Broadway’s new generation to honor mentor John Raitt


Grammy Award-winning daughter Bonnie Raitt will perform duets with her father.

By Pam Linn/Staff Writer

There are two popular ways to pay tribute to legendary entertainers: the Celebrity Roast, favorite of comedians, and the semi-biographical performance, where fellow actors who have worked with the honoree put on the show.

For iconic musical comedy star John Raitt, Pepperdine wanted to do something a little different. So the university contacted its notable guest director, Jon Engstrom, to put together a concert honoring Raitt for his lifelong career in musical theater and his personal contribution to the school’s theater arts department.

“When Marnie Mitze asked me to direct this tribute, I said, well, we could do the usual and get all the stars he’s worked with who are out here,” Engstrom said. “But then I thought we should make this more specific to passing the torch to young people. It’s about what effect he’s having on the future of theater, passing his knowledge on to younger people. That’s his legacy.”

So Engstrom contacted the Pepperdine graduates he knew who had attended Raitt’s master classes, some of whom are working on Broadway today because of his advice and encouragement.

“You should see the e-mails they sent me saying they wanted to give him a big thank you and how excited they are to be able to do that,” Engstrom said. “Some said that without him they might not have had the courage to go out and pursue their dreams. He made it seem tangible and acceptable to them.”

Even those who wanted to be part of the show but couldn’t make it for the best of reasons – one is working in “Hair Spray” and another is doing a Blues Brothers show in Japan – responded with fond memories of their classes with Raitt. “They all said it was his passion they remember, his pride in theater and in singing, and that he was enormously generous. They considered him a friend,” Engstrom said.

Engstrom, who choreographed Pepperdine’s fall musical for five years, danced on Broadway for 15 years and was dance captain of the original production of “42nd Street” in 1980. He went on to direct that show all over the world.

Engstrom’s first brush with the Raitt magic came when he signed to direct Pepperdine’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” Although he could have used a student to play the grandfather, he was hoping to find someone older, perhaps a faculty member. When Mitze suggested he might use John Raitt, he was bowled over, he said, “to have the chance to put on my resume that I had worked with him. I feel so privileged to have had that opportunity and that connection … He made everything work.”

The director also remembers Raitt not just as an extraordinarily resonant baritone, but also as a singer who has great respect for a lyric. “I saw him in concert sing a song from ‘Kiss Me Kate’ called ‘Where is the Life That Late I Led?’ I never was interested in that song, but he did it and it blew me away. It was like I was hearing it for the first time. He did it with such economy of nuance.”

Raitt told The Malibu Times a few years ago that he understands he is now better known as the father of popular singing star Bonnie Raitt than he was as a Broadway star. Father and daughter are planning to team up for a few duets after the Grammy Award winning singer does a set accompanied by her bass player. Six graduate students will join one freshman and one faculty member performing songs from shows Raitt has done and a dance number to open the tribute concert.

Engstrom said Raitt’s association with the university began with his wife, Rosemary, a longtime supporter of Pepperdine’s Theater Arts program. “Rosemary inspired John to become involved in theater here and it’s been a wonderful association for them. Pepperdine is very lucky to have had John donate personally to the students on campus.”

And on Sunday, the students will have an opportunity to say thanks for the inspiration that sparked their own careers.

Tickets for the John Raitt tribute concert, 2 p.m. Sunday, are available at the Pepperdine box office, 310.506.4522.