John Cullum Knows How to Tell a Good Story

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By Karen Isaacs

How does it happen? How does an actor from Tennessee arrive in NYC and create a career that lasts until he is in his 90s?

John Cullum’s show Accidental Star answer those questions with a mixture of songs and stories about his longevity in the industry. He had been working on the show before the pandemic but earlier this year he reworked it for film.

He begins at the beginning, arriving in NYC in 1956 with two letters of introduction. He says he was lucky but he parlayed those two letters into working for free for a theater producer and then auditioning and getting a “spear carrier” part in the Phoenix Rep’s St Joan.

Somehow with some moxie he was cast as Rosencrantz in Joseph Papp’s Hamlet and he seemingly was off.

Cullum has remarkable energy in the show; the only indication of his age (91) is in his singing voice which occasionally is off pitch. But that is a minor thing.

His first musical role was as Sir Dinaden in Camelot where he also understudied both Richard Burton (Arthur) and Rodney MacDowell (Mordred), a role he eventually took over. His musical credits are long but so are his Shakespearean credits.

He manages to avoid the “and then I did…” trap as he weaves the stories together from the early days to now. His last Broadway appearance was as a replacement in the musical Waitress.

He includes some songs, though he never had the strongest singer of that era of Broadway musical leading men. Despite that he won his two Tony awards for musicals, Shenandoah and On the 20th Century. In the former, he was hired to do the initial production at Goodspeed because Jack Palance who was cast in the part, did not want to go to East Haddam.  The rest is history.

Perhaps the most interesting story is of the flop musical We Take the Town which starred Robert Preston and was about Pancho Villa. Cullum sings a long forgotten song “I’ve Got a Girl” that he had in the show.

Accidental Star has charm and, at times, irony as he talks about the roles he was “promised” that went first to other people before going to him. The story of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is just one example. Alan Jay Lerner told Cullum he was the show for him, but Louis Jordan got the part initially.

This 80 minute show was conceived by Cullum and Jeff Berger and directed by Lonny Price and Mat Cowart.

It streams through April. Access can be gotten from the Vineyard Theater, Goodspeed.org or the IrishRep.org.

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