The Song Is Him: Rebecca Luker Talks About the Joy of Singing Jerome Kern

By Kenneth Jones
02 Jul 2012

Luker in in the Harold Prince production of Show Boat.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Will the 54 Below concert reflect all the things Kern is?

"It will reflect all shades," she said. "It's a lot to do in an hour, but I think I have a pretty good group of songs that really shows every part of his career. Trying to pick 14 songs was like torture for me. It really was."

Her music director and arranger for the gig at 54 Below, the 160-seat venue one flight under Studio 54 on West 54th Street, is pianist Joseph Thalken, who was also Patti LuPone's music director at the venue in June. Dick Sarpola will be on bass.

Who picked the Kern repertoire for the show?

Luker said, "I picked it for the most part. I've been doing research on it for months and months. And [Joe] had some suggestions. I was starting to do all obscure stuff, and he said, 'That might be a little hard to take, so why don't we sprinkle in some more well-known stuff?' So that's what I did, and he's absolutely right. It makes for much a easier time for the audience. He helped me choose a couple of the more popular ones."

What obscurities will we hear?

"I don't know if anybody would know the obscure titles, but there's a really funny P.G. Wodehouse song called 'Saturday Night' from one of their old, old shows; a beautiful ballad called 'Not You' that he wrote with Herbert Reynolds; and then I'm doing some lovely old favorites like 'I'm Old Fashioned' and 'The Song is You' — things like that."

Luker, who was also Tony-nominated for The Music Man (Best Actress) and Mary Poppins (Best Featured Actress), said that Show Boat will be represented on her 54 Below show.

"I don't want to give away the show," she teased, "but one wasn't written for Show Boat, but ended up in Show Boat, and then I'm doing one that I actually sang in Show Boat. I figured I had to give a tiny nod to Show Boat."

Does this mean she's singing Magnolia's "After the Ball" — a non-Kern song that sweetens a famous scene in Show Boat?

"It's a possibility, maybe as an encore thing, but not really sure," she said. "It's not going to be in the body of the show."

(By process of elimination, and by looking at the 54 Below website, we can see that "Bill" — written by Kern and Wodehouse — is the non-Show Boat/Show Boat standard that Luker will perform. In the musical, the broken chanteuse Julie sings it, not Magnolia.)

The death of music director, preservationist and historian McGlinn (who recorded a 1988 studio version of the complete score of Show Boat, including variants, cut material and film music) was a major loss for the music-theatre community, and for lovers of Kern. Luker observed, "John's passing was just tragic on so many levels. He was a good friend of mine, and he made a big difference in my life and my career, and I just miss him. But there are people around now like Tommy Krasker [co-founder of the record label PS Classics] and Greg MacKellan [artistic director of San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon Company]. They're doing some amazing stuff — recording some amazing shows."

For more information about Rebecca Luker Sings Jerome Kern at 54 Below, visit

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor His first brush with Kern was seeing the pre-New York tour of the 1983 Broadway revival of Show Boat. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)