For his first role on Broadway, the towering, full-voiced baritone John Raitt created the leading role of Billy Bigelow in the classic musical Carousel (1945) – not a bad start on the Great White Way. He would be associated with that role throughout his long and varied career. Born in Santa Ana, California, in 1917, Raitt was drawn to theater already in high school, performing in school productions.
Early on he sang at local functions and in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. In the early 1940s he had uncredited bit parts in several B movies. After landing roles in local productions of The Barber of Seville and Carmen, he auditioned for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in New York and soon had the role of Curly in a traveling production of Oklahoma! With his brooding good looks, tall stature, and robust voice, he quickly won over audiences, and by 1945 he was on Broadway in the original production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel – widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of 20th-century musical theater – starring as the carnival barker Billy.
He returned to Broadway in 1948 in the musical Magdalena, with music by Heitor Villa-Lobos – the Brazilian composer’s only excursion into musical theater, a work pitting the goodness of Colombia’s jungle people against the ills of Parisian civilization. Raitt’s next starring role on Broadway came in 1952, when he assumed the title role in the musical Three Wishes for Jamie, for which the leading part of Jamie – after early West Coast productions featuring another singer – was altered for Raitt, who took over the role in the Broadway production. The following year he starred in the Renaissance-era musical Carnival in Flanders, which closed after six performances.
But in his next appearance on Broadway, The Pajama Game (1954), he found a musical that was a genuine hit, winning three Tonys® – including one for Best Musical – and running for 1,063 performances. The character Sid Sorokin, a factory superintendent who becomes amorously involved with a union leader pressing for a higher wages, became one of his signature roles; he reprised it in the 1957 film version of the musical, playing opposite Doris Day.
He returned to Broadway in the short-lived musical A Joyful Noise (1966) and the revue A Musical Jubilee (1975), which featured a host of other Broadway stars. He also toured in many classic musicals, including Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Pajama Game, 1776, Show Boat, and Man of La Mancha.
Though Raitt rarely appeared in film, he was a familiar presence on television in shows such as Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, The Motorola Television Hour, NBC Television Opera Theatre, Shower of Stars, General Electric Theater, Shirley Temple’s Storybook, The Bell Telephone Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, and other variety and talk shows. He also performed in television productions of Annie Get Your Gun (1957, with Mary Martin) and The Pajama Game (1957). In the 1990s he appeared on Third Rock from the Sun.
Raitt died in 2005. The singer Bonnie Raitt is his daughter.