For someone who has been acting in plays since he “was knee-high to a grasshopper,” the 91 years-young John Cullum has lost none of his love for performing. That is evident in “John Cullum: An Accidental Star.”
Conceived by Cullum and Jeff Berger and written by David Thompson, the show is a vehicle for the Tennessee-born Cullum to look back at some of what he calls the lucky accidents which befell him in his career. Offering these recollections with a slightly self-deprecating delivery, these tales both gently envelop and engage the viewer.
After a brief musical intro, Cullum, who arrived in New York in 1956, relates how he got his first theater job in the Big Apple as a spear carrier in an off-Broadway production of “Saint Joan.”
His second job offer came soon after in a production of “Hamlet.” Cullum still has the book of Shakespeare plays he bought to study for that audition, though, as he notes wryly, he now uses a magnifier to read it.
In fact, after some early successes, Cullum thought he would end up primarily as a Shakespearean actor. However his agent kept sending him to auditions for musicals, which led him to the field of musical comedy, the theatrical genre for which he is most known.
We can detect a refreshing naiveté in Cullum’s recollections about his early years in New York. Once he was three hours late to an audition after helping a fellow actor commiserate at a local bar. Cullum recalls “feeling no pain” when he finally showed up to sing for theater royalty Moss Hart, Alan Jay Lerner, and Frederick Loewe.
Name-dropping is common. Cullum speaks glowingly of such talents as Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, Robert Preston, and Richard Burton. He and Burton began a lifelong friendship which lasted through three Broadway shows and 27 years.
Many of Cullum’s tales recount backstage stories. These shows include “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” which he auditioned for over a year before being cast. And he was so enthusiastic about “We Take the Town” that he would have invested money in it if he could have. It closed before reaching Broadway.
While much of the show offers an overriding sense of fun, there are moments when Cullum does choose to go deeper. Especially powerful is a recounting of a deeply personal tragedy, which caused him to put his career on hold for a time.
There’s also his experiences in the Kander and Ebb musical “The Scottsboro Boys.” Based on a real-life racial injustice, Cullum talks about the problems the show had in trying to connect with its audience when things did not end happily for the unjustly accused.
The one role that has a particularly special place in Cullum’s heart is Charley Anderson from the Broadway musical “Shenandoah.” He won a Tony Award for his performance, and explains how he feels closer to that part than any other he has ever played.
Cullum enthusiastically throws himself into the show, often reciting passages or singing songs from roles he has played or auditions he once gave. His voice is a bit husky at times, but still quite powerful when he wants it to be. Ably assisted Cullum is the show’s musical director, Julie McBride, on piano.
Filmed earlier this year, Directors Lonny Price and Matt Cowart show a firm grasp of the material. They allow Cullum’s recollections to guide the story from start to finish with never a dull moment or awkward pause. Costumes by Tracy Christensen offer a nice homespun touch to the proceedings.
The only real complaint about the production is that it is not long enough. Many of the shows in Cullum’s resume are not discussed, or are touched on only in passing. He also doesn’t mention his wife of over 60 years until 52 minutes into the show. Even though the show is more about his career than his personal life, it would have been nice to see more about this relationship.
Cullum admits that while he never led a totally idyllic life, working in the theater, he says, “I came pretty damn close.” After seeing what he has to say in “John Cullum: An Accidental Star,” I would be hard-pressed to dispute him.
‘John Cullum: An Accidental Star’
Presented by Vineyard Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, and Irish Repertory Theatre
Tickets: 212-646-931-7414 or VineyardTheatre.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Streaming through May 6
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.