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Talking to John Raitt, part two

In the second part of this interview with John Raitt, the singer speaks in great detail how he was cast in his breakthrough role of Billy Bigelow in Carousel

John Raitt: I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the Carmen and my teacher. He really did the work for me to begin with. I did the Count in The Marriage of Figaro in 1943, did that concert with Leonard Pennario and it was quite successful. But I have got to relate something kind of interesting.

My father was in the audience for that concert and at the reception after, and someone asked him how he liked the concert. He said, “Well, I enjoyed the program after he could sing the songs I could understand,” because I had sung in German and Italian and the whole thing.

I kept remembering that through the years, that you’ve got to give something back to the audience. You don’t have to sing down to them particularly, but being a storyteller, I can’t tell the story to Americans who don’t understand the Italian. So that’s why I never went into opera. I think I would have fought it all the way. I kept receiving offers for years to be turned into a Wagnerian Heldentenor but that would have meant dropping musical theater, retraining and learning German, which I didn’t want to do.

NR: Apropos of that, how did you first become associated with Rodgers and Hammerstein?

JR: Mrs. Langner of the Theatre Guild that produced Oklahoma!came out here late in 1943, and was seeking a replacement for Alfred Drake, who originated the role of Curly. Mine was quite the interesting interview: I called my manager, and she said “Miss Langner wants to see you but she’s on a very tight schedule, so you’re going to meet her when she comes out of the hairdresser’s in Beverly Hills, then your interview will take place in the cab on the way to 20th Century Fox Studios.”

So there I was waiting outside the beauty parlor in Beverly Hills. She comes out, we get into the cab, and she says “How would you like to come to New York City to audition for the role of Curly in Oklahoma!?” I told her that’d be very exciting and she said, “Well maybe you’ll be hearing from me.” Of course she didn’t hear me sing. Two months later I received a registered letter from the Theater Guild offering to pay my way to NYC and my way back if they didn’t like me.

So I sold the car, apartment, and went out—we had to take a train in those days. Arrived at Penn Station and the agent on that end picked me up and said, “We’ve got to go to the St. James Theater, they’re waiting for you.” They were doing Oklahoma!and not only were Rodgers and Hammerstein and all the guild members and some of the company were there, out of curiosity, to hear this young man they brought all the way from California just to audition.

Well, I was very cocky in those days as one should be and I said, I haven’t sung since I left for California. Do you mind if I warm up?  My wife played for me, which made a pretty nice combination. I sang the Figaro aria from Barber, and I sang all the songs from Oklahoma! and and I found out later I almost didn’t get the part. Why? Because I was taller than Alfred Drake and wouldn’t be able to fit in his costumes.

NR: Really?? Just because Drake’s costumes didn’t fit?

JR: Yeah, that’s how tight they were with a buck. Oscar Hammerstein came to my rescue, I found out later, by saying, “Well, I’m a tall man. Why can’t Curly be tall?” Because all the Curlys that followed after, like Howard Keel, were tall.  Then I shipped off to Chicago, that’s where the national company was, where we got to do nine shows a week in those days. So I played Curly 10 months without a night off. That was a good bit of training for me. That being a singer, the problem was no problem for me.

During the run of that the Theatre Guild flew me to NY, the war was nearly over by that time. And I met Rouben Mamoulian, who came over from the Moscow Art Theater to create this group at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester. He not only directed Porgy and Bess, butOklahoma! and was going to direct the new Carousel.

I met with him and he said, “Johnny, you look like the guy, “ and I said, oh I guess so. “You’re not worried about the singing, “I said no. Then most assuredly he said, “Let’s you and I work out the rest.”  Well, we did and of course that was a marvelous big break for me. They decided not to put me in the Oklahoma! company because they wanted to use a fresh young man. Rodgers and Hammerstein had just gotten the rights to do Ferenc Molnar’s Liliomin the forthcoming musical.

NR: Did you read Liliomin preparation?

JR: I don’t think so…don’t think I was smart enough in those days…

NR: What was your first impression of Carousel?

JR: Well, it was so exciting, you know, the score is so wonderful. We were all excited about it because most of us had never been on Broadway before. We had a most interesting time prior to the opening in New Haven. Mr. Mamoulian was just like a general, like a tyrant in some way and he wouldn’t do anything unless he got his way.

We went to do dress rehearsal at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven and we wanted to start about 8:00. It got to be 9:00 and we still hadn’t begun. Lawrence Langner said, “Rouben, we’re having some problems around here, you better get started. It’s costing us money.” Then Mr. Mamoulian turned to the stage manager, said “Bring down the house curtain. Everybody take a half hour.”

He wasn’t about to settle that problem in front of the whole company, which is another thing. We started a half hour later and rehearsed until 6:30 in the morning. Then we did a little matinee for ourselves and opened that night and the curtain came down at a quarter to 1:00.

NR: Quarter to one!!

JR: We were overloaded with too many things, too many sets and technical problems. Basically the only problem we had with Carouselwas in the second act. And I would go to the rehearsal, Oscar would stay until 3:00 to write scenes and I would go at 9:00 to rehearsal till 5:30 putting those scenes in, go home to take a fast shower and a bite to eat and go back to that in the show.

In fact we opened in Boston with a Mr. and Mrs. God scene in a New England parlor in the second act and the Christian Science Monitor especially didn’t like that at all.  Today it’d probably go a little better.

One of my great anecdotes is of Rodgers and Hammerstein at one of these performances. Dick and Oscar were walking across the commons to the hotel, and Dick, with that wry sense of humor said, “Oscar says we got to get God out of the parlor. Put him on a ladder or something, but we got to get him out of the parlor.”

And that is what they did, turned him into a Starkeeper and put him up on a ladder in the second act. I had a problem basically because I didn’t have a background as an actor. So I asked Reuben what I should do and took his example of sitting on a bench and bit my knuckle. I didn’t get all good reviews from the critics as an actor on opening night, OK as a singer if you read the reviews.

I was surprised by the way they didn’t even mention “Soliloquy,” not for me particularly. I think it’s one of the finest songs in al of musical theater. Far as I’m concerned, it’s a turning point… you’re not even sure you like Bigelow until he sings that.

Anyway, what an opening night… My God. Dick Rodgers had been in the hospital, back problems all his life. They brought him in on a gurney and set him in a box. We actually did the show for Dick Rodgers opening night. He was an amazing guy. So I’ve got a lot of those stories I could tell too. What experience. I said at the time I’ll never get another role like this the rest of my life.

NR: How was your working relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein?

JR: Well, Rodgers was a stickler about his music as you know. If he wrote a half note, he wanted you to sing a half note. He liked the way I did the “Soliloquy” and he never gave me any flak about the way I did it. He didn’t like the tempo on “The Highest Judge of All.” Originally he was going to do it half up the stage like they might do today. So it was kind of a pontification of the song [demonstrates the tempo]. And I said to myself it’s never going to fly in four, you have to do it in two. So I was always getting notes saying the tempo was too fast.

NR: Well, we all know the song was put there to facilitate a scene change.

JR: Oh yes, he wrote it for that. And also the fact it’s a beautiful song, just love it, especially the bridge of the song. I have it documented, strangely enough. Bonnie, my daughter wanted to have it for posterity. The last time I did Carousel, I was a little long in the tooth to do Billy, but I did it up at Gilford, New Hampshire, in summer stock and she brought up a TV truck and taped it.

There are about five places in Carousel that should receive audience response. Or you may not receive audience response. One is after the first chorus of “If I Loved You.” When Jan Clayton and I did it on Ed Sullivan show during the dress rehearsal it was a complete performance with full audience and they applauded.

During the live show, without the applause sign, that audience did not applaud. But that summer night after “The Highest Judge of All” singing it with the high G and everything, and I have it on tape, the only night of the whole summer where there was applause at all!

NR: What was your impression of Jan Clayton as Julie?

JR: It was wonderful to play opposite her. After Jan was Iva Withers. The finest Julie I had was Inga Swenson, but Oscar said she was too tall.

NR: Did you ever sing with Jan Clayton again?

JR: Yes, she came here in 1963 and we did a revival at the Civic Light Opera. But she had just lost her daughter tragically in an accident and so the second act was very hard on her. It was very sad.

NR: Did you stay for the full run—890 performances?

JR: Almost…. they didn’t want to increase my salary. I then had John Conte as Jigger and Iva Withers as Julie… my character bounces off these two and if they are not strong actors, then it is hard to play the part. I had this vacation clause… I went the whole 10 months of Oklahoma! and the year of Carousel without a vacation. The Theatre Guild asked, “Could you postpone your vacation for a week? We can’t find a replacement.”

Oscar had heard this guy on the coast called Harold Keel—that’s Howard’s real name—and they asked me if I knew him, did I think he could sing the role. Of course he’s a bass-baritone, so you may have to put the keys down. I had sung with him in The Marriage of Figaro. So I stayed on an extra week to start him in the role.

When I came back from my vacation he was very glad to see me. He wasn’t quite ready for the role, the tessitura being what it was, but they liked him. They put him across the street at the St. James in Oklahoma! He was my understudy. That’s how cheap the Theatre Guild was.

One afternoon I took the train home after a matinee to where I was living in Long Island, and there was a deluge, a cloud burst and I couldn’t get back. He’s the only man I know who did two different Broadway shows on the same day. Howard went on to do the Oklahoma! in London, and while he was there did a test for MGM.

While I tested for Pajama Game,before that I was going to do Annie Get Your Gun, and everyone said I was going to do it with Judy Garland. While I was under contract with MGM I had done a test for it. But when that fell through with Judy, the next thing I know Howard had been cast in the role.  Who knows why anyone gets cast?   We’ve always been good friends and I loved it when Howard used to say “They came to hear Big John sing, but they come to see me act.”