With yesterday the 39th anniversary of the opening of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, and my titling this column, “More Hot Pies!,” you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical to be my subject. Instead, I’m referring to the hit musical Waitress, which until very recently, employed the two-time Tony Award winner John Cullum in the featured role of Joe. From this past October to just last month, this legendary actor had been giving eight performances a week at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre — singing, acting and eating slices of pie at every one of them. Funnily enough, Cullum actually missed out sampling some of Mrs. Lovett’s hot pies in the original production of Sweeney, as he was director Hal Prince’s first choice to replace Len Cariou upon his exit from the show in 1980; a decision Cullum came to regret after turning it down. But looking back has never been his strong suit and even as he turns eighty-eight today, John Cullum is still looking forward, ready for the next challenge.
John Cullum taking his bow as Joe in the hit musical Waitress (2018).
When in September 1956, a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan opened at the Phoenix Theatre starring Siobhán McKenna, a young actor took to the stage that night making 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 John Cullum’s appearance was more about filling space on the stage than anything else. Now, with a career that has spanned sixty-two years, there’s no doubt that this actor has enriched every production he’s been featured in, no matter what the size of the part.
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 such as Robert Preston and Laurence Olivier.
Cullum’s affinity for Shakespeare—and his friendship with Burton—came in handy when the 1964 Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud, gave him the chance to play Laertes opposite Burton. 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. Burton left this earth at age fifty-eight looking like a haggard old man of seventy-eight. Cullum, at eighty-eight, is still going strong.
How about this ad for Smirnoff Vodka, later in Camelot’s run?
(Cullum graduated to the role of Mordred, seen here between
the two women in red on the right).
Post-Hamlet, Cullum worked steadily in Broadway musicals, starring opposite Barbara Harris in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, replacing in Man of La Mancha as Cervantes/Don Quixote, and as Edmund Rutledge in 1776. Then finally given the opportunity to play something that fit him like a glove, he created the role of Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah, first at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, and then on Broadway. 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-one Broadway shows, and twenty-one Off-Broadway — 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: “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 59 years, he continues to enjoy his life in New York City as he always has with retirement out of the question. How lucky for those that caught so recently in in Waitress, where he was just as charming as when he vied to take Julie to the fair in Camelot nearly sixty years ago.
Interesting note: when I researched this column for publication last year, I put John Cullum’s name in the Playbill.com search engine and got back 873 articles. Today it’s 991. Now that is a life in the theatre that just won’t quit.
Happy Birthday, Mr. C.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.