Alfred Drake and John Raitt must have been the two most important Broadway leading men of the 1940s. There were others of note. There were the Ray Bolgers and the Danny Kayes and the Gene Kelleys. They had hits of note: Lady In The Dark for Kaye, Where’s Charley? for Bolger, Pal Joey for Kelly. There was even the opera star turned Broadway star, Ezio Pinza, who lit up the great white way in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s third big hit of the decade, South Pacific.
But it was Drake and Raitt, the leading men who headed the casts of the first two blockbusters from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma! and Carousel, who come down through history as the premiere leading men of their decade.
Each went on to further stardom on Broadway, made movies and television appearances.
But look back at the decade and you immediately think of Drake’s off-stage opening notes of Oklahoma!’s “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'” that kicked off a revolution in what was expected of a Broadway show, and of Raitt’s seven minute soliloquy in Carousel that carried the audience through the mental processes of a boy discovering what it means to be a man.
Both also made multiple appearances on the Bell Telephone Hour, the first all color television show that brought opera and show music as well as a mixture of light pop into living rooms across the country at 10:00 Friday nights from 1959 to 1965 and then at 6:30 on alternate Sunday evenings until it was cancelled in 1968.
The video label Video Artists International (VAI) which has released dozens of collections of appearances on the show has just released two new volumes, one of Drakes’ appearances and one of Raitt’s .
Each of the collections is assembled into sequences on themes. There are spring songs, Thanksgiving tunes and Christmas carols. Both discs offer a segment of songs from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
The Alfred Drake volume has songs from musicals based on Shakespeare, Twain and Shaw, while Raitt’s has songs of Irving Berlin as well as hits from Broadway musicals.
Raitt handles most of them with aplomb, displaying his clear voice, leading-man handsome looks, and an ease before the audience. He does, however, have a few moments of difficulty with pitch which he overcomes in a “bear with me while I work through this” attitude.
As nice as some of Raitt’s sequences are – and some are quite nice, indeed – it is the final seven minutes of the 49 minute disc that make it of special interest. In it, Raitt performs – not just sings – the “Soliloquy” from Carousel which he introduced as the original Billy Bigelow in 1945.
This performance, telecast nearly twenty years later, (November 10, 1964, to be precise) demonstrates how the piece is not just a song. It is not even “just” a scene. It is the fulcrum on which the entire musical play rests.
It is the moment that his Billy Bigelow absorbs the import of the news of his wife’s pregnancy, recognizes his own inadequacy for fatherhood, and resolves to change in order to fulfill his obligations. It is a superb piece of writing and composing, given a superb piece of singing acting. Just why this, alone among all the segments on the disc, is in black and white is not explained. This lack of visual color, however, does nothing to diminish the impact of the performance.
I wish I could wax quite as positively about the Alfred Drake disc as I do about the John Raitt volume. Unfortunately, he seems to come across in many of the segments as a gorgeous voice in a rather stiff body. There really aren’t any “must have” highlights on this disc like Raitt’s “Soliloquy.”
Fortunately, however, there is a different disc that shows off Drake at his best, one I wrote about last July on Theatre Shelf. It is the VAI release (catalog number VAI 4535) of the 1958 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Cole Porter’s masterpiece Kiss Me, Kate in which Drake recreated the role he created in 1948 opposite his leading lady of the original, Patricia Morrison. Of his performance there I wrote “He’s in fabulous voice and delivers a wonderful performance in all three elements of the part: comedy, drama and romance.”
If you haven’t purchased that disc and you want to find out what magic this leading man could weave, buy the Kiss Me, Kate disc rather than this new one. Then add the Raitt volume to your theatre shelf as well.