In the summer of '76, my parents gave me a great gift in taking me to NYC for a friend's party and including a Broadway show in the weekend. I don't remember how we chose "Shenandoah," but I will always remember gazing down from the mezzanine and being captivated by the music, the story and, most of all, by the star, John Cullum. He was truly a giant on stage for me.
Years later, I had the incredible good fortune of seeing the profound musical "The Scottsboro Boys." The arguably risky concept of setting a horrifying event in the civil rights history of the United States in the context of a minstrel show seemed somehow wrong. But the result was breathtaking. Again, a critical part of the success for me was John Cullum (by then 80 years old) as the "host;" in equal parts southern gentleman, avuncular emcee and cold villain. The entire cast was spectacular, and I will be forever grateful I was in that audience. Sadly, the concept was hard to market and this show closed way too soon~a show like this is what makes storytelling in theatre so important and profound.
This past weekend, I not only got to see John Cullum in a new play, "Detroit," with David Schwimmer, Amy Ryan, Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic; but I finally had the chance to meet this great actor and legend, and say my thank-yous, for the wonderful theatre with which he has gifted me over the years.
As it turned out, Cullum was only in the very last scene of the play. But it was the scene that grounded the spiraling descent into madness that had come before. After the cataclysmic and fiery (literally) denouement of the relationship between the 4 main characters takes place, it is Cullum's character that brings the audience back to a place where you can leave the theatre feeling as if human beings are a resilient lot that will land on their feet in the end.
I really like the Playwrights Horizons theatre "stage door" logistics; the actors will most often simply walk into the lobby as they leave and it's a spacious area with seating. The staff will let folks wait in the lobby until they have to close up, and then you can wait in the vestibule or outside the door. So it was easy and enjoyable to chat with Amy Ryan, Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie as they emerged. All of them talked about how emotionally draining the show is (and this was a 2-show day!); so I was not surprised when the staff told the crowd later that David Schwimmer had left immediately after the show and wouldn't be coming out to sign. I would have liked to have been able to tell him personally how impressed I was with his performance, but I understand why he might not have had the energy to be social!
For me, in the end though, it was all about John Cullum, and I almost missed him! There were enough people waiting, and he is such an unassuming figure, that he had walked by me while I was talking with one of the other actors. So I saw him in the outer lobby in the midst of a small group and was able to catch him there. And what a lovely, gracious, kind man he is...we chatted briefly about the play and he talked about how special he thinks it is; and then chuckled and said "however, if you nod off, you'll miss me." (I told him there was really not much chance of that happening :)!). And I got to tell him thank you for both "Shenandoah," which the person next to me was also doing, and "The Scottsboro Boys."
Instead of getting smaller as he ages, in my eyes, the 82-years-young John Cullum, is more of a theatre giant than ever!
Stage Door Tales
Every stage door has a story.