Sunday, February 20, 2005

John Raitt, 1917-2005

Monday's New York Times reports that Broadway star John Raitt has died at the age of 88.

Raitt's best-known roles were his leading men in Carousel and The Pajama Game, although he appeared in several other new musicals in the 1940s and '50s (some which were not nearly as successful as those two shows), and in national touring companies (his big break came as Curly in Oklahoma!, a role he repeated in Lincoln Center in 1964, which is preserved in a CD recording) and summer stock.

(I'm embarrassed to say that, while I am certain I saw Raitt in summer stock at Milwaukee's Melody Top Theatre in the 1970s, I cannot recall what play I saw him in. It's possible that it was The Pajama Game, but the only actor I remember from that production was a quite fey Alan Sues, known from TV's Laugh-In and the original Broadway cast of Tea and Sympathy. It may, however, have been Man of La Mancha. My memory fades after more than 25 years -- or perhaps Raitt failed to create an indelible image for me, as Sues did or as other Melody Top performances -- Laugh-In's Joann Worley in Mame, Dorothy Collins in Follies, Jane Powell in Irene, or Barry Williams in Pippin -- did.)

With his performance in Carousel, Raitt helped revolutionize the Broadway musical. His rough-hewn Billy Bigelow redefined what a leading man could be -- in this case a cad, a wife-beater, and a thief -- without turning off audiences. Bigelow is a complex character and Raitt's song "Soliloquy" expresses every facet of this. "Soliloquy" was a new kind of song for Broadway, as was the first act duet known as the "Bench Scene," which (like "People Will Say We're in Love" before it) became the model for the non-love love song. Stephen Sondheim has called the Bench Scene "probably the singular most important moment in the revolution of contemporary musicals" (cited in Ethan Mordden, Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical in the 1940s).

Of Raitt's two biggest hits, it may surprise people to learn that The Pajama Game ran for 1,054 performances, 164 more than Carousel's run. (Carousel has stood the test of time better than The Pajama Game has.)

Of course, nothing is certain in the theatre. The creative team had trouble with Carousel in the out-of-town tryout period. Raitt told the authors of Sing Out Louise! 150 Broadway Musical Stars Remember 50 Years what it was like:

"Work on the show was very slow and laborious," Raitt recalls. "When we opened in New Haven, the curtain came down at a quarter to one. After the show every night, Oscar [Hammerstein] would write until three or four in the morning, and then at nine o'clock we'd get the changes, and rehearse until five, and then play the show. Mr. and Mrs. God were still in the show, and when we got to Boston, I remember the Christian Science Monitor saying you couldn't have a Mr. and Mrs. God. Well, Dick [Rodgers] and Oscar were walking across the Common from the Colonial Theatre to the Ritz Carlton after the show, and Dick, with that wry sense of humor, said, 'Oscar, we've got to get God out of that park. Put him on a ladder. Put him anywhere.' And that's how the ladder scene -- the Starkeeper -- evolved."

One of John Raitt's failed shows was Three Wishes for Jamie (music and lyrics by Ralph Blane, book by Charles O'Neal and Abe Burrows, based on O'Neal's novel; O'Neal was the father of actor Ryan O'Neal and grandfather of Oscar-winning actress Tatum O'Neal), which ran for only 94 performances. Raitt's description of the production leads one to believe it may have been the inspiration for a hit show written by Mel Brooks that still is selling out on Broadway and on the road (again from Sing Out Louise!):
"It was badly produced. First of all, they oversubscribed it -- they went 120 percent over. The producers got put in jail."

After Raitt's musical theatre days ended, he continued to perform on television and in concert well into his 80s. Expect the lights to dim on Broadway one night this week.


Anonymous said...

I think your theory that John Raitt did Man of La Mancha at the Melody Top is right. I seem to recall he was cast in that role. I saw him at the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center in Zorba with Chita Rivera and Barbara Baxley in 1970. I was still in high school. I grew up in a small town northeast of Milwaukee, and went to Milwaukee frequently for shows. I saw Carnival with Jean Pierre Aumont and Marisa Pavan, Kaye Stevens as Mame, Gretchen Wyler and Linda Kaye Henning in Applause, Jane Powell in Meet Me in St. Louis, Earl Wrightson and Lois Hunt in Gigi and Dorothy Lamour in Hello, Dolly! at the Melody Top. It's nice to know that the theatre is remembered.

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Anonymous said...

Is it possible that John Raitt might have been in Kismet at the Melody Top Theater the time you saw him. I feel this might be correct...because I worked with him at the theater around that time. I played only a small part, but had time to visit with him. He stopped the show with one of his songs from this absolutely beautiful show!

Anonymous said...

Worked with John Raitt in MAN OF LA MANCHA and Gretchen Wyler in MAME. Melody Top was a great growing up experience. All kids should have that opportunity. Too bad its gone.