She was the maternal, ghostly, loving presence in The Secret Garden. She went from fresh-faced innocence to graying old-age as Magnolia in the Harold Prince Show Boat revival. And she sang Maria for a new generation in the Broadway revival of The Sound of Music. Always, actress Rebecca Luker brought her crystalline soprano to these shows, producing from her instrument a sound that spoke volumes about the purity, plaintiveness and persistence of her characters. Now, Luker is embracing another major soprano revival role as Marian Paroo in Broadway's The Music Man at the Neil Simon Theatre. Not only does Luker get to sing "Goodnight My Someone," "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You," she gets to be a willful, fiery librarian with genuine book scenes (pardon the pun) that prove Marian isn't just sitting around waiting to be swept off her feet. Smart role. Smart actress. The recently married (to New York actor Danny Burstein) Luker spoke to Playbill On-Line about revivals, new works, growing up in Helena, AL (pronounce it "helleena"), and her big break -- in Michigan.
Playbill On-Line: I thought your performance in Music Man was heroic. Did they bump it up a key to make "My White Knight" even more exciting?
Rebecca Luker: The beginning of "My White Knight" begins in a lower key, to make it more conversational, and then a few lines later it goes to the original key.
PBOL: It's usually played as a center-stage anthem. Now, it comes organically out of the conversation with Marian's mother. It's so character-rich and natural, I love it.
RL: Oh, I do too. [Music supervisor and director] David Chase did that, it was his idea. It was just great. It's one of my favorite things.
PBOL: You played Magnolia and Maria, major revival soprano roles on Broadway. So tell me your first thought when you heard the role of Marian -- yet another soprano in a revival - was coming up.
RL: I heard about Music Man a long time ago, when I was doing The Sound of Music. My eyes lit up. I've always loved the show, since college. I did it in college. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for it. When the time came around, I wasn't really their first choice, they didn't think of me. I had to sort of get myself in for the audition. It was something I had to fight for, which makes it all the more precious.
PBOL: I would have guessed that after Magnolia and Maria....
RL: ...That I would want to go another way? Well, I did want to. I wrestled with that decision for a long time. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, while I'm still young enough to do it and it's one of my favorite shows, I should maybe try to do it. I thought if I don't at least audition for it, I'll wonder about it. I just went with my instinct. What's life about if you can't do what you enjoy doing? And no one was knocking my door down to do plays or movies, and I gotta work and I love to work. I think a good revival is as valuable as doing a good new musical. If you do it well, it's art. It's all art. PBOL: Do you have a desire to break away from revivals, though? Shake up your image of a revival soprano?
RL: Of course I would love to do something new and original, and I would love to do a play or a movie, too. I want to branch out and do everything, like most actors do. The musical-theatre audition calls come in without [my agent] looking for them, and he tries to find something else. We're looking all the time.
PBOL: But you won't leave musical theatre.
RL: I don't want to do that at all. And I want to record more.
PBOL: Is there a recording coming up?
RL: I'm gonna do a Doris Day compilation with Jay Records. Her hits and some obscure things, too. I just adore her.
PBOL: Do opera companies seek you out?
RL: I have been asked to do musicals, like big Sondheimy-type things with opera companies. I haven't yet pursued that. I would love to do that, some Mozart thing, or even some new political opera. And I will. I'd love to do light opera or operetta.
PBOL: What do you listen to for fun?
RL: I am so not a musical theatre person. I never put on a musical. I love it, but I do it so much I don't want to listen to it when I go home. I love rock music, and jazz. I love the '70s stuff that I grew up with. I grew up listening to Carla Bonoff. I like mostly that '70s rock. I love Carlos Santana, too. [She later admits that every once in a while she puts on The Secret Garden, a show she said she loved being in on Broadway, and Sweeney Todd, one of her first professional regional gigs].
PBOL: You grew up in Helena, AL. I'm thinking it sounds as small as River City, IA, where Music Man is set.
RL: It's a small, small town about 30 miles south of Birmingham. I lived four years in the west end section of Birmingham and then we moved. My dad started this suburb development, we were the first house. We had a lake built. No trees. It was big mud pit. My dad helped develop it. It's beautiful now, there's a lake and a beautiful wooded area. My mom's still there. My dad died in '84.
PBOL: Is there a downtown Helena?
RL: There's a town composed of, like, six traffic lights. It really hasn't changed much. Mostly, we went to Birmingham if we wanted to see a movie. It was sort of "the country," a lot of woods behind our house, farm animals...
PBOL: In Alabama, how were you exposed to the theatre?
RL: [Laughs] What theatre? [Laughs] Very little. I may have seen a children's production of something in grammar school. Mostly, no theatre, other than the music in church and school. I was in every choir you could get into. The last part of high school, I started studying voice. I did a recital at University of Montevallo, where I eventually went to [college]. I started doing musical theatre in college. I didn't really know that I was going to be a performer. You don't think that way when you're down in Alabama. There's really no outlet for it. You don't think you'll actually make a living at that when you're in Alabama because there's not a way to there. I thought about musical therapy, but I didn't want to teach. When I started doing the musicals for fun, I had a lot of encouragement from a lot of people. I worked a little at Michigan Opera Theatre.
PBOL: You did? I'm from Detroit.
RL: Oh, my gosh! I did the fall seasons with MOT in '83 and '84. I was Johanna in Sweeney Todd.
PBOL: I saw you in those, but you weren't the Rebecca Luker whose Broadway work I know.
RL: I was very young and unseasoned. That was the experience that catapulted me to New York. I met Judy Kaye's agent during Sweeney Todd. He said, why don't you come to New York and I'll sign you.
PBOL: And you ended up singing Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.
RL: I understudied Sarah Brightman for a year. She left and Patti Cohenour took over and then I took over.
PBOL: Who do you respect in the theatre? Who would you drop anything to work with?
RL: Definitely Stephen Sondheim. And [Music Man director] Susan Stroman: I would follow her to the ends of the Earth. I have a lot of respect for her. I think she has great ideas. She'll just get better and better, she's so young and has amazing things in her future. And I'd love to do something with my husband, Danny.
PBOL: You two have already worked together in The Boys From Syracuse and a workshop and staging of Barry Manilow's Harmony. Nice to know you want your leading man to be your leading man.