At 91, John Cullum Is Ready to Try Something New

On a sunshiny August afternoon in 2019, the actor John Cullum stood singing and storytelling beside an upright piano in a rehearsal area off Columbus Circle, inside a constructing that not exists. Hopscotching by way of reminiscences of his six-decade stage profession, tweaking the script as he went alongside, he was readying for a cabaret present in September that might by no means come to be.

Cullum is 91 now and freshly vaccinated (each doses), however in that final prepandemic summer time he was 89, with the lean body of the aggressive tennis participant he as soon as was, and a stockpile of anecdotes about Broadway musicals that he’s been constructing since 1960, when he efficiently auditioned — “slightly snockered,” he says, charmingly — for the unique manufacturing of “Camelot.”

“Does this bore everybody?” he requested uncertainly, interrupting a recollection to examine with the handful of intimates within the room, who reassured him. David Thompson, the present’s director and e-book author, sat behind a laptop computer, whereas Georgia Stitt, the music director, was stationed on the piano — although within the Tennessee lilt that Cullum has by no means bothered to lose, that instrument is pronounced “pianah.”

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

But his retrospective could be thwarted — first by sickness, then by the theater shutdown — earlier than morphing in January of this yr right into a efficiency filmed, sans viewers, at Irish Repertory Theater, and streaming online April 8 to 22.

Television viewers know Cullum from sequence like “Northern Exposure” and “ER,” whereas Broadway audiences have seen him extra just lately in exhibits like “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Waitress.” Stitt considers collaborating with Cullum, whose two Tony nominations on this century got here for “110 in the Shade” and “Urinetown,” a type of service to musical theater historical past.

“To get to work with someone who made the cast albums that I grew up listening to,” she mentioned, “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, although, every adjustment that Cullum and his colleagues thought-about for the present — including an underscore, offering a little bit of rationalization — was targeted on the close to future: a five-show run at Feinstein’s/54 Below lower than a month away. It was detailed work, and for an actor as full-body expressive as Cullum, bodily demanding.

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

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

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

One week later, at Cullum’s Flatiron district dwelling — a constructing that he and his spouse, the dancer and choreographer Emily Frankel, purchased circa 1960 for $67,000 — he was dressed for well being and scorching climate in what he known as his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit: white compression socks (“to keep my legs from swelling up,” he mentioned) beneath lengthy basketball shorts.

He had a victory to report. “It’s Gonna Take Time,” a music that had been minimize from “The Scottsboro Boys,” and had been included in “An Accidental Star,” had now been minimize from his present as properly. At rehearsal, Cullum had argued forcefully that the viewers would possibly misconstrue him to be endorsing the perspective of the music — sung by the character he performed on Broadway, the Interlocutor, whom Cullum known as “a stupid bigot” — except he added spoken context to make clear. But Thompson resisted.

The following day, when Thompson — who wrote the e-book for “The Scottsboro Boys” — advised chopping the quantity, it got here as a aid: as a result of it hadn’t match the rhythm or the tone of the present, which Cullum meant to be about “big musicals that I starred in and that I got by hook or by crook,” but in addition as a result of “Scottsboro” is a extra uncomfortable reminiscence for him than the opposite exhibits are.

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

That shouldn’t be, by the way in which, a slam towards Southerners as a complete. Cullum grew up Baptist within the suburbs of Knoxville. As a younger man just lately out of the Army and finding out finance on the University of Tennessee, the place he was the president of his fraternity, he was additionally the choir conductor at his church.

When he begins philosophizing in regards to the connection between theater and faith, he traces it from the traditional Greeks straight by way of his personal childhood reflex of snapping to consideration when the preacher “would rant and rave and cry and emote in all sorts of ways.”

“In a sense,” he mentioned, “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 got here to New York in 1956 to strive to make it as an actor, he was swiftly forged as Rosencrantz in a manufacturing of “Hamlet.” He was at rehearsal when his father known as, that October, to inform him that his mom had been killed in a automobile accident. Cullum went dwelling to Tennessee and didn’t return for months.

“We cut it out of the show,” he mentioned, which means that reminiscence, “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 putting factor to hear, greater than 60 years after a father or mother’s dying, however that’s how grief works generally. And it’s, maybe, associated to the freshness of emotion in Cullum’s appearing: his potential to summon undiluted feeling from way back.

Nine days after that interview, Cullum’s publicist known as to say that he was within the hospital with pneumonia, and the present was off. Heart surgical procedure would observe.

Then, after all, dwell efficiency shut down. And someplace in there, the constructing the place they’d held that rehearsal — when it was already marked for demolition — was taken down. Currently it’s a development web site.

It’s not a spoiler to say {that a} point out of Cullum’s mom has discovered its approach again into “An Accidental Star,” which Cullum conceived together with his supervisor, Jeff Berger. In a coproduction with the Vineyard Theater and Goodspeed Musicals, the present arrived on the Irish Rep stage extra private and fewer dishy than the rehearsal model of 20 months in the past.

Directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart, “An Accidental Star” was shot on three cameras over 4 days in entrance of a small masked and distanced crew. Stitt, by then signed on to music direct the movie 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 telephone just lately from dwelling, the place Cullum and Frankel have largely remoted through the pandemic, Cullum mentioned he had been unbothered by the dearth of an viewers.

“I was performing for the people who were shooting the show,” he mentioned. “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 requested how his stamina had been through the present — he’d felt good, he mentioned — after which Cullum steered the dialog, cheerfully sufficient, towards mortality.

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

Tell me, I mentioned, as a result of it’s a good story.

“Well, Molière was doing his play about the imaginary invalid,” Cullum mentioned, 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 in no way grim discussing this, and he laughed once more as he mentioned: “I hope to die right after a performance and not in the middle.”

When I inquired which he would favor for his last efficiency, stage or display, his reply was a rapid-fire “Stage.” (His subsequent job, nonetheless, is for TV: an episode of the Fox sequence “Prodigal Son,” capturing this month.)

The final time we’d spoken, in 2019, he talked about having gotten so sick through the run of “Waitress” that on Jan. 28, 2018, he’d had to drop out of the present. He went into the hospital, had a coronary heart process and healed, however he puzzled if he would ever once more do eight exhibits per week. Right then, it struck him as a grind.

But Cullum is an actor, the theater is the place he belongs, and the opposite day he mentioned he hopes it isn’t by way of with him.

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

And he laughed, as a result of standing in entrance of an viewers, doing the identical present evening after evening, remains to be thrilling to him.

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

John Cullum has no such plans.

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