A First-Raitt Memory
John Raitt has total recall of the highlights of his legendary career.
Wasn't it nice of John Raitt to drop by a rehearsal of the Encores! production of The Pajama Game and give Brent Barrett, Karen Ziemba, Mark Linn-Baker, et al., his best wishes? The California resident was in town taping a sequence for The Today Show with his daughter, folk-and-blues singer Bonnie Raitt, that will be shown around Father's Day. Before then, though, he'll return to New York for the concert of Carousel, the musical in which he made his breakthrough. "For this presentation," he said, "I offered to play The Starkeeper."
They haven't offered it to him but, God, I hope he gets it. I'll tell you this much: He won't have any trouble learning his lines. John Raitt has a first-rate memory, even though he had his 85th birthday in January. If you doubt that, just ask him what he remembers about playing Sid Sorokin, the new foreman at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the original 1954 production of The Pajama Game, and be prepared for a cheerful earful.
"I was turned down cold when I first auditioned for it, a real 'Don't-call-us-we'll-call-you' routine," he began. "Then two months went by. I heard they looked at Van Johnson, Darren McGavin, everyone. Then my agent said George Abbott wanted to see me. I went down to the Winter Garden, where he had Wonderful Town at the time. Mr. Abbott asked, 'Do you know why we brought you back here?' and I told him I thought I did. Freddie Brisson--one of the producers, Roz Russell's husband--later told me one day when he was coming out of Sardi's, 'If you hadn't been signed, I was going to take my money out and go back to Hollywood.' He didn't give me a run-of-the-play contract, though...but that worked in my favor later to get me more money.
"The producers wanted Jerry Robbins to do it, but he said, 'I probably can do it but I can't do all of it. Bring in my assistant, Bob Fosse, and he'll bring his assistant Carol Haney. She was also cast as Poopsie in 'Hernando's Hideaway,' but that's really all she had to do. Charlotte Rae was originally hired to be Gladys, the boss's secretary, but Mr. Abbott didn't like her enough and he combined her role with Poopsie and gave it all to Carol." (Raitt also remembers that fateful night when Hollywood producer Hal Wallis came to see Haney perform, only to find she was out and the unknown Shirley MacLaine was in: "Shirley was 10 minutes late to the theater and was startled to hear she'd be going on. But she was good. Somehow, she wasn't as good by the end of the week.")
Raitt loved the show. "But it's the only musical I know where the leading man has six songs in the first act and only 16 bars in the second act. I did have another song near the end." He cleared his throat and began to sing: "'The world around us is trying to keep us apart, so let's let them know they're trying in vain.'" He pauses. "I don't know why I remember that 48 years later, but I do."
I asked him how he felt the first time he ever heard "Hey, There" and if he knew it was going to be a hit. He said, "I remember they took me into a little office, not even 10 feet wide. Adler and Ross never acknowledged who-wrote-what, so they didn't tell me if one wrote music, the other lyrics, or they both did it together. But they told me, 'John, you're a square singer, and we're gonna loosen you up.' That's when everyone was back-phrasing, and that's what they wanted--that's what they thought they wanted. Well, I learned a lot from Dick Rodgers, and I told them, 'You have a lazy triplet there.' Pretty soon after that, they let me do it my way. But to answer your question: No, I didn't know it would be a hit. I didn't think 'If I Loved You' was going to be a hit when I was rehearsing Carousel, but I did think that 'What's the Use of Won'drin'?' would be."
Raitt noted that "Hey, There" was already on the airwaves "after we played New Haven, when we were in Boston. It was a song that I sang into a tape recorder and then played it back and accompanied myself. Well, we though we'd worked out all the tape kinks in New Haven; but then in Boston, opening night at the Shubert, the tape went a little faster, and it was playing the song in the wrong key. Fortunately, it wasn't that loud, but I really had to let go and drown it out. The conductor later said that I drowned out the orchestra, too."
Raitt is still grateful that he was able to repeat his role in the film version of the show. "I didn't think I'd get the movie," he said, "because they rarely let Broadway performers do their roles on film. I remember that day when so many of us were appearing on the 25th Anniversary of the Tonys and there was Richard Kiley, so despondent, because he's just learned that day that he wouldn't be repeating his Man of La Mancha role for the film. Anyway, when the Pajama Game movie was starting to happen, Armina Marshall of the Theatre Guild wanted me to play opposite Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing. But George Abbott kept telling me, 'I'm 90% certain I'm going to get you [for the Pajama Game movie]. Jack Warner said, 'If we can cast one person who'll guarantee good box office, you can have the rest of your Broadway cast.' And that's what happened once Doris Day was signed. We brought the picture in 22 days ahead of schedule. Stanley Donen got a thousand dollars a day for every day he came in earlier, so he made out okay." (Raitt is still in touch with Day: "I recently asked her how many dogs she has now," he said of the notorious recluse who seems to prefer pets to people. "17," he told me with astonishment.)
Raitt played Sid in productions of Pajama Gamewell in the 1960s. "I was doing it in Phoenix, where we had this really clever 19-year-old director-choreographer who decided to stage 'Once a Year Day' with swings, where we sat and swung out over the audience. That was Michael Bennett, and I was so impressed with him. I said, 'Listen, I'm doing a new musical and I think you'd be great for it.' That was A Joyful Noise. You see, a year before, when I was doing the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel, a guy came backstage and said to me, 'I got a part for you better than Billy Bigelow.' It was the man who'd produced Bye Bye Birdie, Edward Padula--crazy Edward Padula, who was producing it, directing it, and writing it. I listened to the score and thought it was good but I knew that the book, about three generations of itinerant musicians, needed a lot of work. But I had a good relationship with the producer of the Carousel Summer Stock Theatre in Framingham, Massachusetts, so I called him up and said, 'Let's do something different: a tryout of a new Broadway-bound musical in summer stock.' We threw it together and raised money as we went. After each show, I'd tell the audience, 'If you liked the show as much as you seemed to, there's a guy with a beard at the back of the tent who'll take your investment.' When we went to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the apprentices raised $5,000 dollars, and we made it to Broadway."
Not for long. "The reviews were bad," Raitt recalled, "and I still remember Time saying about Padula, 'The writer-director-and-producer was no triple threat." A Joyful Noise closed after its first and only week. "Just before Christmas week!" Raitt roared. "With the best week in show business coming up, he closes the show! Afterwards, I asked him why, and he said he needed $3,000 to keep it open and he didn't have it. I told him, 'I would have given you that $3,000!' Listen, they don't all work out as well as The Pajama Game."