At 91, John Cullum is ready to try something new

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At 91, John Cullum is ready to try something new
The actor John Cullum in the musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” in New York, Oct. 7, 2020. The TV star planned to debut a cabaret show in 2019. Illness hit, then the pandemic. But he hasn’t been stopped. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On a sunshiny August afternoon in 2019, actor John Cullum stood singing and storytelling beside an upright piano in a rehearsal space off Columbus Circle, inside a building that no longer exists. Hopscotching through reminiscences of his six-decade stage career, tweaking the script as he went along, he was readying for a cabaret show in September that would never come to be.

Cullum is 91 now and freshly vaccinated (both doses), but in that last pre-pandemic summer he was 89, with the lean frame of the competitive tennis player he once was, and a stockpile of anecdotes about Broadway musicals that he’s been building since 1960, when he successfully auditioned — “slightly snockered,” he says, charmingly — for the original production of “Camelot.”

“Does this bore everybody?” he asked uncertainly, interrupting a recollection to check with the handful of intimates in the room, who reassured him. David Thompson, the show’s director and book writer, sat behind a laptop, while Georgia Stitt, the music director, was stationed at the piano — though in the Tennessee lilt that Cullum has never bothered to lose, that instrument is pronounced “pianah.”

The solo show that they were making, “John Cullum: An Accidental Star,” is a tribute to a career in musicals that, enamored with Shakespeare as he was, he didn’t set out to have. Along the way he won two Tony Awards: for “Shenandoah,” in 1975, and “On the Twentieth Century,” in 1978.

But his retrospective would be thwarted — first by illness, then by the theater shutdown — before morphing in January of this year into a performance filmed, sans audience, at Irish Repertory Theater, and streaming online April 8 to 22.

Television viewers know Cullum from series like “Northern Exposure” and “ER,” while Broadway audiences have seen him more recently in shows like “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Waitress.” Stitt considers collaborating with Cullum, whose two Tony nominations in this century came for “110 in the Shade” and “Urinetown,” a kind of service to musical theater history.

“To get to work with someone who made the cast albums that I grew up listening to,” she said, “and has stories about working with the famous people that I idolized, and can still sing those songs and still make that music, feels in many ways like: Right. This is part of what I moved here to do, to just be part of this lineage.”

On that August afternoon in rehearsal, though, each adjustment that Cullum and his colleagues considered for the show — adding an underscore, providing a bit of explanation — was focused on the near future: a five-show run at Feinstein’s/54 Below less than a month away. It was detailed work, and for an actor as full-body expressive as Cullum, physically demanding.

When he had been at it for about 90 minutes, Stitt, who knew just what he would enjoy, produced a cache of chocolate-covered snacks for him to munch on.

“I thought singers weren’t supposed to have chocolate,” Thompson said, mildly.

“You’re not,” Cullum agreed, happy to break the rule. “But I’ve been doing a lot of singing.”

One week later, at Cullum’s Flatiron district home — a building that he and his wife, dancer and choreographer Emily Frankel, bought circa 1960 for $67,000 — he was dressed for health and hot weather in what he called his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit: white compression socks (“to keep my legs from swelling up,” he said) under long basketball shorts.

He had a victory to report. “It’s Gonna Take Time,” a song that had been cut from “The Scottsboro Boys,” and had been included in “An Accidental Star,” had now been cut from his show as well. At rehearsal, Cullum had argued forcefully that the audience might misconstrue him to be endorsing the viewpoint of the song — sung by the character he played on Broadway, the Interlocutor, whom Cullum called “a stupid bigot” — unless he added spoken context to clarify. But Thompson resisted.

The following day, when Thompson — who wrote the book for “The Scottsboro Boys” — suggested chopping the number, it came as a relief: because it hadn’t fit the rhythm or the tone of the show, which Cullum meant to be about “big musicals that I starred in and that I got by hook or by crook,” but also because “Scottsboro” is a more uncomfortable memory for him than the other shows are.

“It was a difficult role for me to do because I understand these Southern guys,” he said. “I mean, my relatives, some of them, are just like the character I played.”

That is not, by the way, a slam against Southerners as a whole. Cullum grew up Baptist in the suburbs of Knoxville. As a young man recently out of the Army and studying finance at the University of Tennessee, where he was the president of his fraternity, he was also the choir conductor at his church.

When he starts philosophizing about the connection between theater and religion, he traces it from the ancient Greeks straight through his own childhood reflex of snapping to attention when the preacher “would rant and rave and cry and emote in all sorts of ways.”

“In a sense,” he said, “I learned my acting from a preacher. And of course, in the church, you memorized a lot of passages of the Bible and did ’em out loud, and you sang songs, and you told stories.”

When Cullum came to New York in 1956 to try to make it as an actor, he was swiftly cast as Rosencrantz in a production of “Hamlet.” He was at rehearsal when his father called, that October, to tell him that his mother had been killed in a car accident. Cullum went home to Tennessee and didn’t return for months.

“We cut it out of the show,” he said, meaning that memory, “but it truly affected me in a way that, uh, I never fully recovered from that moment. Losing her was bad, because I knew I would never be able to share anything with her.”

It is a striking thing to hear, more than 60 years after a parent’s death, but that is how grief works sometimes. And it is, perhaps, related to the freshness of emotion in Cullum’s acting: his ability to summon undiluted feeling from long ago.

Nine days after that interview, Cullum’s publicist called to say that he was in the hospital with pneumonia, and the show was off. Heart surgery would follow.

Then, of course, live performance shut down. And somewhere in there, the building where they’d held that rehearsal — when it was already marked for demolition — was taken down. Currently it is a construction site.

It’s not a spoiler to say that a mention of Cullum’s mother has found its way back into “An Accidental Star,” which Cullum conceived with his manager, Jeff Berger. In a coproduction with the Vineyard Theater and Goodspeed Musicals, the show arrived on the Irish Rep stage more personal and less dishy than the rehearsal version of 20 months ago.

Directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart, “An Accidental Star” was shot on three cameras over four days in front of a small masked and distanced crew. Stitt, by then signed on to music direct the film of her husband Jason Robert Brown’s musical “13” for Netflix, had to bow out as Cullum’s music director. Julie McBride stepped in.

By phone recently from home, where Cullum and Frankel have largely isolated during the pandemic, Cullum said he had been unbothered by the lack of an audience.

“I was performing for the people who were shooting the show,” he said. “When you’re a performer and you’ve performed all your life, you always make an audience out of whoever is around. You do it in an elevator for the elevator operator.”

I asked how his stamina had been during the show — he’d felt good, he said — and then Cullum steered the conversation, cheerfully enough, toward mortality.

“Performers have been known to give a performance and then die,” he said. “Molière did that. And do you know the story?”

Tell me, I said, because it is a good story.

“Well, Molière was doing his play about the imaginary invalid,” Cullum said, and laughed, “and he was playing the lead. And that was his last performance. He managed to get through the performance, and then he died.”

He sounded not at all grim discussing this, and he laughed again as he said: “I hope to die right after a performance and not in the middle.”

When I inquired which he would prefer for his final performance, stage or screen, his answer was a rapid-fire “Stage.” (His next job, however, is for TV: an episode of the Fox series “Prodigal Son,” shooting this month.)

The last time we’d spoken, in 2019, he mentioned having gotten so ill during the run of “Waitress” that on Jan. 28, 2018, he’d had to drop out of the show. He went into the hospital, had a heart procedure and healed, but he wondered if he would ever again do eight shows a week. Right then, it struck him as a grind.

But Cullum is an actor, the theater is where he belongs, and the other day he said he hopes it isn’t through with him.

“If even one good line in a script is presented to me,” he said, “I will do it onstage.”

And he laughed, because standing in front of an audience, doing the same show night after night, is still exciting to him.

“It never gets old,” he said. “If it gets old, you should quit.”

John Cullum has no such plans.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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