John Raitt: "Bell Telephone Hour Telecasts: 1959-1966"
With Stevens, Wright; Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra and Chorus, Voorhees. VAI 4542, 49 mins., no subtitles
Most fans of musical theater would agree that the two biggest leading men of Broadway's golden age of musicals (1940s–'60s) were Alfred Drake and John Raitt. This was a time when vocal training for opera and the theater was not really all that different, and early in their careers, both men sang for the Metropolitan Opera's "Auditions of the Air."
VAI has released DVD compilations for each baritone, gathered from their appearances on the Bell Telephone Hour, beginning in 1959. Each collection has a similar format — a potpourri of songs from musicals and operettas, along with holiday and patriotic medleys. These are often staged in the hokey but endearing style of the era. (It certainly was a more innocent time!) Many songs are abbreviated, which can be somewhat frustrating.
Drake, the slightly senior of the two (born in 1914), is best remembered for creating the leads in three classic shows, Oklahoma!, Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet. The last two particularly suited his slightly pompous, highly theatrical, sometimes hammy style. At the time of these telecasts, he was perhaps a bit past his vocal prime. His tone can be covered and a bit throaty, but it is still robust, impressive and highly individual — a fine souvenir of a more formal, oratorical style.
John Raitt is another story. His singing is timeless. He possessed a glorious voice, a high baritone with a golden, tenor-like color. His singing seems effortless — simple, direct, gorgeous in sound and phrasing.
Raitt's classic creations were the leads in Carousel and The Pajama Game (with several less successful shows along the way). It was certainly a tribute to his technique that he could sing the demanding role of Billy Bigelow eight times a week, in the days before microphones infiltrated Broadway theaters.
Some of the songs included here are classics, others much less so, but he turns them all to gold. Among the highlights heard are "Lucky To Be Me" (Bernstein), "Evelina" (Arlen) and a heavenly "All the Things You Are" (Kern).
Raitt probably lost count of the number of times he sang Billy's great "Soliloquy," and of course it is included here. While there are some small internal cuts in this performance, he still sets the standard for this near-operatic scene, here capped by a ringing high B-flat!
Each gentleman is joined by guest artists. From the Broadway world, there are a couple of second-tier leading ladies, Mindy Carson and Martha Wright, as well as a higher-level Sally Ann Howes. But from the world of opera, there are two bona fide stars, Risë Stevens and Patrice Munsel. Both, of course, were completely at home in the popular idiom. Stevens, in the season of her Met farewell, is the epitome of the warm, gracious hostess in the extended Christmas segment with Raitt. Munsel is simply terrific, at times even overshadowing Drake himself. She has looks and personality to burn, along with a warm, darkly-colored soprano, which is perfect for these classic musical roles. Her performance in the excerpts from Kiss Me, Kate shows how ideally suited she was to Cole Porter's heroine.
Most Broadway aficionados will want both of these collections, but any lover of wonderful singing will enjoy the Raitt.