In the final installment of this interview, the star discusses the enduring appeal of Carousel.NR: Were you ever considered for Billy in the film version?
JR: You want to hear that story? Fox did the picture. While I was at Metro, by the way, I was living with Dan Dailey. Sinatra was already filming the part, but got out of it on a fluke in a sense. They were filming it in two processes and he said if you’re filming it twice I need to be paid double. Not only was he not right for the picture, but it’s not a very good film.
They approached Dan Dailey and he said, “You’ve got to be kidding! I can’t do that, sing that part! Why don’t you get the original guy?” I was then doing Pajama Game in NY. But they never approached me. They wanted to get a “John Raitt type” but not John Raitt. Luckily I was able to do both—stage and screen—for Pajama Game. After awhile Gordon MacRae, a good friend, got the opportunity to do the part as a result of his work in Oklahoma!
NR: Were there any revivals of Carousel you were particularly found of?
JR: The revival in 1965 at Lincoln Center was really something. They had all the money in the world, Dick had a 52-piece orchestra, he really indulged himself. It was a beautiful production, and Jerry Orbach was in it too.
NR: Was the show complete?
JR: Well, they cut that part out of the Soliloquy in Boston. Never did know why from Oscar and Dick they cut that. Only 20 seconds, what, another 20 seconds? It’s on the original recording.
NR: I noticed that on your solo LP “Best of Broadway,” you didn’t sing the word “hell.”
JR: Well, in those days… first of all when Jan and I were once asked to do “If Loved You” on television, we had to mouth our own words from the cast recording. They didn’t have rights to perform it on television. Then you come along and you get a list of rules, things that you had to cut… I couldn’t even sing “By God I’ll try”…
NR: Carouselobviously requires better than average voices. Do you feel it is difficult to cast for that reason?
JR: Well it’s not that. Have cast it many times myself. Sometimes in summer stock productions I’ve been given a pair of opera singers who couldn’t act!
NR: Many musicals call for a belting type of singing, but Carousel is more operatic.
JR: Well, I’ve always said everything is in Carousel but an up-tempo song, no call for that in a period setting. Now, the Nick Hytner production—I finally got to see that show and I was pretty thrilled. Michael Hayden, at the curtain, introduced me and it was the first time I’d gotten a standing ovation for standing in the audience.
So I went backstage and talked to Nicholas and asked him why he’d cut “Highest Judge.” “It’s superfluous,” he told me. Not to me it’s not. He needs that, it’s the first time he’s free to be Billy Bigelow again. I have said both you and I think this is a classic piece of American musical theater and with all such works you have many options. Really doesn’t matter which options you choose, the end result is the same. And all I said—very nicely—I don’t like some of your options, but they work. Well, he—the director—wanted to go into the psychological aspects… but you hide a non-singer doing that.
NR: Tell me about the first recording of Carousel.
JR: Well, in those days we waited until the first reviews came out—if they were good, then you recorded on the following Sunday. We did it in a church. We had done two shows the day before, then did the complete recording all in one day. Except the “Soliloquy” which I got separate studio time to record, did it three times.
NR: Since it was on 78’s in those days, they obviously had to cut the Soliloquy in half to put it on 2 sides.
JR: That’s why we put the cut back in, since we had time. Another interesting thing is that you can hear that they kind of turn me down on the high notes—the G… they were always worried about overloading in those days.
NR: The sound quality is very good.
JR: Oh, it is. My big problem is the presence, they were always saying you’ve got to stand back a bit more for the mikes.
NR: I noticed in your recording “Best of Broadway” you took a high B-flat at the end of “Soliloquy.”
JR: Yes, I asked Dick Rodgers for the Lincoln Center revival how he would feel if I took that note, or if he wanted me to do it as written. He said, “I’d prefer it to be sung as written.” That was Dick Rodgers for you.
NR: Do you feel that an effect like that is out of the musical theater idiom and is more operatic in nature?
JR: The musical theater people sit right in the middle between pop and opera. I went with Bonnie to the Grammys and I said to her, “Where are my people?” and she told me, “They don’t sell records.” You cannot find a radio station out here that plays Broadway music.
NR: Your voice sounds like it projected very well in the theater.
JR: Well, I’ve always been blessed in that way. But it’s produced right, the overtones are there. It had nothing to do with the volume, it’s the projection. That’s the hard thing to teach! You just have to listen to Merman to know that…
NR: Did you ever have performances where you felt you were in less than your best voice, for whatever reason?
JR: The only time I missed a show was when I had hepatitis and Howard Keel came in. I did 1060 performances of Pajama Game.
NR: How did you stay fresh night after night for years?
JR: Well, first of all, you have to be a little crazy! Secondly, from the athletic training, you’re striving as best as you can.
NR: Now, Carouselwas produced during the war and there was a very distinct message which resonated with pregnant women, many of whom lost their husbands during the war.
JR: Most of my mail was from pregnant women…
NR: Carousel is certainly not your cheery Broadway musical, as it’s pretty dark.
JR: Well, the original play only ran for 29 performances, and they said how dare you have your leading man kill yourself!
NR: In the movie Billy doesn’t kill himself, he accidentally falls on his knife.
JR: Well, he shouldn’t. He should kill himself… it’s a natural consequence of the story… that’s what he does. I remember the first dry run, without sets and Molnar sitting with his monocle coming down after we’d finished and he said, “This is not congratulations, this is thank you!”
NR: Do you feel that Billy Bigelow is a sympathetic character? Is he appealing?
JR: Oh yes! I tell young people, that he’s a softie, and a little bit dumb. His great claim is that he’s a male whore and he’s good at it. He takes money from girls because he more than satisfies them. Eva le Gallienne, the original Julie in the Liliom play, came up to me and said, “You’re the greatest Liliom of them all!”
I said thank you but I’m really not playing Liliom, I’m playing Billy Bigelow and he’s much more palatable because he sings. Up until the “Soliloquy” when he makes the change, you’re not sure you like this guy, as you sit in the audience, the way he treats his wife and bullies everybody. Then he opens himself up, then you understand, oh my god, he’s just covering up… he’s basically a softie.
The way I always played Billy… he never cheated on Julie, and he won’t go back to the Carousel, which she surely wouldn’t tolerate. It’s a tremendous growth process for him. Don’t think he could ever make it though… given another chance, he’d blow it. He is not about to be put in prison though—hence the suicide.
If I were to give an aspiring baritone one thing, one piece to sing to me, it would be the “Soliloquy.” He could tell me a lot about him vocally, what he can do as a singer, and actor with that. The whole scene is a wedding of music, lyrics and dialogue. I was challenged, every time I did it, trying to find a better way to express, sometimes speaking more, sometimes singing more.
NR: So I take it that Billy Bigelow was your favorite role?
JR: Yeah, absolutely. It was written for me. After I auditioned with the Figaroaria, the Theatre Guild said you’ve got to give John something as good as that. I asked Dick shortly before he died, how long it took him to write it and he said, “One afternoon.” He was such a prolific man.
Billy Bigelow was the most suited to me of any I have done. I said at the time I’ll never get another role as good for me as this one. It has everything, the challenge of a classic part, so well written! Recently, as much as I have loved doing some of the “dirty old man” roles I’ve done in the last ten years, but Billy was the perfect role for me: high lyric baritone, masculine. That was me. The actor must bring himself to the role, not the role to the actor.
NR: And still performing then…
JR: Still singing 68 years after I started in Fullerton School!
After I turned off the telephone tape recorder, Mr, Raitt informed me that he was finally fulfilling a 40-year dream: to sing with Shirley Jones, the Julie Jordan of the film version of Carousel, for a tribute concert on PBS honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Rodgers.
“And what will you sing with her, “ I asked.
“If I Loved You.”