Singer/actor Brad Little and his wife, Barbara McCulloh, also a performer, didn’t exactly fall in love at first sight. Although, now, 18 years later, they are unquestionably still sweethearts. As he and I talked in a conference room in his agent’s New York City office — his wife was to join us — he stops, in mid-sentence, and says, “Barbara’s here. I recognize her laugh.”
Little is best known for originating the role of Raoul in “Phantom” on Broadway and for performing the title role of “The Phantom of the Opera” over 2,000 times in touring productions across the United States and Asia. McCulloh’s impressive list of Broadway credits as an actress and singer include leading roles in revivals of “The King and I” and “Peter Pan.”
Little and McCulloh met in 1989 when they were performing the leading roles in “The Robber Bridegroom” in a production at Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, Pennsylvania. She had noticed him at the auditions and liked his smile, but “he was holding hands with some blond in the hallway.” At the first read-through of the script, she was immediately impressed when he sang his first song. Then the lines began and she admits, “I thought, this is the worst actor ever.” At the next rehearsal, he confessed that he had trouble reading because of his dyslexia. Fortunately, he memorizes quickly. “The sooner I can get off the book the better,” says Little. McCulloh made a quick turn-around.
During the run of “The Robber Bridegroom,” they fell in love, but tried to keep it a secret from the rest of the cast. Later, a friend confessed that everyone knew and thought it was “kind of cute” that they were playing at secrecy. They have been together ever since and have starred in two other musicals at Bristol Riverside, “Irma La Douce” and “Baby.”
Little found his early inspiration from his high school music director. So it isn’t surprising that Little is concerned that music programs in schools everywhere are being cut — nor is it surprising that he and his wife readily agreed when asked to perform at a benefit concert to support the Trenton Community Music School scholarship fund and Stuart Country Day School.
“A Broadway Valentine,” on Friday, February 16, will feature a concert by the real-life Valentines, as well as champagne and sweets, at the Cor Unum Center on the Stuart Country Day School campus.
Little says that the February 16 concert will focus on Broadway love songs, but will also feature some of their “signature” pieces. Little will transform into three of his favorite characters to sing from “Phantom of the Opera,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Jekyll and Hyde.” He laughs as he says, “I always tend to do musicals where my face is covered.” Let me assure you, he’s quite handsome; he’s just being modest.
They promise an entertaining evening that Little describes as “not just standing there and singing.” They love singing duets and may even entice other show biz friends to join them for a song or two. Be forewarned: one or both of them may come out into the audience to sing to you. And there will probably be a contest designed to raise even a little more money for their cause. So, here’s a hint: study up on your musical theater trivia.
As for his dedication to preserving music programs in schools, Little says, “Kids need to have music in their lives. It’s a vital part of our psyche.” When he reminisces with friends from any profession, whether doctors or lawyers or something else, what each remembers most clearly about grade school and high school is playing the trumpet, being in the school musical, or singing in the choir. “They remember their music, not the class in ancient history,” says Little.
All of Little’s family have been involved with theater. His father was a professor in the theater department at the University of Redlands in California. His mother was a piano teacher. She tried to teach Little to play the piano, but her efforts were hampered by his dyslexia. “All those notes. The page of music just wasn’t making sense to me,” he says. So he played the trumpet in the marching band instead. “One line of notes, I could handle.” In high school he also joined the choir. “I always sang. Music has been with me since I was a child. Thank goodness it was because I’ve had an amazing career, singing all over the world and loving it.”
His brother, 10 years older, was a theater major and his sister started college as a theater major. So, as a teenager, of course he rebelled, and decided to take a totally different route. He wanted to be a basketball player. However, when it came down to making a choice between being on the team or in the choir, he says, “I always sang better than my jump shot.” He says that Roger Duffer, his high school music director, who made such a strong impression on him, “got me so turned on to music, opened my mind to the vastness of what music is — from classical to chamber to pop to rock and roll.”
The deciding career choice came when young Little saw his brother perform in a college production of “The Fantasticks.” “It was magic for me,” says Little. After high school he won a scholarship to Wildwood Music Camp in Fort Worth, Texas, which is sponsored by Broadway legend Mary Martin. Martin took a personal interest in Little’s career and urged him to go to New York. “Mary was a huge inspiration for me,” says Little. One audition and he has been singing on stage ever since in one place after another. Ironically, both of his siblings ultimately chose non-arts careers.
When they fell in love at Bristol Riverside Theater, Little and McCulloh also fell in love with the area and began looking for a house. Both of them grow very animated as they talk about their home. “We live on the Delaware River, right on the water,” says Little. “About an hour and half from New York — it’s our little oasis,” adds McCulloh. Their backyard is a favorite place to relax and enjoy their hot tub and garden. “When friends visit, they just want to stay.”
Both of them are enthusiastic about the historic little town of Bristol and are quick to show friends around. “We haven’t had a friend visit who doesn’t want to look at local real estate,” says Little. They tell me that Bristol has been at the heart of American history — one of three places where Washington crossed the Delaware. During World War I, sea planes were built there. And the town has a long theatrical history. The current Bristol Riverside Theater building has had a number of incarnations: once part of the “straw hat” circuit, at one time an X-rated movie house, and now a busy professional theater that produces a full annual season of plays and musicals.
Little has just returned from a concert in Seoul, Korea, and has upcoming concerts every week in February, including the “Broadway Valentine” concert on February 16, and another at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Then he plans to go to California to sing at the 100th anniversary of Redlands University, where his father taught. And he is booked for yet one more “Phantom of the Opera,” this one in Singapore. Perpetually on the road, he was even on the road when he cut his debut CD, “Brad Little Unmasked,” which includes favorites such as “Music of the Night,” “This Is the Moment,” and “Forever from Here.”
The couple has traveled together only on rare occasions. McCulloh says, “Of our 18 years together, we’ve probably only been in the same place at the same time about half that time. Before we chose each other, we chose this business.” Neither of them thinks that they can’t have both. She adds, “But we work at it and not having children gives us the freedom to travel.” They do, however, have a cat, Boo, who sometimes travels with McCulloh.
Says Little: “My dream is always just to make a living doing the theater for the rest of my life. If I can do that, I’m a blessed man. It would be fun to do an original musical. We’ve got some possibilities stirring. We’ll see what the future brings.”
A Broadway Valentine, Friday, February 16, 7:30 p.m., Stuart Country Day School, 1200 Stuart Road. Husband and wife and Broadway stars Brad Little and Barbara McCulloh present an evening of love songs from Broadway, followed by a champagne and sweets reception. Proceeds benefit the Trenton Community Music School scholarship fund and Stuart Country Day School. $65 for concert and reception with the artists; $35 for concert only. www.stuartschool.org or 609-921-2330. Tickets for the concert only will be available at the door.