1944 proved to be the turning point for John when he was asked to audition to be Alfred Drake’s replacement in the original Broadway company of the landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!
After seeing his audition, Rodgers and Hammerstein had bigger plans for John’s Broadway debut. Instead of casting him as a replacement in Oklahoma! in New York they sent him to join the national company in Chicago.
John spent ten months there, plus a few weeks in Detroit and Milwaukee, before R&H brought him back to Manhattan to begin rehearsals of their new show, Carousel, which they had completed with him specifically in mind.
At his audition a year earlier, John’s rendition of the aria from The Barber of Seville gave R&H an idea for a number that would make Broadway history. Hear John tell the story of Soliloquy.
The critical and audience reaction to Carousel was immediate and overwhelming, making John’s Broadway debut the talk of the town. His performance as Billy Bigelow defined a new breed of leading man – the virile, tragic anti-hero who sings with unmatched power and beauty – and remains the standard against which other legitimate theatre voices are compared. John took home the New York Drama Critics and Donaldson awards for Carousel. The musical remained the personal favorite of its composer and its leading man. John starred in Carousel for over two years. Hear John talk about long runs and "artistic successes."
In 1948 he returned to Broadway in Magdalena, an eagerly awaited musical from noted South American composer Villa-Lobos. The show lasted only 11 weeks at the Ziegfeld.
John’s next Broadway musical, Three Wishes for Jamie, was a folksy, Irish fable based on an award-winning novel. Although John always thought of the show as a “near-miss” it barely managed a three-month run.
The 1953-54 theatre season began with John starring in Carnival in Flanders, based on a popular 1936 French film. The musical was roundly dismissed by critics, including The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson, who wrote Raitt “is entitled to be in something that a theatergoer can enjoy ”. Carnival in Flanders folded its tent after only 5 performances.
Atkinson got his wish at the end of the season when The Pajama Game became the surprise hit of the year. In the lead role of Sid Sorokin, the pajama factory foreman, John introduced one of the biggest ballads of the fifties, “Hey There”, once again establishing himself as one of the top leading men of the golden age of the Broadway musical. Working with George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and Harold Prince, John enjoyed a huge success with The Pajama Game and once again stayed with the show for its entire 1063-performance run.
In 1957 John returned to the sound stages of Hollywood to recreate the role of Sid opposite screen star Doris Day in the movie version of The Pajama Game. Using the most of the New York cast, the film perfectly captured the spirit of 1950’s Broadway.
John’s next New York appearance was in the highly acclaimed 1965 Lincoln Center revival of Carousel. The following year John starred in Michael Bennett’s choreographic debut A Joyful Noise, which played only twelve performances at Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theatre after a summer stock tryout. For ten weeks in 1975 he headlined once again at the St. James Theatre, home of Oklahoma! and The Pajama Game, when he led an all-star cast in the revue A Musical Jubilee.
While traveling the country in a wide variety of productions, the next decades found John playing to New York audiences only occasionally - performing his one man show A Musical Autobiography for an invited audience at the Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes) in 1982, back on the stage at the St. James singing the title song from Oklahoma! in celebration of it’s 50th anniversary, making a cameo appearance in The Will Rogers Follies in 1993, singing at the Easter Bonnet benefit in 1995.
His final appearances on New York stages took place in 2002. As a guest performer at the Tony Awards, John sang a portion of “Soliloquy”. Four days later the 85 year-old star introduced headliners Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald at a Carnegie Hall concert of Carousel, the same musical that introduced John Raitt to New York audiences fifty-seven years earlier.