The Only John in Urinetown
Theater and TV star John Cullum on his role in the musical parody/satire that everybody is talking about.
When John Cullum first received the script to Urinetown The Musical, it made him angry. "I was almost cursing," he recalls. But the two-time Tony Award winner--for Shenandoah (1975) and On the Twentieth Century (1978)--soon changed his mind. "If a script can provoke that kind of a reaction," he realized, "it means that something is working."
Cullum plays Caldwell B. Cladwell, the proprietor of Urine Good Company, a firm that controls the public lavatories in a large metropolitan city ravaged by drought. Private toilets have been banned, and the greed-driven company keeps jacking up the prices for the privilege to pee. The show skewers the totalitarian mindset as well as the anything-goes tactics of revolutionary anarchists. "It's an up-to-date satire," says Cullum. "It's about us."
The satire goes beyond the play's subject matter, which the press materials acknowledge as "an appalling notion, fully realized." Written by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, the show also functions as a parody of other musicals, with winks and nods toward works like West Side Story, Les Misérables, and Fosse. Concidentally, Urinetown enters into a theatrical season that already includes Bat Boy and The Producers, two other musicals that are parodies of musicals to one degree or another. Asked why this seems to be a trend of late, Cullum replies that he thinks it has to do with the success of Broadway musical revivals. "Younger writers have seen how effective old-fashioned musicals are," he ventures. "People who want to make a new statement have learned to use the old techniques to suck us in."
However, it's one thing to simply ape successful musicals of the past; it's an entirely different matter to create a parody that says something meaningful on its own. Cullum believes that Urinetown achieves this. "John Rando, who directed the production, was constantly selling us [the actors] on the seriousness of the piece," he says. "John made us go full throttle and believe in the material, in order to make it real and give it an energy that you can push further without it becoming shtick."
Cullum has nothing but compliments for his fellow cast members, whom he believes are some of the finest he's worked with. This is high praise from someone with a career as illustrious as Cullum's. In his younger days, the actor performed in plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Moliere. His first major break came when he understudied Richard Burton as King Arthur in the original Broadway production of Camelot; watching the legendary Burton create that part remains one of Cullum's fondest memories. He has also starred in many non-musicals, including the Roundabout Theatre Company's 50th anniversary revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons and, most recently the world premiere of Wendy Wasserstein's Old Money at Lincoln Center.
Still, despite his extensive stage credits, lots of people know Cullum best from his TV role of Holling Vincoeur, the bartender on Northern Exposure. Even his fellow actors on that series were unaware of the veteran actor's stage resumé. "When I started, no one knew that I had won two Tonys," says Cullum. "Out there, it's all about how much exposure you've had in TV and film."
After six years on that show, Cullum was ready to return to the stage; he told his agent, "The next thing I want to be in is a big musical!" He was subsequently cast as Cap'n Andy in Show Boat, replacing John McMartin in Hal Prince's Broadway revival of the Kern-Hammerstein classic. But that part didn't require much singing, whereas his role in Urinetown gives him the opportunity to more fully display his vocal talents. He's even got a bit of dancing to do in the show.