John Cullum in 1776: “Molasses To Rum To Slaves”

The big show-stopper in 1776, extraordinarily filmed here in the movie. This is an amazing performance. He really goes somewhere. The actor who gets this part has to be willing to go there. The number won’t work without it. You also need to have a HELL of a voice to carry it off. John Cullum is absolutely phenomenal here. The song starts about 5 minutes in. Watch where John Cullum starts and watch where he ends up. Incredible. The gestures are so huge, so specific, this is part of a debate, and his every moment is supporting his argument. It is a brilliant example of rhetoric, made manifest. The number is made to go to a surreal place, a fantastical place, Rutledge painting the picture of the great triangle of trade for all of the delegates. He is making them see that the sin of slavery is on all of them. They have no call to bitch about the South carrying on “this institution”. So it becomes a phantasmagorical acting-out of the process, the music changes, the lights change, and he transports himself entirely. This is how the number is written. It is meant to be that. A bad or hammy actor can ruin such material so easily and I’ve seen that happen many many times. This is tough material. You have to go there, but you have to remain specific. You have to have a big fat voice (this is a part for a real singer – the number itself is exhausting, you need to have major pipes just to get through it), but you have to use that voice well, you cannot forget what it is the song is about. The song can’t be just about making pretty and impressive sounds. John Cullum here is fearless. This is the definition of experience, technique, craft, and then … fearlessness, the essential ingredient. This is how it should be done. I’ve seen him live in many different shows on Broadway, (and he is well known to the general public from his part in Northern Exposure) but here, he really goes somewhere unique. And listen to his voice. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

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17 Responses to John Cullum in 1776: “Molasses To Rum To Slaves”

  1. How glorious to see an actor so free and yet so in control of his instrument at the same time.

  2. sheila says:

    Venetian Blond – that is the perfect way to put it. He is totally in charge of what he is doing, and yet the overall expression is completely uninhibited. The magic of his talent. Wow!!

  3. Ken says:

    Jeez, I didn’t even know John Cullum sang (you can tell that 1776 is still on my “to see” list). I saw his IMDB entry last night while trying to remember Barry Corbin’s name (I like Barry Corbin’s work a lot, but I keep forgetting his name).

  4. sheila says:

    Ken – Oh, you’ve got to see it!! You of all people!! :)

    Yes, the man is a MAJOR singer. I mean, listen to those pipes. It’s insane! What a great great career he’s had, right??

  5. Lizzie E says:

    I am so glad you featured this song–it’s one of my absolute favorites. I mean, the music itself is so fantastic–the tempo changes, the pounding percussion, the jarring sound of the saxophone with those hypnotic little leans, the tension on ‘gleam’… and then, on top of it all, is the intensity of Edward Rutledge. And–even though the darkness of this is a total contrast to the very light sound of something like The Egg or Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve–with the great tension in the preceding dialogue and the total commitment of .John Cullum–it WORKS. (The guy on the original soundtrack is also GREAT–he basically snarls the last of the three “Boston”s, and it sounds like he’s about to eat the Declaration basically.)

  6. sheila says:

    Lizzie – You’re right: this song really stands out, compared to the rest of the music and its style. Every song in this musical is wonderful (“Sit down, John – FOR GOD’S SAKE, JOH, SIT DOWN!”) – but this has a melodramatic theatrical style that makes it one of the best numbers in the show, and certainly makes Rutledge one of the most coveted characters to play. When he becomes the auctioneer – it’s like he ushers us into a nightmare, with his voice, his gestures – It’s so amazing.

    I have to check, but I think the only recording I have is of the movie. I should get the Broadway recording too (that’s the one I actually grew up listening to).

  7. nightfly says:

    Good God, Mr. Rutledge…

    I always have to supress an irreverent giggle when I see William Duell, the custodian, tearing down the pages of the calendar… I keep waiting for him to break into one of the “word on the street” bits from Police Squad. It would have been magnificent if the writers had been able to do one as an homage to 1776, with John Cullum sitting in the shoeshine chair, slipping him a twenty, and asking, “What do you know about the slave trade in the British Colonies, Johnny?”

  8. sheila says:

    Nightfly – hahahahaha Yes!!

    Also, my Revolutionary War nerd is very pleased to see the freakout that comes at the very word “fishing rights”. That was pretty much what it was like. Not that I was there, but … you know. I know enough to know that by the third, fourth week of arguing about this stuff, with windows closed to prevent eavesdropping, everyone sweltering – the very mention of “fishing rights” caused explosions of frustration.

    Yes!

  9. Lizzie E says:

    Speaking of coveting… I have literally wished on more than one occasion that I was a guy. The sole reason? “Then I could TOTALLY try out for 1776 for one of the delegates! Maybe Ben Franklin! Maybe Hopkins! Maybe Reverend Witherspoon (New Jersey FTW!) Maybe Rutledge and sing frickin’ Molasses to Rum! But I don’t really care who, I just want to sing Sit Down, John, in a chorus of manly voices! Is that so wrong?”
    Then I go paint my nails elegiacally… because it can never be.

  10. sheila says:

    Lizzie – hahahahahahahahahaha “paint my nails elegiacally” – Dying!!!

    I totally want to bellow out Sit Down John with a bunch of guys, wearing a fancy waist coat and knickers and buckled shoes.

    My friend Alex was actually in an all-female production of this – which I’ve always wished I had seen – and she got to sing Molasses to Rum to Slaves. Jealous!

  11. alexandra says:

    I sob every single time I see this.

    Every singe time.

    I need to write about this as well, Sheila. There’s so much going on here. I loved what you said about it being “Fantastical”. That’s the best, truest word for this piece, ever.

    And Cullum is in another place. And the best part of that is that it’s so clear to him. He’s not fuzzy about where he is. He’s There, and he’s Living It, and it’s not about being in a Dream, or something. It’s not hazy or dream-like in any way. In fact, it’s SO real and SO pure, that it doesn’t feel like a musical number to me. It feels like a monologue.

    Thrilling and awful and gorgeous. He has everything in these 8 minutes.

    And can we just talk about what happens to him when he does those Gestures as if he’s whipping something? I can’t stand it. Honestly. I can’t stand it.

  12. sheila says:

    Alex – it is an incredible performance. Is he lip synching to a track? It sure doesn’t look like it, although he probably is. Every element here is perfect – you need to go “over the top” with this number, it’s written that way – but it has to be specific – it can’t be the ACTOR “showing off” – it has to be RUTLEDGE showing off (if that makes sense). I’ve seen Rutledges where I can tell it’s just an actor who is psyched to show off his pipes. Know what I mean?

    Cullum here, with every single moment, gesture, breath, glance, is doing something very very specific. The song really GOES somewhere. My God. He’s just amazing.

    I would love to hear more of your thoughts on it.

  13. sheila says:

    Also, what he does with his voice when he says, “Put them in the ships. Cram them in the ships.” It is so sneering, so ugly – it’s almost frightening.

    Fearless.

  14. Thom says:

    Several years ago, I had the pleasure of playing Edward Rutledge for a local community group. I saw John Cullum’s performance on YouTube and modeled mine accordingly. This is a part that an actor can’t just perform… you must put yourself into Rutledge’s shoes and LIVE the part… you must be in that other place. I would stew and fume within myself as the dialogue approached the song. Every evening after singing this song, I needed a true “cool down” period. It was one of the most difficult parts I have ever had; however, I claim it as my best performance and the one that I will never forget.

  15. AL FULTON says:

    Just found this site on the net (nicely done). I’m portraying Rutledge at the upcoming show series in Galion, OH. This is tough ! It’s been a struggle to get the song and dialogue all put together. Wish me luck !!

  16. AL FULTON says:

    Just tried to bring up the video and it’s gone. Any ideas ??

  17. Thanks for this – it’s been one of my favorite movies since it first came out (I was in Junior High), mostly because of the music, but also because it represents the beginning of our great nation.

    I’ve watched Cullum on TV for years, but never realized that he was in this movie – I certainly never knew that he could SING like this!

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