At 91, John Cullum has had a long and remarkably varied Broadway career, spanning six decades and some 30 shows — musicals ranging from “Camelot” to “Urinetown,” straight plays from “Hamlet” to “August Osage County” to “Waitress.” Over the course of the 80 minutes of this solo theatrical memoir, he sings songs from seven of them (see songlist below), and tells anecdotes about a total of nine. “John Cullum: Accidental Star,” presented jointly by Irish Rep (where it was filmed), Vineyard Theater, and Goodspeed Musicals, is genial and folksy; if there’s little dish and less spice, it goes down easy and there’s lots to like. Yet, there are several moments that offer a glimpse into something steely about John Cullum’s character and extraordinary about the life he has led.
The first is the extended story he tells of how he launched his career. It’s in three parts:
- Just three weeks after moving from Tennessee to New York in 1956, he landed his first-ever paying job as an actor – on Broadway, in a production of Shaw’s Saint Joan. He was in the ensemble – a spear carrier. He had convinced producer Norris Houghton to let him work as his office boy for free and, Cullum implies, he worked so diligently that Houghton noticed him and gave him a break.
- He landed his second paying job as an actor just six weeks after arriving, in a production of Hamlet — ,although, as he tells us, he had never even seen a play by Shakespeare! He learned about the auditions from members of the company, and got a fellow office worker to call a connection to get him in the door. But how did he get cast? “I was brought up on the King James version of the Bible, translated at the same time that Will was writing his great plays. If you could read the King James Bible, you could handle Shakespeare pretty well.”
- And then, it was because of his nascent launch into Shakespearean actor that he was cast in “Camelot” — an elaborate and humorous series of scenes involving Moss Hart and Alan Jay Lerner and an audition in which he was “slightly snockered” — launching his life-long career in musical theater and friendship with Richard Burton, and giving “Accidental Star” its title.
This is show biz legend stuff , and easy to eat up. But there are two other moments that venture far from Broadway, in different ways.
One , quite odd and quite moving, is the story he tells of how, the same year he arrived in New York, his father back in Tennessee called to tell him that his mother had been killed in a car accident. That was 64 years ago, and Cullum, who seems to blame himself, says he’s just starting to recover from his grief.
The other moment is really small, a throwaway line really, when he tells the story of how he reacted when he got the script for “Urinetown,” which he considered the most offensive title, and “the more I read, the more confused and annoyed I got. The lyrics made no sense at all.”
He reacted so noisily that his wife came into the room to ask what’s wrong.
“’Calm down, Agnes,’” said Emily,” he tells us, and then explains: “Agnes is one of many pet names she has for me.”
John Cullum and Emily Frank, dancer, choreographer and novelist, have been married for 62 years.
And, suddenly I thought: John Cullum could fashion an entire new solo show that had nothing to do with his career – and I would want to see it.
Title song and “Come Back To Me” from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
On The Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady
Title song and “I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight” from Camelot
I’ve Got A Girl from We Take The Town
Meditation from Shenandoah (one of the two musicals for which he won a Tony Award)
Don’t Be The Bunny from Urinetown (which he doesn’t sing; he recites)
I Rise Again from On The Twentieth Century (his second Tony-winning musical)
John Cullum: Accidental Star
Cast: John Cullum and pianist Julie McBride
Irish Rep, Vineyard and Goodspeed Musicals
April 8 – April 22
Running time: 80 minutes
Tickets vary from free to $81
Conceived by John Cullum and Jeff Berger
Written by David Thompson
Music Supervision by Georgia Stitt
Music Direction by Julie McBride
Directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart