In more than 3,000 performances, from Broadway to China, two-time Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby was, for several generations of theatergoers, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
She soared over audiences’ upturned chins in the musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” for nearly 30 years, making human flight look so natural that adults as well as children were envious.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, though, Rigby is earthbound and in a more mundane setting—the 12,000-square foot, six-studio McCoy Rigby Conservatory of the Arts, a Yorba Linda dance and musical theater school she co-owns with her second husband, Tom McCoy. The 62-year-old grandmother, body taut as a 20-something, is in constant motion as she teaches a strength-and-conditioning class. The eight girls, from pre-teens to high-schoolers, are at least as tall as the 4-foot-11 Rigby; some tower over her. They start by jumping rope.
“Keep going and don’t stop. I know you can do this,” she urges, as the younger ones occasionally trip on the rope and use the chance to rest.
The onetime balance-beam specialist has them leap, crawl, kick, stretch, and squeeze every muscle. She’s convinced children are too sedentary because of computer games and they don’t run, skip, and hang on monkey bars the way they used to.
She gives each child personalized attention, tapping leg muscles she wants flexed. Then, as the girls sit on the floor with their legs extended, Rigby takes turns pushing her knee against each girl’s back, trying to flatten noses to knees. One youngster waits her turn, grimacing in expectation.
“I want you to engage your muscles all the time,” Rigby says. Then, when a difficult exercise is finished, “Phew, good job!”
Grant Hodges studied with Rigby for seven years and says she does push her students—but only to achieve their goals and test their limits. The 18-year-old was accepted into UCLA’s highly competitive musical theater major (only 18 freshmen admitted), and he attributes it to Rigby’s guidance and mentorship.
“She pushes for excellence when she knows it’s there—it comes from a level of support,” Hodges says. “She really understands her students. She’s been there; she’s been through the training. She understands you’re a person first.”
If the Los Alamitos High School graduate’s life were a Broadway musical, Rigby’s first act would consist of dramatic highlights—Olympics in 1968 and 1972, the first female American gymnast to win a medal at the World Championships. The second act would have some painful low points, including her divorce and admission that she suffered from bulimia.
Her third act, which began more than 30 years ago, is different, with a long stretch of professional and personal success and happiness. This is the act in which Rigby found her passion and her place as a musical theater performer.
A fluke incident introduced her to that world. After retiring from gymnastics in 1972, she was invited to portray Peter Pan in a 1974 arena show with pre-recorded singing; all she had to do was go up on the wire. She was scared, but also smitten. She threw herself into singing and acting lessons for seven years while working, including as a color commentator for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” She did TV shows, performed on cruise ships, had a Las Vegas act, and even opened for comedian Don Rickles—to get experience and figure out where she belonged. She was cast as Dorothy in a 1981 regional production of “The Wizard of Oz,” a show in which she met fellow cast member McCoy.
“I just fell in love with the first show I ever did, and the people surrounding it, because everybody was so outgoing and it was very different from what I experienced in the gym,” Rigby says. “I remember wanting to get as far away from gymnastics as I could when I retired. What discouraged me was everything else that went with gymnastics. You’re only as good as your last competition. Wanting to please. Wanting to make sure that you’re perfect all the time because that was the name of the game. I was just so done with it.”
Five years after playing Dorothy, Rigby became Peter Pan for real, singing “I’m Flying” for the first time. She made it to Broadway as Peter in 1991 and earned a Tony nomination for best lead actress in a musical, which Rigby says gave her validation that her skills and talent were real.
She also played The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical the Musical” on Broadway, and earned leading parts in productions of “South Pacific,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Paint Your Wagon,” and others. But her favorite memory involves the boy from Neverland.
“I guess the most fun has been with ‘Peter Pan,’ when I’m up on the wire and I’m just soaring from one side to the other and spinning, and catching the curtain at the right time and flipping over,” she says.
Theater director Don Engel performed in the original Broadway production of “Seussical.” When Rigby was cast to play The Cat in the Hat, he assumed it was because she was a celebrity who would appeal to families.
“Working with her as a performer, I was knocked out. We opened with David Shiner (as The Cat) and then we also had Rosie O’Donnell. But Cathy was the only one who came into the show that had real Broadway chops,” Engel says. “She’s a triple threat. She really has the ability. She is so smart, and she is such a good actor.”
Rigby still loves performing and doesn’t see any need to consider retirement: “Obviously, there are parts that I won’t be right for depending on age—although I think we’ve established that’s not necessarily true.”
She’s open to any role, though at the moment she’s not ready to tour, “but that might change.” Last month she reprised The Cat in a production by 3-D Theatricals of Anaheim, and the director, Engel, added flying to her part.
Her priority, she says, is the conservatory. She and her husband also run McCoy Rigby Entertainment, a company that produces shows for the city-owned La Mirada Theater, and those have toured nationally and overseas. They are taking “Dreamgirls” to Tokyo next year for six weeks, for example, and are developing a musical of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
Rigby sticks to the artistic side, helping to conceive productions, picking the artistic team, and attending tryouts. Certain students from the conservatory are invited to audition for parts in these shows, but Rigby insists that casting decisions are left up to the director, not her.
She’s content teaching five or six classes a week. The conservatory, which is not so different from other Orange County dance and theater after-school programs, is big, with about 500 students. But it’s unique. It has Cathy Rigby.
Sometimes parents bring their children there because they want them to grow up and be just like her. But Rigby knows that a child has to chart her own life. “I just want to keep saying, ‘We’ll push them. We’ll help them get as far as they can, but you cannot make it happen. Let them learn. Don’t make all the choices for them. Let them discover what they have to do to be as good as they can be.’ ”