Who's Who in Musicals: Ra - Ro
by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1997-2005)

 

Raitt, John
Actor, singer
b. Jan. 19, 1917 (Santa Ana, CA) - d. Feb. 20, 2005 (Pacific Palisades, CA)

Rugged good looks, a muscular build and a soaring baritone voice swiftly took Raitt from the road company of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's Oklahoma to starring as Billy Bigelow in the original Broadway production of their Carousel (1945). He introduced " If I Loved You" with co-star Jan Clayton, and stopped the show with the epic "Soliloquy." After the ill-fated Magdalena (1948), he co-starred with Mary Martin in two national tours of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun – repeating the role for TV broadcast in 1957. Raitt weathered the charming failure Three Wishes for Jamie (1952) and the disastrous Carnival in Flanders (1953) before playing stalwart factory supervisor Sid Sorokin in the The Pajama Game (1954). In that long-running hit, he sang the hit song "Hey There." Three years later, he repeated the role opposite Doris Day in the film version.

Raitt became an annual presence on the summer theater circuit, touring in revivals of classic musicals. He interrupted this cycle to appear in the first Lincoln Center revival of Carousel (1966), the short-lived A Joyful Noise (1966), and the charming all-star Broadway revue A Musical Jubilee (1975). He was the father of country western star Bonnie Raitt. He continued making recordings and concert appearances into the late 1990s, sang on the 2002 Tony telecast, and introduced the Carnegie Hall concert version of Carousel that same year. The robust Raitt made occasional TV appearances until his death due to pneumonia at age 88.

 

Reynolds, Debbie
(b. Mary Frances Reynolds)
Actress, singer, dancer
b. April 1, 1932 (El Paso, TX)

MGM's quintessential "girl next door" found fame (and a best selling single) singing "Aba Daba Honeymoon" with Carleton Carpenter in Two Weeks With Love. She co-starred with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in the classic Singin' In the Rain (1952), performing " Good Mornin'." (Ironically, few know her singing was dubbed for the semi-operatic ballad "Would You.") That same year, Reynolds re-teamed with O'Connor in I Love Melvin. Reynolds eventually appeared in 18 musical films, including Hit the Deck (1955) and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956). She starred in several comedies, introducing the hit song "Tammy" in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). She received tremendous public sympathy when husband Eddie Fisher abandoned her to marry Elizabeth Taylor – and had the last laugh a few years later when Taylor humiliated Fisher by marrying Richard Burton. (In time, Reynolds and Taylor buried the hatchet.)

Reynolds gave her most impressive screen performance as The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), and played the title role in The Singing Nun (1966). As screen musicals became rarities, she segued easily into nightclubs and eventually starred in her own TV sitcom. She made her Broadway debut starring in the revival of Irene (1974), and later toured in revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Reynolds was also the last star of Broadway's Woman of the Year. For many years, she worked to create a museum preserving relics of Hollywood's golden age. The financial failure of her combination museum-hotel left her undaunted, and she has continued with concert appearances and film work. After her Oscar-nominated performance in Mother (1996), she co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine in These Old Broads (2001), a TV film written by Reynolds's real-life daughter, Carrie Fisher. She also appeared as Grace's irrepressible mother on the long-running NBC sitcom Will and Grace.

 

Rice, Edward E.
Composer, director, producer
b. 1849 (Brighton, MA) - d. Nov. 16, 1924 (New York City)

Rice was the first American master of full-length burlesque – a form of musical comedy that parodied popular figures and/or literary works. Of his 18 Broadway productions, two remain memorable high points of this now-forgotten genre. Evangeline (1874) spoofed a Longfellow poem and closed after just two weeks to make way for a previously booked show. But it toured for several years, returning to New York so often that it eventually racked up hundreds of Broadway performances.

In the years that followed, Rice became one of the most popular and prolific producers in the United States, putting dozens of full length burlesques on Broadway and sending them across the country on tour. Fay Templeton and Lillian Russell made their Broadway debuts in Rice productions. Rice helped to shatter Broadway's longstanding color barrier by booking Clorindy: Origins of the Cakewalk (1898) -- an early African American musical by composer Will Marion Cook.

Rice's biggest hit was Adonis (1894), which provided matinee idol Henry Dixey with the most popular role of his career. The plot – a handsome statue comes to life and becomes so disenchanted with human behavior that he happily returns to stone after spoofing a parade of famous personalities and everyday people. Adonis ran for a record-setting 603 Broadway performances. Repeat business was so heavy that Rice and his co-authors kept providing new material throughout the run. The show had a successful run in London, bringing both Rice and Dixey (who co-authored the script) substantial personal fortunes. Rice's final Broadway production was Mr. Wix of Wickham (1904).

 

Rice, Tim
Lyricist, librettist
b. Nov. 10, 1944 (Amersham, UK)

Rice was a 20 year-old law student at Oxford when he was introduced to 17 year-old classical musician Andrew Lloyd Webber. They collaborated on the rarely mentioned The Likes of Us (1965) before composing Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), a pop cantata for boy choristers. The piece was performed all over Britain, with Rice himself playing the role of Pharaoh on at least one occasion. The success of an amateur theatrical staging of Joseph at New York's Cathedral College encouraged Webber & Rice to attempt a full-length biblical rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. A popular recording led to a two year run on Broadway (1971) and a record setting 3,358 performances in London beginning in 1972.

An expanded Joseph debuted on the West End in 1973, and a 1983 Broadway version ran 824 performances. (A souped-up touring version enjoyed international success in the 1990s.) In the meantime, Webber and Rice created a new rock opera recording based on the life of Argentina's Eva Peron. The resulting stage version of Evita, directed by Hal Prince, conquered London in 1978 and New York a year later. For reasons that have not been publicly explained, this show marked the end of Webber and Rice's collaboration.

Rice had limited success with composer Stephen Oliver's medieval London musical Blondel (1983). He next collaborated with Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (of the pop group ABBA) on Chess, which had a hit recording but failed after short runs on Broadway and the West End. Rice returned to Broadway to assist composer Alan Menken with additional numbers for the stage version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1994), and collaborated with him on the Academy Award winning "A Whole New World" and other songs for the animated Aladdin (1992). Rice also teamed with composer Elton John on the acclaimed animated (1994) and Broadway (1997) versions of The Lion King. The Disney corporation also produced Rice & John's update of Aida (2000), giving Rice (and Disney) three simultaneous Broadway hits. He contributed new lyrics to Lloyd Webber's West End production of The Wizard of Oz (2011).

 

Rivera, Chita
(b. Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero)
Actress, singer, dancer
b. Jan. 23, 1933 (Washington DC)

This beloved performer studied at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, and made her musical debut at age 19 in the chorus of the Call Me Madam (1952) touring company, and her Broadway debut in the chorus of Can-Can (1954). She was featured as Fifi in Seventh Heaven (1955) and Rita Romano in Mr. Wonderful (1956), before achieving stardom as Anita in West Side Story (1957), in which she introduced "America" and "A Boy Like That." A sensational dancer and singer, her "spitfire" personality made her a favorite with audiences. She created the role of long-suffering secretary Rose Grant in Bye Bye Birdie (1960), dancing in the memorable "Shriner's Ballet." She was often expected to electrify musicals that were no match for her talents – including Bajour (1964), Bring Back Birdie (1981) and Merlin (1983). This made the real triumphs all the sweeter, such as when Rivera played murderous showgirl Velma Kelly in Chicago (1976), introducing "All That Jazz" and sharing "Nowadays" with co-star Gwen Verdon.

After three decades of Broadway stardom, Rivera finally received a Best Actress Tony for her performance as Anna in The Rink (1984). During the run of Jerry's Girls (1986), Rivera's leg was mangled in a car accident. She made a remarkable recovery, returning in a high stepping national tour of Can-Can (1988). She received her second Tony for playing Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992). At the turn of the century, she won new acclaim in London and Las Vegas revivals of Chicago. In 2000, she also appeared in a Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Anything Goes, and marked the following year by taking on roles in two new musicals – Casper and The Visit. This beloved performer received Kennedy Center Honors in 2002, made a showstopping return to Broadway as Lillian LaFluer in a revival of Nine (2003), and starred in the autobiographical revue Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life (2005).

 

Robinson, Bill "Bojangles"
Dancer, actor
b. May 25, 1878 (Richmond, VA) - d. Nov. 25, 1949 (New York City)

He got his start dancing for pennies on the streets of Richmond, and was performing in black vaudeville by the time he was only 8. His tap technique was so flawless – and seemed so effortless – that he broke into big time vaudeville and wound up headlining at New York's Palace Theatre in 1921. It was there that he introduced his trademark "stair dance," dancing up and down a flight of stairs. It sounds simple, but he did it with such style that it wowed audiences and fellow performers. At age 60, he made his Broadway debut in the smash-hit Blackbirds of 1928, stopping the show with "Doin' the New Low Down." He appeared in several more Broadway musicals, most notably playing the title role in The Hot Mikado (1939).

Robinson caused a sensation when he danced on screen with child star Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935). Knowing a good thing when they saw it, Fox executives teamed them up in four more films, including The Littlest Rebel (1935) and Just Around the Corner (1938). These films made Robinson the highest-paid black entertainer of his time. He co-starred with Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1943), reprising his classic vaudeville stair dance. He appeared in thousands of benefits for needy performers and worthy causes, and gave so freely to those in need that he was almost penniless when he died at age 71. Remembered as a "dancer's dancer," he was portrayed by Gregory Hines in the TV movie Bojangles (2001). For more, see Jim Haskins and N.R. Mitgang's Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1988).

 

Robbins, Jerome
(b. Jerome Rabinowitz)
Dancer, choreographer, director
b. Oct. 11, 1918 (New York City) - d. July 29, 1998 (NYC)

Robbins got his start as a dancer in New York's Ballet Theatre -- and studying with the innovative Actors Studio -- before appearing in several Broadway musicals. Robbins created the ballet Fancy Free (1944) with composer Leonard Bernstein, and with further help from lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green expanded it to create the acclaimed dance musical On The Town (1944). Since every Robbins dance step was motivated by character, his work was a perfect fit for the innovative musical theatre of his time. As one of the first to consider dance as a form of acting, Robbins changed musical theatre forever, making dance as crucial a story-telling tool as the book and score. What Agnes de Mille initiated, Robbins fulfilled. High Button Shoes (1947) and The King & I (1951) benefited from his brilliant dances -- Peter Pan (1954) marked his first assignment as both choreographer and director.

Robbins was a demanding master, and his methods could be vicious. His habit of demeaning performers in front of fellow cast members ("grinding them to dust, only to remold them as new clay") led to his being nicknamed "Attila the Hitler," but some found this approach inspired them to greater efforts. Robbins found his greatest triumphs as director/choreographer of West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), the unbilled savior of both A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) and Funny Girl (1964), and full-fledged helmsman of the record-breaking Fiddler on the Roof (1964). He took an almost co-authorial role in these shows, helping the authors to reshape the books and scores.

After Fiddler, Robbins concentrated on dance works for New York City Ballet and other major dance companies, all despite a pronounced loss of hearing that plagued his final years. Aside from supervising several major revivals of his hits, he directed Jerome Robbins Broadway (1989), a Tony-winning (but financially unsuccessful) retrospective of his finest Broadway dances. His career was always haunted by his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s -- to avoid persecution, he named names, directly causing the blacklisting of several associates. That testimony and an abusive directorial style left Robbins with few friends. Partially incapacitated by a series of strokes, this legendary figure was often ignored as he hobbled through the theater district. Despite the crucial role he played in the development of both modern dance and musical theatre, few mourned at the time of his death at age 79.

 

Rodgers, Richard Charles
Composer, producer, lyricist
b. June 28, 1902 (New York City) - d. Dec. 30, 1979 (NYC)

Rodgers graduated Columbia University early and by age 17 was collaborating with lyricist Lorenz Hart and librettist Herbert Fields. Their two night benefit revue The Garrick Gaieties (1925) wound up running for months, helped in part by the popularity of the song "Manhattan." Over the next two decades, Rodgers and Hart wrote some of the finest musical comedies of their time. On Your Toes (1936) included the innovative "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet, Pal Joey (1940) focused on an unsavory night club performer and his wealthy mistress, and By Jupiter (1942) toyed with sexual role reversals in ancient Greece.

When Hart's drinking made further collaboration impossible, Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II and achieved what he and Hart had long aimed for. Beginning with the Pulitzer Prize winning Oklahoma! (1943), they made the integrated musical play into the world's most popular form of commercial theater. They used songs as dramatic tools, enhancing the action and character development as never before. Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959) remain among the best and most popular musicals of all time. Rodgers and Hammerstein produced a number of highly successful shows, including Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1947).

Rodgers had an extraordinary mind for business and a reputation for being hard to please. After Hammerstein's death in 1960, Rodgers continued to compose, winning a Tony for the music and lyrics to No Strings (1962). His later works include Do I Hear a Waltz (1965), Two By Two (1970), Rex (1976) and I Remember Mama (1979).  After many years battling with cancer, Rodgers succumbed to the disease at age 77. With a career spanning six decades and more than fifty stage and screen musicals, Rodgers and his songs remain key elements in the world's musical vocabulary is one of only two composers who have been awarded Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize -- the other is Marvin Hamlisch.

 

Rogers, Ginger
(b. Virginia McMath)
Dancer, singer, actress
b. July 16, 1911 (Independence, MO) - d. April 25, 1995 (Rancho Mirage, CA)

This vivacious performer worked as a Charleston dancer in vaudeville before making a splash on Broadway in the musicals Top Speed (1929) and Girl Crazy (1930). After several forgettable Hollywood musicals, she created the role of Anytime Annie in 42nd Street (1933), followed by Gold Diggers of 1933 in which she introduced "We're In the Money." That same year, RKO Studios paired Rogers with Fred Astaire to dance "The Carioca" in Flying Down to Rio. That brief number had such an impact that producer Pandro S. Berman decided to build a series of films around the two dancing stars. Rogers and Astaire co-starred in nine musicals that showcased their song and dance talents, five of which were directed by Mark Sandrich. Their now-classic films boasted scores by the most outstanding songwriters of that era – Irving Berlin for Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936) and Carefree (1938); Jerome Kern for Roberta (1935) and Swing Time (1936); and George and Ira Gershwin for Shall We Dance (1937).

Rogers went on to a series of comedies and dramas, and managed to win an Oscar for her performance in the title role of Kitty Foyle (1940). She made just two more musical films, starring in Lady in the Dark (1944) and re-teaming with Astaire when an ailing Judy Garland dropped out of The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). Rogers went on to nightclub appearances and numerous stage roles. She played a haunted cosmetics executive in the ill-conceived musical The Pink Jungle (1959), which closed on the road.

Rogers took over the lead in Broadway's Hello Dolly in 1965, and followed a tour of that show by starring in the London production of Mame (1969). She spent her later years making concert appearances at Radio City Music Hall and other major venues. Frequently downplaying the importance of Astaire in her career, she insisted that she would be remembered for her "serious" work. At the time of her death, every newspaper and television newscast in the Western world carried images of Rogers – dancing with Astaire.

 

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