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Soliloquy of a Broadway Leading Man: The John Raitt Papers

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The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Janet McKinney.

The Music Division is pleased to announce the publication of the online finding aid for the collection of Broadway leading man John Raitt.

John Raitt as Billy Bigelow in the original production of Carousel, 1945. John Raitt Collection, Music Division.

A native Californian, John Raitt (1917-2005) had star quality from an early age—initially as an athlete. Clippings in the collection laud his track and field abilities throughout his time in high school and college. But Raitt was equally involved in theater during those years, and he became a student of classical music, particularly of lieder and opera. He graduated from the University of Redlands in 1939, and he made his professional stage debut in the chorus of HMS Pinafore in 1940 at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. After performing with the LA company for several seasons, he was asked to audition for the lead role of Curly in the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! In order to “warm up” for the audition, Raitt sang Figaro’s aria from the opera The Barber of Seville. Upon hearing his voice, Rodgers and Hammerstein were not only convinced Raitt should play the role of Curly, they were inspired to cast him as Billy Bigelow in their new musical, Carousel. They tailored the role for Raitt, writing the complex and operatic “Soliloquy” specifically for his baritone voice.

Raitt’s subsequent Broadway premieres included the original productions of Magdalena, Three Wishes for Jamie, Carnival in Flanders, and A Joyful Noise. Most successfully, he created the role of Sid Sarokin in The Pajama Game, starring opposite Janis Paige. He reprised the role in the feature film version, this time opposite Doris Day. His performance of the song “Hey There” marked the first time a pre-recording was used in a Broadway show so that the performer could sing a duet with himself!

Souvenir program for The Pajama Game, 1954. Box 49 / Folder 1, John Raitt Collection, Music Division.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s he performed extensively in touring productions and summer stock theaters. Raitt kept his performance fees low in order to remain affordable for these regional theaters, and his papers reflect this. Scripts, programs, photographs, and scrapbooks extensively document his leading roles in Camelot; Carousel; Kismet; Kiss me, Kate; Man of La Mancha; Show Boat; and Zorba, among many others.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Raitt developed and performed across the country in solo concerts. Programs and touring itineraries indicate a robust and often vigorous concert schedule. The collection includes Raitt’s orchestra library, an excellent representation of his concert and recording career, with nearly all titles in his performance catalog present. Most of the sets of instrumental parts are complete, and the scores and parts have extensive performance markings throughout.

The John Raitt Papers provide a wealth of research opportunities about this dedicated and consummate performer. (Or one can simply peruse the photographs and appreciate the many, many patterned pants he wore throughout his career performing as Billy Bigelow!) Now fully processed, the collection is available for research in the Performing Arts Reading Room.

Comments (3)

  1. What wonderful news, thank you all so much! And thank you for preserving the history and heritage of American Musical Theater.
    Fran Morris Rosman, Archivist
    The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation

  2. John Raait incomparable singing the Soliloquy! Enjoyed the Papers blog. My Best Wishes from my Home (and the birthplace of Benjamin Britain) Lowestoft, Suffolk UK

  3. I am the youngest of John Raitt’s children. He continues to this day to inspire my music,both in songwriting and especially in performing. “Davey boy Sing to the back of the room, look just over the tops of their heads” he would say.
    I thank both my mother Marge as well as my amazing father
    For their gift of music and song which is a most important part of my life. My youngest son Ely Cole Raitt,
    As I write this, has just arrived in Nashville as an American Idol contestant. Grampa would be proud to see his offspring keep the flag flying. I just completed two tours singing on the Sprit of Peoria Paddle wheel historical tours on the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers with fellow singer songwriter
    Barry Cloyd. Thank you Nick for organizing this.

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