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Billy Bigelow revisited

John Raitt never wore roller skates on stage; he never wore a cat suit or a silly half-face mask, but then again, he was a star on Broadway when Broadway stars were people, not productions. A leading man who's survived to see an age in which there are no leading men and revivals dominate, Raitt is now better known as dad to Grammy-winning daughter Bonnie and does summer stock in community productions like the Garland Summer Musicals, in which he appears in South Pacific.

Post-war Broadway was running rich: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Carousel opened across the street from their smash hit Oklahoma! in April of 1945. It would enjoy the fifth-longest run of the decade and become a Broadway classic, spawning several standards, including "You'll Never Walk Alone." Raitt, then 28 years old, was making his Broadway debut as the 1870s New England carnival barker, Billy Bigelow. His onstage swagger, booming baritone, and sometimes-macho, sometimes-vulnerable characterization established him as a national heartthrob and brought him both a Donaldson award (the era's Tony) and an award from the New York Drama Critics for best actor in a musical.

In 1965 Raitt again played Bigelow, this time in a revival presented by the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in New York. The album from that production--with Raitt's name given top billing--is still in print. Carousel has seen thousands of performances all over the world. Raitt became one of Broadway's legendary leading men, scoring later as the lead in The Pajama Game (and in the movie version with Doris Day), Annie Get Your Gun, and many others.

John Raitt is in Dallas now, starring as Emile de Becque, the plantation owner, in the Garland Summer Musicals' production of another Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, South Pacific. Across town, the touring company of the controversial Tony award-winning production of Carousel by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain is starting this year's Dallas Summer Musicals season. The musical that Raitt helped make into a classic is at the Music Hall with Patrick Wilson, basically an unknown kid, playing the role Raitt created, while he's relegated to the boonies, doing summer stock, albeit in a respected venue. Ironic? At least it's better than Raitt's last visit, playing Granny's Dinner Theater.

Don't weep for John Raitt, though. His guest appearances with his daughter on the Late Show have created a whole new generation of fans, and Bonnie inducted him into the Theater Hall of Fame last year. She also conceived his best-selling 1995 Broadway Legend album and sang three duets with him: "They Say It's Wonderful" and "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)" from Annie Get Your Gun and "Hey, There" from The Pajama Game.

"I hadn't recorded in 25 years," John Raitt explains backstage prior to a South Pacific rehearsal. "Bonnie was coming back from touring in Europe and sat next to Angel Records president Steve Murphy. She said, 'Dad's singing pretty good, and if you record him, I'll do three songs with him.'"

John Raitt also appears on a new album, Leading Man, a collection of Broadway show-stoppers sung by the American opera hunk, baritone Thomas Hampson; Raitt teams up with Hampson for "Hey, There," and Raitt was not above giving the opera star a few pointers on how to sing Broadway. "There is a difference," he explains. "It was quite an interesting experience, because most opera singers approach music a lot differently than I do. Hampson started out, 'Hey, there,'" Raitt sings operatically, "and I said, 'No, no, you're supposed to be singing this song to yourself. You're not singing out there to somebody else. Sing like you talk.' He was very receptive. It came off pretty well, but it was like two bears scratching at the end on the high notes!"

Opera stars may cross over, but it is rare that they do the eight shows a week that Broadway demands. "With most leading-man roles, you're on stage pretty much all the time." Not so with South Pacific's Emil de Becque: Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted prominent Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Ezio Pinza to star, so they wrote the role so that de Becque is on stage for only 25 minutes and sings only two big songs, "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine."

That suits Raitt, pushing 80, just fine: His pipes are still intact, but he had hip surgery last December, the latest of several operations.

In addition to his stage work he also does pops concerts and gives master classes at universities.

Raitt's favorite role, though, is still the one written for him by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Carousel's Billy Bigelow. Raitt speaks possessively--almost like a doting father--about the show across town, and he has strong words about its current production, which he saw on Broadway.  

"I said to (director) Nicholas Hytner, 'You know, I'm sure you feel as I do, that this is a classic musical-theater piece, and with all classics you have many options...It really doesn't matter what options you choose, the end result is the most important thing.' So I'm really saying to him very nicely, 'I don't like some of your options.'"

Raitt was very disappointed that Hytner cut one of Billy's biggest numbers, "The Highest Judge of All." "I asked him, 'Why did you cut the song?' He said it's superfluous, (and) I said, 'It might be for you, but it certain the heck isn't for Billy Bigelow. If I were doing it, you wouldn't have cut it, or one of us would have left the company!'" (There were reports that the Broadway production's Billy, Michael Hayden, couldn't hit the song's high notes.)

Raitt says he also abhors attempts to make revivals politically correct. "They arbitrarily made it a mixed cast. Carousel now has black people in it. If you're going to stick to the book, there were no black people in Maine at that time. I object to the union telling me I have to put a token black in my company."

As for Billy being a spouse abuser, Raitt says people have it all wrong. "He says very definitely in the show, 'I didn't beat her; I hit her.' 'Why'd you hit her?' 'Because she'd say this, and I'd say that, and she'd be right, so I'd hit her.' By gosh, both female and males do that! I've been slapped by my wife. There's a big difference between beating somebody and hitting somebody or slapping somebody."

"Not so," says the Dallas show's current Billy Bigelow, Patrick Wilson, who says he and director Hytner talked about it. "You've got to stick to what this play's about, which is abuse. Billy did beat her; he did hit her. It's not taken lightly. When Louise [Billy's daughter] says, 'Is it possible for someone to hit you so hard and it not hurt at all?' and Julie says, 'Yes, it's possible,' I say--as Patrick--No.'"

Wilson, 23, admires Raitt as a performer. "It's so amazing to me that--and I hate to keep saying 'at his age' because it makes him sound like a fossil--he's been around so much and still loves the theater and loves to perform, loves Carousel and Billy. He is so dedicated (that) he does it in any venue, from Broadway to summer stock. That's really an amazing and inspiring thing for me."

Raitt says he is optimistic about the future of the American musical theater, pointing to the many revivals that are doing well, although he notes that a major influx of money is coming from Disney ("All the Broadway people are terribly jealous, because they haven't got that kind of money") and wonders what tomorrow's classics will be.

"In 1993, at the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma!, there was a big celebration; 18 of us were still alive. That year there were 1,400 productions of Oklahoma! around the world. After hearing that, I said, 'How many productions of Sunset Boulevard do you think there will be 50 years from now? Sing me a song out of Sunset Boulevard!'"

And how many will be doing Rent, which he hasn't yet seen? "About as many as are doing Hair today," he quips. "They're so desperate to have new work on Broadway. It's great, but it certainly reveals that the golden age of Broadway was the musicals of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. There haven't been shows written for the young ingenue and leading man...You don't have to have stars anymore."

And where are tomorrow's John Raitts going to come from? From regional theaters, Raitt says, if anywhere. He acknowledges that many of the best songwriters, including his daughter, have turned to rock, or Nashville, or Hollywood. "Jerry Herman told me that writing a Broadway show takes two years out of your life, and you may close the next night. Even people in the business don't know who Kander and Ebb are when I ask them. So why not go out and score pictures?"

But there's room on Broadway for Rent, for Disney, and everything else. "That's what Broadway's about. We're entertainers; you always have to keep that in mind. Most people who come to see a musical want to leave their problems out in the lobby. If we get too darn serious, it doesn't happen."

Chita Rivera and Julie Andrews are still going strong; is a revival with Raitt in the works? No, he says, even a national touring company would be "a little too strenuous." He would like to do a concert version of Carousel with Shirley Jones, who played Julie in the 1956 movie to Gordon MacRae's Billy.  

"I did 25 consecutive years of summer stock. Gotta be crazy to have such a record as that! I haven't stopped in 56 years. I've probably done more performances of leading-man roles than any other guy living. I've sung in every state of the union. It's been a great life. I don't know how much longer I am going to go on. As long as I can still walk half-decently on the stage and not fall down, I probably will continue to do things!


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