A First Raitt Musical: The Broadway Career of John Raitt
One of the Golden Age of Musical Theatre’s signature leading men was John Raitt. Possessing a rich, powerful singing voice (a golden baritione), good looks, and a touch of bravado, Raitt starred in two Broadway musicals that would be enormous successes in their day. John Raitt wasn’t immune to the occasional flop, and he certainly wasn’t the star of a multitude of musicals. He was, however, a personality as much as he was a performer, and today I take a look back at the career of John Raitt and revisit the shows he starred in on Broadway.
John Raitt made his mark originating a role in a little Rodgers and Hammerstein musical called Carousel. For his first time starring in a Broadway show, Raitt certainly found a part that capitalized on the best he had to offer. Playing the cocky, good looking carousel barker Billy Bigelow, Raitt introduced the great musical monologue “Soliloquy” to theatre audiences, an introspective number probing the conflicted feelings ignited by impending parenthood. Playing opposite Jan Clayton, the duo also sang what would become one of Broadway’s most-enduring love songs, “If I Loved You.” Billy Bigelow was an antihero, often unlikeable through his abusive behavior, and at a looming 6’2”, Raitt gave the character a physical dominance to match the character’s brooding characterization.
Running for 88 performances in 1948, Magdalena featured music by Brazilian composer Heiter Villa-Lobbs, with Robert Wright and George Forrest providing the lyrics. John Raitt played a character named Pedro in the production that was described by theatre critic Brooks Atkinson as "being hit over the head with a sledge hammer repeatedly all evening.” It was generally agreed upon by most critics that Magdalena suffered from a dull plot about a bus driver who falls for a wealthy woman from South America. What may have kept the show out of touch with audiences was its tendency toward operetta, a musical form that was growing antiquated on Broadway as the Rodgers and Hammerstein template for musical comedy was becoming de rigueur.
Three Wishes for Jamie (1952)
John Raitt’s next big role he originated on Broadway was the short-lived Three Wishes for Jamie, which opened in 1952. In it, he played a young Irishman named Jamie who is offered three wishes by the Queen of the Fairies. His first wish is to travel. His second wish is find a bride. His final wish is much more complicated, since he asks for a son who speaks Gaelic. When his wife is unable to conceive, the couple adopt a mute boy, so Jamie doesn’t get exactly everything he asks for, but he does get most of it. Three Wishes for Jamie featured a score (music and lyrics) by Ralph Blane, with a book by Charles O’Neal and Abe Burrows, based on O’Neal’s novel of the same name. The musical ran for 92 performances and is mostly forgotten today.
Carnival in Flanders (1953)
The 1953 musical flop Carnival in Flanders actually had an interesting premise for a musical, but it ultimately failed to ignite as it continued to undergo changes from its out-of-town tryout through its opening on Broadway where it lasted for a mere 6 performances. Interestingly enough, the show’s star Dolores Gray won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the show, the shortest-lived run for anyone receiving that honor. The show did have one hit song that came out of it, “Here’s That Rainy Day,’ but most of the Jimmy Van Heusen/ Johnny Burke score has been forgotten. So where does John Raitt fit into all of this? The musical is set in a small Flemish town where a duke (played by Raitt) and his entourage come into the town and create chaos while the mayor hides and the duke falls in love with the mayor’s daughter (Gray).
The Pajama Game (1953)
Raitt found great success in his next musical venture The Pajama Game. Set in a midwestern pajama factory, Raitt played the establishment’s new superintendent Sid Sorokin, falling in love with the union representative on staff. With a score by Adler and Ross, Raitt introduced “Hey There” in The Pajama Game, one of the most recorded showtunes to come out of the 1950s. The song that was essentially a duet with himself as his character recorded the first verse into a Dictaphone and then played it back and sang along with the recording. The Pajama Game is also the only time that Raitt got to recreate one of his roles in the film version, playing opposite Doris Day for the big screen.
A Joyful Noise (1966)
After two big hits with the classics Carousel and The Pajama Game, Raitt would never again originate a role in a hit Broadway musical. His next outing was A Joyful Noise in 1966, and that show lasted for only 12 performances on Broadway. Raitt, himself, admitted that the show just never worked and was never going to. He knew he was in a troubled show long before it opened on Broadway. In A Joyful Noise he played Shade Motley, a wandering minstrel who happens upon a small town in Tennessee town where all of the ladies are intrigued by the stranger. One of the women, who is engaged to marry the local minister, but finds herself falling for Shade. The score by Oscar Brand and Paul Nassau didn’t yield any hits.
Musical Jubilee (1975)
Raitt’s final appearance in a Broadway show was in the musical revue Musical Jubilee. Seven performers, including Raitt, Lillian Gish, Tammy Grimes, Larry Kert, Patrice Munsel, Cyril Ritchard and Dick Shawn entertained audiences while giving them a retrospective and history lesson in the evolution of the Broadway musical. Musical Jubilee ran for 92 performances.
John Raitt would also enjoy a successful concert and cabaret career. He toured in many productions including Kiss Me, Kate and Shenandoah. Raitt replaced Alfred Drake as Curly in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! and appeared with Mary Martin in a made-for-TV version of Annie Get Your Gun. He also kept his fees low so that he could appear in summer stock, something he did on a regular basis, playing roles that were not exactly the best fit for him, but ones that he was interested in playing (including Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and the title character in Zorba). He regularly appeared on television, often in Rodgers and Hammerstein celebrations and retrospectives. Raitt fathered three children, including recording star Bonnie Raitt.
Raitt died on February 20, 2005, but Broadway enthusiasts will never forget his iconic performances and his booming voice.