By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
John Cullum, the two-time Tony Award winning leading Broadway actor, might have been content to rest on his well-deserved laurels. But as he admonishes us, he has been working as a performer since he was “knee high to a grasshopper” (what Broadway star uses a term like that?), so there’s no way little things like a worldwide pandemic and a total theatre shutdown would stop him from being on stage again.
While most of his fellow nonagenarians might have been gingerly consigned to rocking chairs in their twilight years, Cullum at 91 years young has never really retired. Rather than be amenable to accept the accolades of his fellow show business colleagues and his many dedicated fans, he instead assembled an array of artisans and craftsmen to showcase his career in a filmed, COVID-compliant streaming show available on demand, John Cullum: An Accidental Star, directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart and written by John Thompson.
Starting tonight, this stream is intended as a fundraiser for both The Irish Rep and Vineyard Theatre – two of the sites of some of the actor’s earlier successes. Cullum enthralls his audience with his down home charm and slightly detectable Southern drawl. Once a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Cullum tells the story of how he arrived on the Broadway scene in 1956 fresh from college with little more than a heart full of ambition and two letters of introduction.
Ignoring the advice of one of his intended targets –a big time agent named Liebling – Cullum does not go back to Tennessee like some dumb hick or hayseed. Instead, he heads over to the second office, a repertory company, where he auditions for a part in a show while wangling the manager for a volunteer position as an office assistant. While the audition doesn’t go so well, he recalls, the office position eventually helps him land an opportunity to do Shakespeare, even if he had never performed the Bard’s works.
No matter. After a quick trip to The Strand Bookstore and the purchase of a used volume of the works of the Poet of Stratford-Upon-Avon, the resourceful actor is also offered an opportunity to appear on stage at night in a production of “Saint Joan” as a spear carrier.
As if to emphasize his good fortune, when asked if wouldn’t mind carrying a spear in that production, his response was “In fact, I’ll throw it at someone if you want me to.”
The accidental nature of his good fortune is emphasized by the star with the declaration that within six weeks of landing in New York City, he had managed to be in full rehearsals doubling for Rosencrantz and Marcellus in Hamlet during the day and on stage at night in Saint Joan, a tribute to both his good luck and his perseverance.
During the next summer, he used his volume of Shakespeare to get him prepared to take on several different roles in repertory for Joseph Papp’s legendary Shakespeare in the Park productions, mastering parts in Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew and Henry V.
It was during this time, still early in his career, Cullum informs us, that his newly-acquired agent would insist on sending him to auditions for musicals. That’s how he ended up at an audition singing “There But For You Go I” in front of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, who wrote it.
Cullum was soon hired by director Moss Hart and became a legitimate leading man when he understudied and eventually stepped into the role of King Arthur for Richard Burton in Camelot. He also understudied for Roddy McDowell as Modred. Initially, he reveals, it was Lerner and Loewe and Hart who wanted him for the role of Sir Dinadan, one of the knights of the Round Table, which was the role he accepted in time for the out-of-town tryout. He stayed with the musical for several years.
But it almost didn’t happen, he recalls. The book of the play needed severe revisions and cutting. Act II didn’t start until midnight at one point, but with Lerner sidelined from a serious bout with ulcers and Hart suffering from a debilitating heart attack, the star power of Burton and Julie Andrews proved to be enough to keep up the public interest and generate box office sales that resulted in Cullum’s Broadway debut.
As someone who made his mark in musicals, Cullum regales us with several songs through the work. He begins with a bit of the title song of the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the Alan J. Lerner and Burton Lane reincarnation vehicle in which he starred opposite Barbara Harris. He is accompanied by a lone pianist, Julie McBride, whose image shows up from time to time as he launches into song or in the background as an enraptured observer.
He sings the expressive “On the Street Where You Live” from Lerner and Loewe’s hit My Fair Lady early in the show before he sings two numbers – the title song and “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?” from their other smash Camelot. He sings his tour de force number from On a Clear Day, “Come Back To Me” with gusto.
As to the show he eventually starred in, he explains how he had been initially considered for the second lead of Moncrief and had been told after Camelot that Alan Jay Lerner had “penciled him in for the role.” He was indigant when he read in a trade magazine piece that the producers were looking for a “John Cullum type.” He indignantly sneered back at them that they didn’t need to settle for “a type,” but that they could have the real thing.
The story continues a year and a half later, after he had shot the film “Hawaii” on Oahu and had returned to his California home. All of a sudden, he receives an urgent phone call from in California, where he was living. He assumes the role is that of Moncrief, but no, he is informed the role he is being offered is the lead that Louis Jourdan had been playing out of town during tryouts. Not only does Lerner want him, but so does the composer Burton Lane.
“When’s this supposed to happen,” Cullum asks.
“As soon as you can get here,” is the answer.
Once again, another happy coincidence and Cullum and his wife Emily Frankel fly out to Boston with only five days to learn the role before its Broadway opening. Once again, the stars lined up perfectly for Cullum and he garnered his first above-the-title casting.
Although he doesn’t mention his subsequent appearance on Broadway as Rutledge in 1776 or his more recent turn in the revival of 110 in the Shade, he does cover his two Tony Award wins as the beset Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah and as the egomaniacal director Oscar Jaffee in On the Twentieth Century.
His “Meditation” from Shenandoah is still one of the best monologues written for the Broadway stage. In it Anderson speaks to his deceased wife at her gravestone, commenting about the craziness of the world embroiled in the the Civil War while he attempts to keep his family together without picking sides.
The selection of “I Rise Again” from On the Twentieth Century might well serve as Cullum’s current theme song. The lyrics of the anthem of the recalcitrant and defiant Broadway director trying to lure his former star back to the stage might well echo the lucky and accidental life of this Broadway leading man.
He barely touches on his five-year stint as a regular member of the cast on TV’s “Northern Exposure,” which made him an easily recognizable star to millions nationwide. But Cullum is really most interesting when he recalls his working relationships such as that with his initial co-star from Twentieth Century, Madeline Kahn. “Her leaving was a shame,” he muses.
Or his respect for legendary Broadway producer Hal Prince: “Hal was at his best when he treated theatre as a big wonderful toy to be played with,” Cullum beams.
He closes out the presentation with his two most recent starring roles as Caldwell B. Cladwell in the Off-Broadway production of Urinetown and as the Interlocutor in Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, the musical that began Off-Broadway and was later revived on Broadway in which he plays opposite a cast of all-Black performers.
Fittingly, his final number is the reprise of “Camelot,” the show that gave him his Broadway break and hearkens back to a mystical time on the Great White Way when a would-be star from Tennessee could get a lucky break or two and end up as one of the great leading men of the past six decades.
John Collum: An Accidental Star (One hour, 22 minutes) starring John Cullum and featuring Julie McBride (piano) will stream on demand beginning April 8 at 7:00 p.m. CDT until April 22 on vineyardtheatre.com. Prices vary and can be purchased through The Vineyard Theatre site.
Directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart
Conceived by John Collum and Jeff Berger
Written by David Thompson
Director of Photography and Editing by Carlos Cardona
Costume Designs: Tracy Christensen