John Raitt, Robust Star of Broadway Musicals, Is Dead at 88

Obituaries   John Raitt, Robust Star of Broadway Musicals, Is Dead at 88
John Raitt, whose strapping frame and powerful baritone made him a charismatic star of the Broadway musical stage in the 1940s and '50s, died Feb. 20 at the age of 88, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Raitt had been ill for the last several days. He died from complications of pneumonia at his Pacific Palisades home, his manager, James Fitzgerald, said in a statement.

In his most iconic role, John Raitt played the ne'er-do-well carnival barker Billy Bigelow who tries, but fails to do right by love Julie Jordan in Carousel, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's more darkly tinged musicals. As such, he was the first to sing such classic tunes as "If I Loved You" and the towering musical narrative "Soliloquy."

Raitt called the latter song, in which Billy dreams about the kind of boy he might be father to, "practically a one-act opera which took six and a half minutes to sing,'' the AP reported. He said Hammerstein had been inspired to write it when he heard him sing Figaro at an earlier audition, for Curly in the road company of Oklahoma!. He sang an aria from The Barber of Seville as a way of warming up. He got the job, and the composing team remembered that booming, authoritative, distinctly male voice and persona when casting their next show, 1945's Carousel.

"They wrote such great songs, so singable and so right for my voice," he said of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

John Raitt's other big Broadway hit was Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' labor-management musical The Pajama Game in 1954. He introduced the classic ballad "Hey There" in the production. The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical that year, though Raitt was not nominated for his performance; he would not receive a single Tony nomination over his entire career. He starred in the 1957 film version of Pajama Game, again playing foreman Sid Sorokin, but the part did not lead to others; it was his only leading movie role and his final film credit. His performance as Billy Bigelow was captured in a 1954 television tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein and he played Frank Butler in a 1957 television version of Annie Get Your Gun.

In between Carousel and The Pajama Game, he starred in three flops: Magdelena (1948), Three Wishes for Jamie (1952) and Carnival in Flanders (1953). Following his run in The Pajama Game, he would appear in only one Broadway musical in each of the following decades: A Joyful Noise in 1966 and A Musical Jubilee in 1975. Both were short-lived.

John Raitt was born Jan. 10, 1917, in Santa Ana, California, to Scottish Presbyterian parents. He won a track scholarship to the University of Southern California and completed his education at the University of Redlands in 1940.

His professional debut came in 1940 as a chorus singer in HMS Pinafore with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, according to AP. He went on to sing lead roles in many other operas, including Carmen.

After his Broadway reign, Mr. Raitt remained active in the touring and summerstock circuits. His credits during this time included Annie Get Your Gun, Destry Rides Again,' Man of La Mancha, Kismet and Zorba

"I played 25 consecutive years of summer stock, in every state in the union and a couple times on buses," he said.

Always socially conscious, Mr. Raitt converted to Quakerism during World War II. He would sometimes auction off his skills for charity.

A man of unflagging energy—he once sang the entire score of Carousel during an appearance on the "Today" show—he retained his build, voice and thick head of hair well into old age. In the '80s, he became best known as the father of pop artist Bonnie Raitt, his daughter with Marjorie Haydock, and often appeared with her in concert.

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