Between May 6-June 2 Playbill On-Line is revisiting its Brief Encounter interviews with artists who have since been nominated for the 2002 Tony Award. This John Cullum Q&A originally appeared Sept. 5, 2001.
Tony Award-winning actor John Cullum is remembered for his larger-than-life turns in the musicals On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (singing the title song and other luscious numbers by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner), 1776 (stopping the show as Southerner Edward Rutledge spilling out anger in "Molasses to Rum"), Shenandoah (winning his first Tony as a Virginia patriarch whose family and loyalties are ripped apart by the Civil War) and On the Twentieth Century (snagging Tony No. 2 as a Jed Harris-like impresario desperate to woo an old flame back to his new show). In between, he has understudied, played stock and Central Park Shakespeare, starred in the Roundabout Theatre Company's All My Sons, acted in films and, in his 60s, became known to TV audiences as bar owner Holling Vincoeur on "Northern Exposure" and as Mark Green's cancer-stricken father on "E.R." Now, at age 71, Cullum is taking on another Broadway musical — the ensemble-driven satire, Urinetown, which has been playing previews at the Henry Miller since Aug. 27 (opening is set for Sept. 13). In the comic musical, which richly spoofs musical conventions, Cullum plays Caldwell B. Cladwell, an evil corporate mogul who holds a monopoly on public toilets in a future town where a drought has choked out water usage. Tennessee native Cullum talked to Playbill On-Line about the path from Appalachian country to a place called Urinetown.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Urinetown had a developmental run Off-Broadway this past spring. Has it changed much since then?
John Cullum: We've been working our tails off. Most of the work has been just relocating ourselves on a different kind of set which is much more complicated and has different levels and entrances. The [physical] relationships are slightly different and that had entailed a good deal of work.
PBOL: When I think of John Cullum I think of an actor with a classical actor's voice and presence who has played serious minded roles on All My Sons, 1776, Camelot, Shenandoah. Y'know, serious and legit. I'm curious to know what you thought when you first heard the word "Urinetown." Did your agent pass it on to you?
JC: My agent is Writers and Artists and they handle the playwright and composer and the director, John Rando. I didn't know anything about it. My agent called and said, "I want to send you a script, a musical script." I said, "What's it about?" He said, "Just read it." He sent it and I saw "Urinetown" and that didn't make any difference to me. I didn't take it seriously. I didn't really think they'd really use that title. I thought it was like a working title. I got reading this script. What bothered me was that I was disturbed by the script — it had these simplistic lyrics. I thought, "What the hell is this all about?" Who do they want me to play? I looked at this number, "Don't Be the Bunny," and I thought, "What the hell is this?" I didn't have the music or anything. I went down to my wife and said, "Look at this, listen to these silly lyrics." At the end of it, she looked up and said, "That's funny." I was very skeptical about it because it had a lot of things in it I thought would be kind of pretentious. I talked to John Rando and started telling him my complaints. Well, within 15 minutes I was deep into a discussion and laughing and hootin' and hollerin'. I had all these criticisms that were really the strong points of the show. So, I realized that if it moved me this way, if I got upset and tickled, there was something to it that I had to pay attention to.
PBOL: Did it surprise you that it wasn't a lead role, it was an ensemble show?
JC: Yeah. I didn't know why they would want me to do it. Then, after I saw what it was, I realized that I could make a contribution simply by being myself. The character is really a combination of roles I've played very recently — it's a parody of Oscar Jaffe of On the Twentieth Century, it's very similar to the character of the father of All My Sons, a big businessman who is a real crook — a charmer and a murderer at the same time. It was a logical choice to pick me to parody myself. So what I'm doing is John Cullum playing John Cullum being a fool. PBOL: One of the things I love about the role of Cladwell is that it's really in the tradition of the satiric parts the Gershwins would write in the 1920s and '30s — in Let 'Em Eat Cake, Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing.
PBOL: Have you laughed a lot in rehearsals?
JC: Oh, yeah. It's been a hoot. I don't know how to describe it. People call it "an ensemble show," but the truth is, each one of these people are performers like in a big vaudeville show — each person has his own bag of tricks. They are really terrific people. Getting it all to work together was the genius of John Rando. The material itself was the genius of the guys who wrote it, who deliberately wrote a musical they thought couldn't be produced.
PBOL: When I saw it Off-Broadway, it seemed more an entertainment — a spoof of musical theatre conventions — than a full-out Brechtian political-message show. Is that how you look at it?
JC: Well, no, I look at it the other way. In order for you to get any kind of message across you can't come on frontally with people and tell 'em that sort of thing. If you can get any tiny message across that makes sense, then it's worth it. The method that they use is one in which they suck you in. You don't even know you've been preached at. That's the only way you can make an impression on people. That's the genius of satire. They make you laugh at other people. It isn't until later you begin to realize it applies to you.
PBOL: Underneath the musical comedy parodies there are multiple messages to be had.
JC: Right, but it doesn't insist that you take them. It takes you on a comic journey. If you don't want to get the message, you don't have to. It's very subliminal.
PBOL: As I was watching I couldn't help thinking of Bertolt Brecht, who wanted his works to be entertainments, but with social messages toward changing the world. Some have suggested there's an environmental message within Urinetown. But I also love that the rebels — the good guys in the show, fighting the system — take action without having a long-range plan. That was more potent to me than any environmental-rape implications in the show.
JC: I'm hoping we haven't lost that. That's the real irony. That's applicable to — well, that happens. The do-gooders get in power and they are lost just like the other people before them. The reason you don't feel this message is so strong is that they don't offer solutions, they're just telling you it's a bad situation.
PBOL: But Brecht never offered solutions. He beat the drum.
JC: That's right. And that's smart. If you're a thinking person, you'll see there's something wrong. You do something about it. Or if you don't you'll be in trouble. I love the moment when Little Sally says to Lockstock, "What kind of musical is this? All the good guys take over and everything begins to fall apart!" And he says, seriously, "Well, I told you this was a serious musical." And she says, "But the music's so happy!" They both nod and smile and don't say another word. And they walk off. It's so funny to me. I love those kinds of moments in the show. Listen, the moments I love are the ones I don't understand and I suddenly begin to get a little insight when the audience tells me.
PBOL: It's nonsense humor, like Mel Brooks writes.
JC: Right. It's coupled with style. It's got a little bit of the Oscar Wilde kind of thing where you have to be serious. John Rando is constantly saying this is serious work. The minute we start going for laughs, we're sunk. These [characters] take themselves seriously; they're not funny if they don't.
PBOL: It seems sort of brave of you to do this — it's not like anything you've done, and it's going to get people who never would have considered something called Urinetown to say, "Well, if Cullum is in it..."
JC: [Laughs.] I thought they'd use my name to get other people to be in the show. But they already had good people. They didn't need me! But I think you're right. Once we get 'em there, it's a fun evening.
PBOL: Did you think at 70 or 71 you'd be singing and dancing on Broadway?
JC: Yes, but if I were 105 I think I would. I was gonna go do King Lear and my agent and my wife both said, "You've been in musical comedy so long — how often do you get to do original material, particularly at your age?" That makes it very exciting. I've done revivals all my life, but I can count on my hands the original material that I've done. You're lucky if you have two of them in your life, and I've had five.
PBOL And prior to Camelot in 1960 you were a Shakespearean actor.
JC: That's kinda why they hired me. They hired me to be Richard Burton's understudy. That's how I got into musical comedy — the back door.
PBOL: Did you study?
JC: I studied at the University of Tennessee. I really didn't plan to be an actor. I was working on a master's degree in finance when I finally decided to give [acting] a shot. We never did any Shakespeare in Tennessee, but we did all the modern stuff. I did the 50th revival of All My Sons by Arthur Miller, which I had played 47 years before in college. We did Arthur Miller, Inge and Odets — anything that was on Broadway, we did it within the next year or so down at the University of Tennessee, but we never did anything Shakespearean. I got to New York City and the only thing that I could get an audition for was Shakespeare, and it covered my Southern accent. Nobody knew I was from the South when I was speaking Shakespeare. My first [New York] show was Hamlet, and from then I stayed in Shakespeare. I was working in the park with Joe Papp when somebody saw me do the Chorus in Henry V. When I went to audition for Camelot they said, "That guy's a Shakespearean actor!" I couldn't sing worth a damn, but they hired me to be Richard's understudy.
PBOL: But you do sing amazingly well, and you have. Are you faking it?
JC: [Laughs.] From the age of 30 to 36 was when my voice developed. I had studied in college but I never got any good. I wasn't serious about it. It didn't really interest me. I was more of a dancer than a singer. But when I got to New York...I didn't even know a song all the way through. I just knew the last 16 bars of "The Street Where You Live." That's all I ever sang. And not very well. I was standing by for Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall in Camelot and Alan Jay Lerner came up to me and said, "Listen, John, we don't like the guy who is standing by for Bob Goulet [as Lancelot], we want you to audition for that." I said, "I can't do that role. If you give me a few months to work on my voice — " He said he wanted me to audition for it. So I auditioned for him and he came up to me and looked me in the eye and said, "You know, you're absolutely right, you don't sing well enough." He sent me to a teacher and I studied with that teacher for the next 30 years. From Camelot to Clear Day [another Lerner show], I developed a much better singing style.
PBOL: You would have been perfectly happy doing non musical roles throughout your career?
JC: Certainly that's the way I felt then. But there's nothing as exciting as musicals. Shakespeare is terrific, it's wonderful and a whole new area and a different dimension of acting. But there is nothing as exciting as musical comedy — the singing and the acting.
PBOL: What's the richest musical theatre experience you've had?
JC: There are terrific musical parts. I was Kiley's alternate in Man of La Mancha. Not many people know that. I used to play the matinees. That's an exciting role to play. The toughest one I ever did and never got to play it again was in Kiss Me, Kate.
PBOL: Everything I hear about you from your colleagues is that you're a true ensemble player, that you're not a bully or an egomaniac in the process. Does that approach come with age and experience?
JC: I'm just what I am. It could be considered a flaw. I never thought of it any other way. It always seems like something we all do together. That's the way I approach roles: I'm part of an ensemble that's telling a story. I like other people. I like to watch what they do. It brings me pleasure. I suppose I get jealous — but I get more excited than I get jealous when I see somebody good. I like to do things with people and I love to discover. The great pleasure in it, to me, is discovering stuff and finding what works. I have fun. I like actors and I guess I try to make them like me.