John Raitt, a Broadway legend who served as a muse for Rodgers and Hammerstein and performed in musical theater for more than 50 years, only to be eclipsed in stardom by his blues-singing daughter Bonnie, died Sunday at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., the Associated Press reports. He was 88 and succumbed to complications from pneumonia.
Raitt first gained the attention of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein when he auditioned for the lead in a road-company production of their landmark 1943 show Oklahoma! by singing the part of Figaro from The Barber of Seville. They were so impressed with his rugged good looks and his robust baritone that they wrote the lead role of Billy Bigelow in 1945’s Carousel, with its operatically complex vocal parts, with him in mind. That starring role was a triumph for Raitt, whose other big Broadway musical hit was 1954’s The Pajama Game. He reprised the lead role opposite Doris Day in the 1957 MGM film version, his sole major film credit.
Raitt spent most of the next three decades in touring summer stock productions, boasting that he’d performed in all 50 states. In the 1990s, as daughter Bonnie enjoyed her own success working very different musical territory, he would tell reporters he was proud to be better known as Bonnie’s father than for his own career. The two performed together several times in concert, including on a PBS special, in which the elder Raitt, well into his 70s but still vigorous, proved he could still handle ”Soliloquy,” the vocally challenging seven-minute mini-opera that Billy Bigelow sings about his unborn child, which Rodgers and Hammerstein had composed for him 50 years before. On Tuesday, Broadway theaters planned to dim their marquee lights for one minute in Raitt’s memory.