By Michael Hillyer
It would be tempting to say that Time has never slowed John Cullum down. He moved to New York City in 1956, fresh off the bus from Knoxville at the age of 26, and within six weeks was working in two Broadway shows. His career, from then until quite recently, has been an uninterrupted string of marquee roles in famous productions on Broadway that define not just an age, but an entire lifetime of theatre-going experience: Camelot, Hamlet, Private Lives, all with Richard Burton. On A Clear Day. 1776. On The Twentieth Century. Shenandoah. Showboat. Deathtrap. Man Of La Mancha. Urinetown. August: Osage County. The Scottsboro Boys. Waitress. That is in addition to his films and an industrious career in regional theatre (in between long runs on Broadway), as well as decades of appearances on television that finally culminated in the breakout hit, Northern Exposure, when he was 60 years old. A two-time Tony Award winner as Best Actor and a 2007 inductee into the Theatre Hall of Fame, you wouldn’t think that Mr. Cullum would still be at it today, especially during a devastating Covid outbreak when almost no one is performing and all the theatres are shuttered.
Well, forget about Time, nothing has ever truly slowed John Cullum down. In the middle of a global pandemic and at 91 years old, he is still very much at it, and you can bring his new show right into your living room. John Cullum: An Accidental Star, a virtual cabaret act conceived by John Cullum and Jeff Berger, written by David Thompson, directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart and filmed on the stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre earlier this year, is currently streaming on the internet and has been extended through May 6. Here, finally, is John Cullum in a one-man show, and the character he is playing is himself. Accompanied expertly on the piano by his musical director, Julie McBride, Mr. Cullum holds forth from the center of a bare stage in an 80-minute performance that chronicles his extraordinary life in the theatre. He recounts his early days as an actor just getting started in New York, and as an early rash of roles in Shakespeare gives way to featured parts in Broadway musicals (one of the “accidents” that inform the main narrative thread), he launches frequently into song, and gives us, in smartly abbreviated versions, a taste of what it must have been like to hear him in those shows.
At this point, it would be tempting to say that Time has slowed John Cullum down, because that stentorian baritone of yore, which once brought down the house every night in “Molasses To Rum To Slaves” in 1776, and carried most of the score of Shenandoah on its back for the entire run of show, is now a shadow of its former self. But that’s the beauty part. Time may have physically diminished Mr. Cullum’s singing voice, at last, but that is to be expected at his age, and only because we knew it when. In his prime, you never heard anything like it. Think full-on Alfred Drake singing chops, but with an even larger range, with a muscular iron in the vocal timbre and an ever so slight Tennessee twang. You would never mistake him for someone else. He’s still got that.
As would befit a retrospective of a theatrical career that spans seven decades, An Accidental Star begins backstage in 2021. We see Mr. Cullum arriving at the theatre in a mask, undergoing a nasal swab prior to rehearsal, and a brief montage of the Covid-19 safety protocols in place around him as he goes over his lines in his dressing room. But then the show begins and he is on a chair in center stage, where he has always belonged, singing the title song from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, and he is pulling us back to 1956, in complete command of the stage for the next hour and twenty minutes. If you are looking for dishy backstage stories, well, there is some of that but not much, really; he’s simply got too much other ground to cover. Early on, in one of the few discursive sections of the show, there is a profoundly personal story he tells us about the tragic death of his mother in an auto accident, which occurred just as he was getting started in New York, and it is clear that he is still grappling with its effect on him to this day. All of the subsequent success he enjoyed on the stage he was never able to share with his mom, to his great regret, but he spends the rest of the evening sharing them with us. Watching him today, as he moves from show to show in the past, creates a curious pentimento effect in motion, as we can sense the young man underneath the present performance along with the older man onstage. You could say it is like watching a living autobiography, except John Cullum hasn’t written his memoirs; he is performing them. For those of us who have grown old along with him, and who have had the privilege to have followed his astonishing career, this performance will trigger memories that may well go back to childhood. I first heard him while digging through my grandmother’s small collection of show records as a very young teenager (On A Clear Day), and saw him twice in 1776 while I was in high school.
The unpersuasive central conceit of An Accidental Star is that Mr. Cullum’s career has been a string of mostly fortunate, accidental events, but for me they never rise above the level of “I ran into so-and-so and he told me there’s an open call for a show called Camelot.” John Cullum’s genuine, self-deprecative modesty about his great good fortune to the contrary, there is no accident about his career. He was gifted all along with overwhelming talent and drive, and while good luck is certainly needed along the way, there is no doubt that his natural skill as an actor and strength as a singer has had everything to do with the success he has enjoyed. Let’s just say it: the man is an outright national treasure, and this is squarely in the do-not-miss-it category. I honestly didn’t want John Cullum: An Accidental Star to stop, I enjoyed every second of this superb virtual cabaret, and I strongly encourage you to watch this beautiful show before its current run ends on May 6th.
To order tickets, just go to https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/an-accidental-star/.