At 91, John Cullum is ready to try something new

By Laura Collins-Hughes

On a sunshiny August afternoon in 2019, actor John Cullum stood singing and storytelling beside an upright piano in a rehearsal space off Columbus Circle, inside a building that no longer exists. Hopscotching through reminiscences of his six-decade stage career, tweaking the script as he went along, he was readying for a cabaret show in September that would never come to be.

Cullum is 91 now and freshly vaccinated (both doses), but in that last pre-pandemic summer he was 89, with the lean frame of the competitive tennis player he once was, and a stockpile of anecdotes about Broadway musicals that he’s been building since 1960, when he successfully auditioned — “slightly snockered,” he says, charmingly — for the original production of “Camelot.”

“Does this bore everybody?” he asked uncertainly, interrupting a recollection to check with the handful of intimates in the room, who reassured him. David Thompson, the show’s director and book writer, sat behind a laptop, while Georgia Stitt, the music director, was stationed at the piano — though in the Tennessee lilt that Cullum has never bothered to lose, that instrument is pronounced “pianah.”

The solo show that they were making, “John Cullum: An Accidental Star,” is a tribute to a career in musicals that, enamored with Shakespeare as he was, he didn’t set out to have.

Along the way he won two Tony Awards: for “Shenandoah,” in 1975, and “On the Twentieth Century,” in 1978.

But his retrospective would be thwarted — first by illness, then by the theater shutdown — before morphing in January of this year into a performance filmed, sans audience, at Irish Repertory Theater, and streaming online April 8 to 22.

Television viewers know Cullum from series like “Northern Exposure” and “ER,” while Broadway audiences have seen him more recently in shows like “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Waitress.” Stitt considers collaborating with Cullum, whose two Tony nominations in this century came for “110 in the Shade” and “Urinetown,” a kind of service to musical theater history.

“To get to work with someone who made the cast albums that I grew up listening to,” she said, “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, though, each adjustment that Cullum and his colleagues considered for the show — adding an underscore, providing a bit of explanation — was focused on the near future: a five-show run at Feinstein’s/54 Below less than a month away. It was detailed work, and for an actor as full-body expressive as Cullum, physically demanding.

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

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

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

One week later, at Cullum’s Flatiron district home — a building that he and his wife, dancer and choreographer Emily Frankel, bought circa 1960 for $67,000 — he was dressed for health and hot weather in what he called his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit: white compression socks (“to keep my legs from swelling up,” he said) under long basketball shorts.

When he starts philosophizing about the connection between theater and religion, he traces it from the ancient Greeks straight through his own childhood reflex of snapping to attention when the preacher “would rant and rave and cry and emote in all sorts of ways.”

“In a sense,” he said, “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 came to New York in 1956 to try to make it as an actor, he was swiftly cast as Rosencrantz in a production of “Hamlet.” He was at rehearsal when his father called, that October, to tell him that his mother had been killed in a car accident. Cullum went home to Tennessee and didn’t return for months.

“We cut it out of the show,” he said, meaning that memory, “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 striking thing to hear, more than 60 years after a parent’s death, but that is how grief works sometimes. And it is, perhaps, related to the freshness of emotion in Cullum’s acting: his ability to summon undiluted feeling from long ago.

Nine days after that interview, Cullum’s publicist called to say that he was in the hospital with pneumonia, and the show was off. Heart surgery would follow.

Then, of course, live performance shut down. And somewhere in there, the building where they’d held that rehearsal — when it was already marked for demolition — was taken down. Currently it is a construction site.

It’s not a spoiler to say that a mention of Cullum’s mother has found its way back into “An Accidental Star,” which Cullum conceived with his manager, Jeff Berger. In a coproduction with the Vineyard Theater and Goodspeed Musicals, the show arrived on the Irish Rep stage more personal and less dishy than the rehearsal version of 20 months ago.

Directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart, “An Accidental Star” was shot on three cameras over four days in front of a small masked and distanced crew. Stitt, by then signed on to music direct the film 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 phone recently from home, where Cullum and Frankel have largely isolated during the pandemic, Cullum said he had been unbothered by the lack of an audience.

“I was performing for the people who were shooting the show,” he said. “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.”

The last time we’d spoken, in 2019, he mentioned having gotten so ill during the run of “Waitress” that on Jan. 28, 2018, he’d had to drop out of the show. He went into the hospital, had a heart procedure and healed, but he wondered if he would ever again do eight shows a week. Right then, it struck him as a grind.

But Cullum is an actor, the theater is where he belongs, and the other day he said he hopes it isn’t through with him.

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