Review: A Beloved New York Stage Actor Recalls Six Decades of Theatre in JOHN CULLUM: AN ACCIDENTAL STAR

The veteran of 29 Broadway and over 20 Off-Broadway productions charms with his memories.

By: Apr. 12, 2021
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The first time I saw John Cullum live on stage his fingers were clutched to a window frame of designer Robin Wagner's art deco luxury liner, playing the maniacally flamboyant theatre producer Oscar Jaffe attempting to board a moving train in his Tony-winning turn in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Review: A Beloved New York Stage Actor Recalls Six Decades of Theatre in JOHN CULLUM: AN ACCIDENTAL STAR
John Cullum (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Moments later, he was gliding across the stage in a bravura comic homage to John Barrymore, literally rolling on the floor and leaping to his feet as he sang of his character's unbounded resilience.

For someone who had only known John Cullum from that rich dramatic baritone on the ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and SHENANDOAH cast albums, as well as his chilling turn as slavery advocate Edward Rutledge in the film of 1776, seeing such expertly animated antics from someone I regarded as a dignified leading man was a bit of a shock to the system.

But throughout my next 40+ years of theatergoing, I became accustomed the versatility of John Cullum, who, in a career that has included 29 Broadway and over 20 Off-Broadway productions, has dueled with swords against Richard Burton in HAMLET, exchanged Noel Coward bon mots with Elizabeth Taylor in PRIVATE LIVES, bantered Neil Simon quips with Mary Tyler Moore in ROSE'S DELIMMA, scratched his shaggy fur as an aging dog in HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, delved into the horrific psyche of a predator enabler in SIN (A CARDINAL DEPOSED) and even appeared nude (though strategically shielded) in the locker room comedy DOUBLES.

When appearing in just one production wasn't enough, he would play an Oklahoma patriarch in the first scene of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, then, while still in makeup, grab a slice of $1 pizza on his way to Theatre Row to play a French World War I veteran in HEROES.

The venue where he first portrayed the morally bankrupt but environmentally effective Caldwell B. Cladwell in URINETOWN was renamed The John Cullum Theatre in his honor.

So when the 91-year-old actor decides to perform a solo evening about his stage career, there's a lot to cover. The only complaint one can really make about JOHN CULLUM: AN ACCIDENTAL STAR, the 100 minute long co-production of Vineyard Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals and The Irish Repertory Theatre in association with Jeff Berger, available for streaming through April 22nd by clicking here, is that, as the old show business credo goes, he leaves us wanting more.

The title refers to the sequence of unexpected opportunities and sudden quirks of fate that somehow led Cullum from arriving in New York in 1956 as a young aspiring actor from Tennessee to, nine years later, having his name above the title in a new Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical, where he introduced what would become an American Songbook standard.

Directed by Lonny Price Matt Cowart and scripted by David Thompson, he sits on a stool onstage at the Irish Rep, explaining how an office job led to his New York stage debut.

"John, I think we can use you as an extra in SAINT JOAN after all, if you don't mind carrying a spear."

"I don't mind carrying a spear. In fact, I'll throw it at somebody if you want me to."

He credits being raised on the King James Bible for making him fluent enough in Elizabethan English for a director to cast him as HAMLET's Rosencrantz and for Joe Papp to hire him to understudy leads for Shakespeare in the Park. And while the creators of CAMELOT weren't especially impressed with his singing, it was the advice of an assistant who saw Cullum filling in for an ailing actor that led them to hiring him to play Sir Dinadan and understudy both Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell.

Apparently, Alan Jay Lerner liked him so much in CAMELOT that he said he was writing a supporting role in "Clear Day" with him in mind, so it was a bit of a jolt when a New York Times blurb about the show mentioned that they were looking for "a John Cullum type." But again, quirky fate led to the real John Cullum playing one of the leads on opening night.

Review: A Beloved New York Stage Actor Recalls Six Decades of Theatre in JOHN CULLUM: AN ACCIDENTAL STAR
Julie McBride and John Cullum
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

With just brief mentions of his film work and his 5-year television run on "Northern Exposure", Cullum spends the bulk of the show talking about his appearances in Broadway musicals. There's no dirt here. His remembrances are told warmly and with great affection, save for a dig or two at Lerner.

He tells of signing to star in the Goodspeed Opera House premiere of SHENANDOAH, in the role that would win him his first Tony Award, knowing that a certain Hollywood star was expected to take over when they moved to Broadway. He touches upon the controversy of Madeline Kahn's departure from ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, which led to Judy Kaye's Broadway stardom, expresses admiration for THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and tells of his initial dumbfounded reaction when sent the script for URINETOWN ("I got two Tony awards as 'Best Leading Actor in a Musical' and he sends me crap like this!"), which he was ready to turn down until his wife, Emily Frankel, suggested, "Maybe it's smarter than you think."

One very moving personal moment deals with his decision to openly talk about how for decades he's held himself responsible for a family tragedy.

With music director Julie McBride at piano, he sings several selections he introduced on Broadway (and a couple he would sing when the star was out) and one endearing ballad that was his big moment in WE TAKE THE TOWN, a musical that had Robert Preston starring as Pancho Villa, which closed after Philadelphia tryouts.

Naturally the robust quality of his voice has faded a bit, but what remains is the wise and perceptive skill of a very fine actor; one who has spent over six decades in this town regularly appearing both on and off Broadway as a star, as a supporting player, as an originator and as a replacement. John Cullum is beloved in the theatre community, and in AN ACCIDENTAL STAR, it's very apparent that the feeling is mutual.


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