“I have been performing on Broadway for almost six decades. And most of the shows I have done and the parts I have played have come to me through the back door…I’d like to share with you some of my favorite accidents,” states John Cullum at the beginning of his crisply filmed for streaming solo, John Cullum: An Accidental Star. It’s a glorious career retrospective affirming his renowned and enduring talents.
For 80 minutes on a stage bare expect for a stool and without an in-person audience due to New York State pandemic restrictions, Mr. Cullum offers choice anecdotes, behind-the-scenes revelations and sings songs from shows he’s appeared in.
Clad in costume designer Tracy Christensen’s splendid folksy attire, the trim 91-year-old Cullum remains a vital theatrical presence. His distinctive honeyed voice is now seasoned, yet it still hits those high notes. Among this production’s most joyous highlights are his performing numbers from the two shows for which he won Tony Awards for Best Leading Actor in a Musical.
“I think I was more at home playing Charlie Anderson, than any role I ever did” declares Cullum of his appearance in the 1975 Civil War-era Shenandoah. That character of a Virginia farmer was originally to have been played by Jack Palance, and getting this part was another of Cullum’s accidents. His stirring rendition of the poignant showstopper “Meditation” demonstrates why his performance was so lauded.
His treatment of the comic song “I Rise Again” from On the Twentieth Century is just as uproarious as it was in 1978. “Hal Prince was at his best when he treated theater like a big wonderful toy to be played with. He could be tough” Cullum says of its legendary director. He gallantly discusses the complicated situation of leading lady Madeline Kahn, who left the show early in its run.
Musical theater enthusiasts will be enthralled by Cullum’s account of the 1962 flop We Take The Town, which closed in Philadelphia, and of its magnetic star Robert Preston. There’s warm reminiscences of Richard Burton with whom Cullum was in three shows with, and acidic recollections of Alan Jay Lerner’s duplicitousness.
Conceived by Cullum and Jeff Berger, John Cullum: An Accidental Star was written by David Thompson. Mr. Thompson’s shrewd structure streamlines Cullum’s eventful life into a series of well-honed chapters showcasing Cullum’s command of storytelling. Personal details are minimal, but we do learn of the trauma of Cullum’s mother’s death when has 26 years old, and of his long-time marriage to former dancer and author Emily Frankel.
Through simplicity and clever editing, co-directors Lonny Price and Matt Cowart inject momentum and cinematic texture to the presentation. Those features are enforced by Director of Photography Carlos Cardona and lighting designer Megan Peti’s aesthetic contributions. Music director Julie McBride perfectly accompanies Cullum on piano in tandem with Georgia Stitt’s music supervision.
Within weeks of his arriving in Manhattan from Tennessee in 1956 to try being an actor, Cullum obtained supporting roles in productions of St. Joan and Hamlet. Soon after, he did five parts at Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park. Director Moss Hart then cast him as a knight in Camelot, which began his Broadway career in 1960. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Urinetown and The Scottsboro Boys are among his numerous major stage credits and which are chronicled. Cullum cites Hawaii and Northern Exposure as examples of his screen and television career.
For admirers of this venerable performing artist, John Cullum: An Accidental Star will be a meaningful summation. For youthful aspirants craving a life in the theater, it should be an inspiring odyssey.
The show was filmed earlier this year at Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre. In acknowledgment of the times, there’s a black and white prologue depicting the Covid-19 era. Cullum, the crew and theater staff wearing facemasks and receiving temperature checks are shown. It’s presented by the Vineyard Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals and the Irish Repertory Theatre in association with Jeff Berger.
John Cullum: An Accidental Star (streaming April 8 – May 6, 2021)
For tickets, visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: 80 minutes