When I wrote in March about the legendary musical theatre star John Cullum on the occasion of his ninety-first birthday, I had no idea he would return to the stage a month later. Now, thanks to streaming, he is back where he belongs (happy to report) in all his glory. My review in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
The first thing heard at the start of John Cullum: An Accidental Star are the opening notes of Burton Lane’s beautiful melody to “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” As the camera pulls back from pianist Julie McBride’s hands, we see we’re on a bare stage of a theatre and John Cullum, in his distinctive baritone, is singing Alan Jay Lerner’s words to the song he introduced on Broadway in 1965. It’s a different sound that emanates from a singer at ninety-one than at thirty-six, and John Cullum is no stranger to that fact. He is also no stranger to the stage (and musicals) in a lifetime of work: from his debut as a supernumerary (spear carrier) in a Broadway revival of Saint Joan in 1956, to appearing in 2017 in the hit Broadway musical Waitress. In the course of those sixty-one years, he picked up two Best Actor Tony Awards (Shenandoah and On the 20th Century) and built a career in the theatre that is the envy of many, not only for its longevity, but for the quality of his work.
In celebration, Mr. Cullum has taken to the stage once again in a show that covers his life from his childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee right up until his recently filming this one-person show at the Irish Rep in midtown Manhattan. Due to the pandemic it was filmed to an empty house, shot on three cameras over four days, and we should all be grateful. We never got to see Alfred Drake or Robert Preston or Richard Kiley or any number of treasured members of that exclusive club of Broadway’s leading men tell their stories in an intimate setting such as this. Now, due to a core group of devoted friends and supporters, John Cullum: An Accidental Star has been preserved for the ages. It was presented online April 8th (its official opening night) and will be available through April 22nd at reasonable prices (starting at $25). Those dollars will go to support three essential theatre institutions, all of which have had Mr. Cullum grace their stages over the years: The Irish Rep, the Vineyard and Goodspeed Musicals.
Of his “accidental life,” the stories woven together chronologically by Mr. Cullum and David Thompson, the credited writer of the evening, works just fine. And though age has slowed him down, any tentativeness is overcome quickly when Mr. Cullum launches into a story he’s been telling regularly for years. And even though a peculiar series of accidents did propel him to stardom, he has often chosen wisely and craftily to forge that long ascendency through will power, talent and that most precious of commodities (without which no actor has a chance): luck.
The evening includes snippets of songs from the major roles he created in the theatre, and even a bit of Shakespeare, which did come into his life by accident. How else can it be explained his having worked on nine Shakespearean roles one summer before he had even seen a Shakespeare play on stage? And twenty-six minutes into the show when he launches into the Chorus from Henry V and proclaims “O for a muse of fire” it’s electrifying to see him come to life. In a split second, he transforms into a young and vital man, lit from within, practically leaping off a stool to excite a captive audience through the power of language (even if there is no one in the theatre).
Perhaps here is where it should be mentioned (in case anyone reading this is unaware) that John Cullum’s Broadway bio includes such musicals as Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Man of La Mancha, 1776, Shenandoah, On the 20th Century, Showboat, Urinetown and The Scottsboro Boys. And that’s only a partial list of his credits, not including many straight plays such as the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning August: Osage County, Deathtrap, and at the start of his career in 1964, Laertes to Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud.
Later in An Accidental Star, Mr. Cullum again jumps off a stool when he dives into “Hear my voice where you are, take a train, steal a car…” the opening line of “Come Back to Me.” His enthusiasm is infectious as this is yet another great song he created from the original On a Clear Day. It’s moments like these that make this evening unforgettable with much credit going to Jeff Berger (Mr. Cullum’s longtime manager), who conceived the show with his illustrious client; Lonny Price and Matt Cowart, who co-directed, and as mentioned earlier, Julie McBride, whose sensitive playing is most welcome (stick around for the credits and enjoy her beautiful rendition of “On a Clear Day.").
When it finally comes time for him to speak and sing the role that defined him more than any other, it’s quite a thrill. As Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah, we are treated to part of his speech to his dead wife Martha. Having first done it at age forty-five, it feels doubly infused with meaning now at age ninety-one (though happily, Mr. Cullum’s wife, dancer/writer Emily Frankel, is still very much with us). In Shenandoah, he was simply a powerhouse. No one who lived in the tri-state area in the mid-70s will ever forget the show’s TV commercial (watch it here) which had him standing out in a field in Connecticut subbing for Virginia and singing “for as long as the Lord will allow!” while a camera high up on a crane pulled back as he extended the final note. No, his voice isn’t what it was back then, obviously. But in this wonderful one-man concert, you still get the essential John Cullum. The one and only John Cullum. No other Broadway star has that marvelous Knoxville accent (which he never abandoned) and when his voice soars in song, no one else sounds like him. No, and no one can ever be him.
And what a joy to still have him with us doing what he does best… for as long as the Lord will allow.
You can view John Cullum: An Accidental Star by visiting here. It’s available for purchase through April 22nd.
And for more on John Cullum, you can read my 3.2.21 birthday tribute here.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.