BWW Interview EXCLUSIVE: Cathy Rigby - Still Following the Second Star to the Right
Musical theater is filled with thrilling moments. Not the least of these is in PETER PAN, when Peter is trying to get the three Darling children to fly and young John finally utters the word "Christmas". Suddenly they become airborne along with Peter. The scenery whisks away, the music swells and a starlit sky appears over the misty clouds and Peter and the Darlings fly with abandon in one of Jerome Robbins' most stunning theatrical feats of choreography. With former gymnast Cathy Rigby playing Peter, there are some stunning aerial feats of derring-do as she whizzes through the stars and leads the three youngsters to Neverland. Even the most jaded theatergoer finds himself caught up in what has to be one the most exhilarating moments in the theater.
Fortunately, Cathy Rigby is bringing her acclaimed performance in PETER PAN back to New York for the Christmas season and parents and grandparents are lining up at the box office to secure tickets for their children and grandchildren. It seems that everyone wants to introduce the younger members of their families to something they felt was very special as they were growing up.
Speaking to Cathy Rigby via telephone, she sounds as youthful as she was when she first took on the role. Her vibrant personality comes through the telephone astonishingly well and there's no doubt that she's still the number one choice to play Sir James M. Barrie's Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.
Rigby won a Silver Medal in gymnastics at the World Championships in 1970. She competed in 1972 in Munich as well, retiring shortly afterwards. "When you compete in the Olympics," Rigby explains, "your entire life is completely focused on that. I loved the Olympics. Don't get me wrong, but the pressure for going for the Olympics twice is enormous. For six or eight hours a day, six days a week you eat, sleep and drink Olympics. That's all you do. On top of that you have the pressure of proving yourself once every four years. You get to the point where you say, 'Okay, I've had enough and I'm ready to move on to something else.' Plus, I think your best years are between the ages of 15 and 19. I guess you could say that's young on one side and a little older on the other. It's young to retire at 19 but that's pretty old for a gymnast."
She may have retired at 19 but Cathy Rigby holds the honor of being the first female gymnast to receive a Silver Medal. She explains: "ABC Sports announced that I was one of the most influential women in sports, but it was about ten years ago that I was inducted into the Gymnastics' Hall of Fame and I think being one of the first American women to win a medal in world competition had a lot to do with that."
As is the case with many retired athletes, Rigby turned to sports commentary. "I didn't know how to do it but right after I retired I called Roone Arledge who was the head of ABC Sports at the time. I asked him if he needed a woman commentator or color commentator for women's gymnastics. The next thing I knew I was in Norway and happened to be in the same place where a little 14 year old girl named Nadia Komenich was--it was before her big explosion in the world of gymnastics. I worked for ABC Sports for eighteen years and did commentary for a couple of Olympics in Montreal and Los Angeles. At the same time I was studying voice and acting for many, many years. In 1989 I retired from "The Wide World of Sports" and decided to focus my career on theater."
When Rigby left gymnastics she did some episodic television appearances. "You know," she says, "a couple of 'Movie of the Week' things-mostly playing gymnasts with Russian accents. Someone said to me, 'If you like to do this, why don't you take voice lessons and acting classes?' It made lots of sense to me so I started studying pretty diligently for seven years and eventually auditioned for the role of Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1981. It was a production in Northern California and I got the part. I went up to the Sacramento Music Circus playing Dorothy and I felt that it was an amazing experience to be around those actors and even though I was nervous it came off well because I'd studied so hard. At that point it was just a matter of getting experience of being in front of people and singing."
Rigby continues her recollections by adding, "I had the opportunity to work with Gordon MacRea in PAINT YOUR WAGON and he was such a great influence. I went on to do MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and eventually taking over in SEUSSICAL on Broadway. I've been branching out and doing straight plays and just recently finished doing STEEL MAGNOLIAS. I just fell in love with live theater with its energy and its people. In some ways it's similar to gymnastics where everyone has certain skills and you work on different techniques to learn how to do what you do but what I love most about the theater is that there's a team of people you work with. You're not working with an inanimate object like a balance beam. You think and feel and watch how other people think and feel in the theater. I absolutely love it!"
Several years ago, Cathy Rigby starred in a production of Irving Berlin's ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. It was so well received on the road that there was talk of it coming to Broadway. "I don't know if we were ever meant to go to Broadway with it," the actress reflects. "Everyone involved in a national tour always hopes it will play New York. In this case, I thought it was one of the best productions I have ever, ever done. The cast was brilliant. Susan Schuman's direction was great. Everything about it was terrific. I think it was a matter of whether it sold enough tickets. The quality of the show and its production values and the entire cast got amazing reviews and a really terrific experience. I think it was just a matter of money that determined whether we would go to New York. In this case the songs and the characters are so well-known and we had a fantastic response to the show. Michael Lictenfeld was the choreographer at that time and Brent Barrett was Frank Butler. Everything about the production was astonishing. It wasn't for lack of artistry, it was certainly a matter of finances."
Rigby has been doing PETER PAN on Broadway since 1990. Each time she essays the role it becomes more youthful, more joyful and truer to Barrie's original character. Does she have a secret for keeping it so fresh? "Well, I think the role becomes part of you and you find that little kid inside. Believe me, it's a role that if every adult had an opportunity to play it, we'd have a whole bunch of very healthy people out there: emotionally healthy people who are playful and honest."
In 2006, Rigby retired from playing Peter Pan. "I guess it was because I'd been on the road so long. I thought that would be it and simply felt it was time to do other tours and things like that. I went away from it and I had the opportunity to return to the role as a friendship-sort-of-thing in Missouri and it was just because I thought it would be fun to do. After the performances I started going out into the audience to benefit a charity that I'm involved in called Discovery Arts and I'd give kids fairy dust or sign posters and part of the proceeds would go to this charity. As a result I started meeting people who had seen the show, as well as others who had seen it and were bringing with them kids who had never been in the theater before but who'd had a history with the show. I really started to hear wonderful stories and was watching children as they came up and it was obvious that this production has some sort of impact on their lives. They were accompanied by parents or grandparents who had previously seen the show and I felt that I had to go back out and appreciate what PETER PAN offers. It was then that I suddenly realized I missed it. Now that I knew how it really affected people and it was a positive and memory-making moment for so many of them, I just wanted to do it again. My only concern was that the show would be better than it was before."
As a result, Rigby trained to make sure she was in better physical shape than she was previously and when we brought the artistic team together, they were mostly people that I've worked with before. We really wanted to dig in deep and make sure that this was the best tour ever. We wanted to use all the knowledge we had about this show and put to use so we could make it fresh and real. Of course, we added a whole new cast to it –people like Tom Hewitt and Kim Crosby-both Broadway veterans because we were demanding that this show take another step up in quality. I think we've achieved that and I'm very proud of it. I have to say that I feel Tom Hewitt is absolutely spectacular as Hook. The girl playing Wendy is very fresh and wonderful and she's very young and yet an old soul, so she brings a special quality to the character that I'm thrilled with."
When asked about whether she's had any aerial accidents in this show, Rigby laughs heartily. "I have to say that not in the last 20 years and I'm knocking on wood as I say this because it's a big bold statement to make. I don't want anything to happen. I have two gentlemen who are flying me now that I trust completely. They're both very safety conscious and careful. At the same time they're very venturesome and kid-like themselves so they're willing to go with me when I approach them and say, 'Well, what about this....?' There's always an excitement about the what-ifs and what-can-we-do's so the flying can look more spectacular. It's almost like having figure skating partners who you trust and you breathe together and move together and everything is anticipated so it is safer and more exciting."
She continues. "Have I had accidents? Yes. I've flown into windows and my wire was crossed with Jane's one time so unfortunately when the gentleman who was flying me jumped off his twelve foot ladder, she's the one who was catapulted into the air."
Rigby continues: "I've been in the hospital with fifteen stitches over my head because at one time I was flying too fast into the crow's nest of the ship after fighting with Captain Hook and I put my hand out to stop myself but my sword hit the crow's nest and ricocheted off and hit me in the head, giving me a nice little cut. The audience thought it was a great special effect until the blood wouldn't stop flowing. Fortunately none of this has happened in a long time." Just for the record, Cathy Rigby has given roughly 3,000 performances as Peter Pan and had missed only about 15. "Mostly these were because of colds or something that was going around. There was a time when my back went out for about two days. All I can say is, 'Thank God for a lot of athletic tape and Advil!'" she laughs.
Rigby has a conservatory for the performing arts in southern California. "I don't care what a kid's potential is, or whether or not they'll have a career in the theater, but one of the things I've found is that they develop and grow as people. We get so many parents who tell us that their child was shy or was insecure but when we put them in a production they love the experience even though they may not be the leads. For many of them it has changed their lives. Some have actually become outgoing, happy children. It's been exciting to see that so,"
When asked if there is a specific role she would like to play, Rigby becomes pensive and says, "I feel so luck that I've played everyone from Mammy Yokim to The Cat in the Hat to Molly Brown and Annie Oakley. I just finished STEEL MAGNOLIAS and that was fun although after a month of having to be very emotional at the end of the show I really felt that I was ready for something happy. I love musical theater and at this point I want to just keep doing what I'm doing. I feel blessed that I've had so many amazing roles and I balance that with my family. There's nothing particular that I have my eye on but I want to keep doing everything that I can.
After a bit of reflection, Rigby realizes that there's one thing she'd really like to do. "I'd love to do DANCING WITH THE STARS," she says with great enthusiasm. "I love the show and watch it all the time." This really isn't a bad idea. Teamed with the likes of either Derek Hough or Tristan McManus, Rigby would certainly burn the floor with her gymnastic prowess. After all, this is the woman who flies through the stars on stage. Why shouldn't she dance with the stars on television? ABC Television, are you listening?
To learn more about The McCoy Rigby Conservatory go to: http://www.mccoyrigby.com/
To purchase tickets for the New York engagement of PETER PAN, go to: http://www.thegarden.com/