his son, his brothers, his wife (well, wives, actually). He had a sense that people were either stupid and not worthy of his respect or had wronged him, and deserved vengeance. That ain't me.
7. "Jack Warner" really helped make "Cagney" a star by casting him in all his films, even though "Cagney" wanted more after some time. What has been the best part about playing out this storyline opposite Cagney creator and star Robert Creighton? What is one funny story that has happened between you and Robert since the show started? Bobby and I have a ton of fun on stage. We are both so comfortable in our characters, that our scenes are never the same twice. We're just like Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, fighting it out, in one grand slam after another.
We've never had any real "bloopers" between us, though early on in the run, Bobby had trouble making a quick change for a scene in Warner's office, so as I sat alone at my desk, I picked up the phone, called the commissary and ordered a cheeseburger, with mustard, and an order of french fries, well done. THAT'S WELL DONE - NO MUSHY FRIES! Aaaand slammed down the phone. Just as Bobby entered.
8. If you were "Jack Warner" today, who would you want to take under your wing and make them a star? I'm a big fan of acting craft (as I said before, talking about Bill Esper). I've continued to study over the years, with brilliant teachers like Larry Moss and Bob Krakower. I've seen so many amazing performances from fellow actors in these classes. The point being: if I was searching for the next big star, I'd sit in the back of a great acting class.
9. With the success of Feud: Bette and Joan, on FX, have you altered your portrayal of "Jack Warner" or been influenced by Stanley Tucci's portrayal? Have you learned anything about "Jack Warner" from the show that you didn't know or realize beforehand? I'm a huge fan of Stanley Tucci, and have been ever since that great TV series Murder One back in 1995, and his film Big Night the following year. He's also a neighbor (he went to the same high school as my kids), so I've always been interested in his great work. I love what he is doing on Feud.
The mini-series format really lets Tucci (and all the actors) delve into subtleties of character, as they interact over hours of scene work. In that time, they tell a fascinating story that unfolded over months. In contrast, at Cagney, we have 135 minutes to tell a life story that unfolded over 20 years! Including songs! So each moment, while real, represents just the critical moments of Cagney's career. As a result, nothing is casual - every interaction is pivotal.
The other big difference is that our story takes place mostly in the 1930s and 40s. Jack Warner is in his 40s and 50s, and he and Warner Brothers Studios are still clawing their way to the top. Warner's ego makes him seem like a tycoon, but things were always on the verge of disaster. In contrast, by the time of Feud and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Warner was nearly 70, and without question the king of the hill. He could afford to relax a bit, and we see that (at times) in Tucci's portrayal.
10. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day? Just over two years ago, I started running. I was working on a show out of town, and I discovered the Map My Run app on my phone. Suddenly, I could see how far and how fast I was going. And I could listen to podcasts while I ran (I'm a big fan of This American Life, RadioLab and many others)! It all seemed so much more fun than the gym.
Over time I kept it up, gradually increasing my distance from three to four to five miles. Currently, I like to do six mile runs along the Hudson, between shows on two show days. My friends on Facebook and Instagram are used to my frequent posts with hashtags #betweenshowrun and #bwayrunners. Last year I heard that Cynthia Erivo ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon on a two-show Saturday. She really inspired me, so this May 20th, I'll be doing the very same thing! Cynthia - if you're running this year, I'll see you in the BK!
Broadway: "Larry" in Company (Tony® Award - Revival). NYC: Hello Again (Drama Desk nom. - Best Revival), The Gig, Countess of Storyville, Platinum, Jerusalem Syndrome. Regional: Fiddler on the Roof ("Tevye," Broadway World Award.Stages St. Louis), Frost/Nixon ("Nixon," Caldwell Theatre), Asolo Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Geva Theatre. Graduate of Harvard, Wharton and Esper Studio.