Theatre yesterday and today



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In September 1956, a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan opened at the Phoenix Theatre starring Siobhán McKenna, an Irish actress who sort of made a career out of playing the part. I’m not writing about McKenna, but of a young actor who took to the stage that night and made his Broadway debut. True, he was only part of the ensemble, and even at that, no more than a supernumerary—“enumerated among the regular components of a group,” as Meriam-Webster specifies that term. Meaning that the 26-year-old actor John Cullum’s appearance was more about filling space on the stage than anything else. Now, with a career that has spanned sixty-one years, why not take a moment to celebrate the work of this actor who has enriched every production he’s been featured in, no matter what the size of the part. Especially considering that today is his eighty-seventh birthday.

John Cullum at the recording session of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965)

For this Knoxville, Tennessee native, Cullum had to wait four years to make his official Broadway debut at age thirty as Sir Dinadan (and understudy to King Arthur and Mordred) in Camelot, the 1960 musical that starred Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Roddy McDowell. Cullum and Burton became good friends during that time, sharing a love for both Shakespeare and a good drink now and then (although in the case of Burton there was a lot more “now” than “then”). To help pass time between drinks, Burton put together an informal Shakespeare master class for Camelot actors, which included neophytes working in other Broadway shows in addition to drop-ins by Burton cronies a little more experienced like Robert Preston and Laurence Olivier.

Cullum’s affinity for Shakespeare and his friendship with Burton came in handy when the 1964 Hamlet, to be directed by John Gielgud, gave him the chance to play opposite Burton as Laertes. The carousing that went on in Burton’s dressing room before, during and after the performances have become legendary, but luckily for Cullum, he figured out a way to moderate it over the years. Poor Burton left this earth at age fifty-eight looking like haggard old man of seventy-eight. Cullum, at eighty-seven, is still going strong.

Post-Hamlet, Cullum worked steadily in Broadway musicals, starring in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever opposite Barbara Harris, replacing as Cervantes/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha and Edmund Rutledge in 1776, then finally creating something that fit him like a glove in a role he had long been seeking: Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah. This was the part that put him over the top and that won him a richly-deserved Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. And for those living in the tri-state area in the mid-seventies, no one will ever forget the TV commercial and the sight of Cullum standing alone in a field, lip-syncing to the musical’s Act One closer, “”Mediation.” When he hits the last phrase of the song, “For as long as the Lord will allow,” a crane shot allowed for a pullback leaving Cullum a spec in the distance, bellowing the final note at the top of his lungs.

It sold a lot of tickets.

Among the many roles I have seen Cullum do on stage, it was his Edward Rutledge in 1776 (a role he got to reprise in the 1972 film version) and his Oscar Jaffee in On the 20th Century (which won him his second Tony) that stand out for me. You can hear him sing both on the recordings and he is magnificent. But seeing him play them on stage was an entirely different experience. I saw him sing “Molasses to Rum” as Rutledge many times, due to my obsession with 1776 when, in my teenage years, I paid admission thirteen times. And even though I returned to 20th Century only once, my memories of what he did as a physical comedian with the juicy part of Oscar will live forever. The original cast recording of 20th Century remains one of my all-time favorites, not only for its sparkling and witty score by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, but for its brilliant orchestrations by Hershey Kay. And to aid my memory of how funny Cullum was, I have an audio recording of the entire show taken from an early Broadway performance, live through the theatre’s sound system. I do not exaggerate that Cullum is getting laughs from the audience worthy of Nathan Lane or Bert Lahr. He is screamingly funny!

Cullum as Oscar Jaffee in On the 20th Century (1978)

His thirty Broadway shows, and twenty-one Off-Broadway ones — to date — is a remarkable achievement. As short a time ago as 2009 (at the age of seventy-nine), Cullum was in a Broadway and Off-Broadway show at the same time! While appearing in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage Country at the Music Box on 45th Street, he would leave that play following his character’s death in the first act and head over to the Harold Clurman on 42nd Street, and do a leading role in Gerald Sibleyras’ Heroes. From a March 20th NPR broadcast on Cullum, he is heard doing a bit of huffing and puffing, walking alongside his interviewer on the commute between the shows: “We’re just catching the lights,” he says. “I catch the lights the way I catch ’em. It takes 12 minutes to walk briskly from down there at the Harold Clurman, Theatre Row, to the Music Box. It takes about 11 minutes, usually to go in [this] direction, because it’s got a slight downhill.”

Downhill has never been a direction Cullum’s professional or personal life has carried him. Married to the dancer-novelist Emily Frankel for the past 58 years, he continues to enjoy his life in New York City as he always has with retirement out of the question. The two have even participated in a series of self-shot videos on every subject under the sun, available on YouTube, with the most recent one recorded just last month.

This video is about the octogenarian couple’s habits in front of the mirror.

Interesting note: while researching this column, I put John Cullum's name in the search engine. I got 873 articles. That is a life in the theatre.

Happy Birthday, Mr. C.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.