John Raitt

Broadway star of 'Carousel' and 'The Pajama Game'


John Emmett Raitt, actor and singer: born Santa Ana, California 19 January 1917; married 1942 Marjorie Haydock (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971), 1972 Kathleen Smith Landry (marriage dissolved), 1981 Rosemary Kraemer; died Los Angeles 20 February 2005.

John Emmett Raitt, actor and singer: born Santa Ana, California 19 January 1917; married 1942 Marjorie Haydock (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971), 1972 Kathleen Smith Landry (marriage dissolved), 1981 Rosemary Kraemer; died Los Angeles 20 February 2005.

One of Broadway's greatest musical stars, with a handsome presence, muscular build and a clear, powerful and melodic voice, John Raitt is credited, with Alfred Drake, for bringing a new kind of leading man to musical theatre. He originated the roles of the anti-hero Billy Bigelow, the cocky fairground barker in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel (1945), and the virile factory manager Sid Sorokin, battling the unions, in The Pajama Game (1954), introducing such timeless songs as "If I Loved You", "Soliloquy" and "Hey, There".

In a 15-minute scene near the start of Carousel, Billy and the mill girl Julie Jordan meet by a grassy knoll and verbally spar, neither wanting to admit the strong attraction they feel. The sequence, which incorporates the song "If I Loved You", is considered one of the most perfectly wrought scenes in musical theatre. Later Billy, who treats his wife Julie brutally, vows to reform when he finds he is going to be a father and sings the remarkable "Soliloquy", in which he contemplates the responsibilities of fatherhood. Raitt's rendition of the seven-minute solo has been described as one of the most memorable moments in Broadway history.

Though he did not have a notable screen career, Raitt was able to recreate the role of Sid Sorokin when The Pajama Game was filmed, with Doris Day as his co-star.

Born in Santa Ana, California, in 1917, he excelled at sporting events while at college, and majored in physical education at Redlands University. Thoughts of becoming an athletics instructor were abandoned after he started displaying his lyric baritone voice in college shows. His leading lady in one of those productions, Marjorie Haydock, became his first wife in 1942.

His first professional appearance, in 1940, was as a member of the chorus in HMS Pinafore at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, followed by roles in Rose Marie, The Vagabond King and Die Fledermaus. Spotted by an MGM scout, he made his screen début with a bit role in MGM's Flight Command (1940), followed by fleeting roles in Billy the Kid (1940) and the lavish musical Ziegfeld Girl (1941), but the studio showed no interest in keeping him on. He became featured vocalist with the Los Angeles Symphonic Band, and in 1941 he played at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in The Barber of Seville, sometimes as Figaro and sometimes as Count Almaviva, and also sang Escamillo in Carmen.

A devout Quaker, he was a concientious objector during the Second World War. In 1944 he played a guest spot, as himself, in the B movie The Minstrel Man, starring Benny Fields. In the same year, he came to the attention of the Theatre Guild, who were preparing Rodgers and Hammerstein's next show after Oklahoma!, a musical version of Molnar's play Liliom (later retitled Carousel). Lawrence Langner, co-founder of the Guild, recalled,

My wife Armenia's niece told her of a very fine singer named John Raitt who sang at their high-school concerts, and had recently won a prize for singing on radio. Armenia met him, had one of her "hunches", and some months later when we were looking for a replacement for the part of Curly in Oklahoma! she insisted we bring him from California and have him audition. This veritable young giant came on stage and sang Figaro with such zest, execution, beauty of voice and clarity of diction, that we were all carried away by the excitement of the occasion. Dick Rodgers leaned over and whispered in my ear, "There is our Liliom."

Raitt later said,

I found out later that I almost didn't get to play Curly because I couldn't fit into Alfred Drake's costume. They shipped me off to Chicago to replace Harry Stockwell (Dean's dad), who was shipped to New York to replace Alfred Drake. I played Curly there for 10 months.

Returning to New York to begin rehearsals for Carousel, Raitt recalled,

On the second day of rehearsal, they handed me some paper that was folded up like an accordion. Unfolded, it was about 15 feet of sheet music - the "Soliloquy". I subsequently learned that Rodgers and Hammerstein got the idea for the number when I sang " Largo al factotum" at my Oklahoma! audition. Our first orchestral rehearsal was in New Haven. Normally at the orchestral rehearsals, if the orchestra members like something they just tap their stands. But after our first run-through of "Soliloquy" they gave me a standing ovation.

Raitt said of "If I Loved You",

We never expected it to be a hit. It's a song that projects what would happen if I loved you. Unless you see the show, you can't understand that Billy is protecting himself with that little "if". But it has become a classic nevertheless. It's probably the best example of a wedding of music, lyric, and dialogue that I know of.

For his performance, Raitt won both the New York Drama Critics' Award and the Donaldson Award:

I could never get a part as right and as strong for me as Billy, nor have a more memorable experience. The first time I ever set foot on the boards in New York was opening night of Carousel. VJ came not too long after, and the lights on Broadway were turned on again. And night after night I heard that glorious score, great song after great song. The music was Oscar and Dick's favourite, and of course it will always be mine.

Raitt played in the show for three years, after which he had another sour experience with Hollywood when he accepted a movie contract at $2,000 a week. "I sat around for three months drawing a salary but never got a camera pointed at me," he later said. "I decided that I'd have no more of that, ever."

He returned to Broadway to star in the ambitous operetta Magdalena (1948), with music by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Though praised for its music, production values and Jack Cole's exotic choreography, most agreed with Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times that the libretto was "profoundly dull", and the show ran for only 88 performances.

In 1952 Raitt starred with Anne Jeffreys in the whimsical Three Wishes for Jamie, and the following year partnered Dolores Gray in Carnival in Flanders, a short-lived show notable for a song introduced by Gray, "Here's That Rainy Day", which went on to become a standard.

Raitt had to wait until 1954 for another solid hit, when he was cast as Sid Sorokin, the factory superintendent who falls in love with a union official, in The Pajama Game. The show's score was by two newcomers (both protégés of Frank Loesser), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and Adler later recalled that he and Ross initially fought to get Raitt cast:

Van Johnson wanted the part very badly, but his voice wasn't strong enough for the kind of singers' songs we'd written. We had seen Raitt a few months before in a City Center revival of Carousel, and we suggested him to our director, George Abbott. Raitt auditioned, and his projection and intonation were perfect for the role. He was big, handsome, powerful, and a little on the square side - which wasn't wrong for the part. And, if his vocal delivery was a little too operatic, so what, I thought, I can work with it.

George Abbott, though, was not impressed:

He was, in Mr Abbott's words, a stiff actor. Jerry and I had to agree on that point, but, being songwriters, we wanted our songs sung well.

Abbott continued to search for an alternative and it was only two days before the beginning of rehearsals that he agreed to hire Raitt, still with some reluctance. Adler confessed that Raitt's operatic qualities initially damaged his big number, "Hey, There", sung into a dictaphone as he berates himself for succumbing to love, after which he plays the song back and answers himself with a sung obbligato:

"Look, John," I said. "When you're the superintendent, and you're speaking dialogue, you sound like a factory superintendent. But, when you're singing a song, you sound like an opera star, making with the round, pearly tones. Why not sound like a superintendent when you're singing, too?" He laughed, and he got it, but very slowly. Years of operatic training and very legit theatre singing got in the way. Finally, he found that ideal combination of rich sound and sustained character that gave his role unity and life on stage.

Besides "Hey, There", Raitt introduced "Once a Year Day" and had two outstanding duets with his leading lady, Janis Paige, "Small Talk", in which he sings of his desire to make love while she counters with trivialities, and the show-stopping "There Once Was a Man", a frenetic declaration of love incorporating some brilliantly imaginative choreography by Bob Fosse. (Raitt claimed that Frank Loesser, in fact, wrote the song.)

The Pajama Game opened to raves from all nine New York newspapers of the time, the Times praising Raitt's "deep voice and romantic manner".

Raitt would often return to the roles of Bigelow and Sorokin throughout his career in revivals or touring productions. In 1957 he was given his original role in the film version of The Pajama Game, though once again he was not the first choice. Warner Bros wanted Frank Sinatra, while George Abbott, who co-directed the film with Stanley Donen, wanted Marlon Brando. Bing Crosby was the next choice and would have been given the role had he not asked for too much money.

Abbott thereupon shot a test of Raitt in New York, which was flown to Day, who had cast approval. She wired the studio head, Jack Warner, that she was "not keen", and suggested Dean Martin or Gordon Macrae. Raitt then flew to Hollywood to test with Day herself, and gained her approval. "To get the movie," he said,

I had to turn down Bells Are Ringing on Broadway, but I wanted a shot at being in the movies. One of my main competitors was Howard Keel, who had just done Calamity Jane with Doris, but George Abbott told me to sit tight, he was going to push for me.

Made when film musicals were on the wane, the film was given a tight budget, and Raitt was paid $25,000, the same as Fosse but less than Carol Haney, who was recreating her supporting role from the stage version. Donen said, "The picture was made in something like just under six weeks, because the studio didn't care if it was made or not." With virtually the entire Broadway cast, except Janis Paige, the film proved as joyous as the show, one of its highlights being the recreation by Day and Raitt of the ebullient "There Once Was a Man" routine.

Returning to the theatre, he had a great success as Frank Butler opposite Mary Martin in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun that toured the US and then played on television. He and Martin also made a popular record album of the score. Subsequently, he spent much of his time touring in such musicals as Oklahoma!, Destry Rides Again, Kismet and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, as well as the perennial Carousel and The Pajama Game.

I first met him in 1970 at the Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, where he was starring with Chita Rivera in Zorba. He was a bigger man than I expected, with twinkling eyes and a luxuriant beard, very jovial, and he played Zorba with enormous warmth and zest. He spoke proudly of his daughter, Bonnie, whose musical career was going so well.

Raitt appeared frequently on television specials, and in a 1952 tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein he and Jan Clayton recreated the courtship scene from Carousel, happily preserved on kinescope. In recent years, he toured with his daughter. Although she is primarily a rock singer, she and her father would sing the sort of songs - by Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers or Berlin - that Raitt loved most.

Tom Vallance

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