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

By Kenneth Jones
July 2, 2012

Rebecca Luker, the Tony Award-nominated star of Show Boat, knows her way around a Jerome Kern song — and she'll prove it in an upcoming 54 Below concert. She shares her thoughts on all the things he is.



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If you care about musical theatre, you have to care about composer Jerome Kern — or at least you ought to. Broadway actress Rebecca Luker, whose career is punctuated with Kern songs, cares deeply, and will seek to satisfy fans and newcomers with an all-Kern concert at 54 Below, the new theatre-district cabaret, July 6-7.

The title says it all: Rebecca Luker Sings Jerome Kern.

Luker's first of three Tony Award nominations came when she was Best Actress-nominated for playing Magnolia in Harold Prince's revised 1994 revival of the 1927 Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II classic Show Boat, which changed the face of musical theatre back in the Jazz Age. In it, she sang the standards "Make Believe" and "You Are Love," among others. It was not her first brush with Kern (1885-1945), the American master with one foot in operetta and the other in modern musical theatre (complete with jazz, blue notes and, in the case of Show Boat, serious themes and tragic characters). Fans of Kern's music cherish the studio recordings of his popular and obscure work preserved by late conductor John McGlinn (most notably, "A Jerome Kern Treasury" and "Broadway Showstoppers," both in 1993), for whom Luker sang.

Luker admitted, though, that Kern was not on her radar as a girl growing up in Alabama.

"I didn't really get to know who Kern was until I moved into New York City and became involved with some productions," Luker told Playbill.com in recent days. "I didn't even really know much about even Show Boat when I was growing up."

When she first came to New York City, she was cast in a 1985 New Amsterdam Theatre Company concert revival of Kern's Music in the Air at Town Hall, and then went on to do his Leave It to Jane at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. "John McGlinn — I met him just after that," she said. "We started to record various Kern things in London. I was launched into Kern early on; I was sort of inundated with Kern and learned to love him, but not before I got to New York."

 

Jerome Kern

Why is Kern such a match for Luker?

"I think it's a perfect match for me because I'm a certain kind of soprano that maybe he might have written for," she said. "But I'm not that old-fashioned soprano — I'm not that thing, but I'm a good musician. I was classically trained. His music is not the easiest thing. I enjoy singing the difficult ballads, the operetta-type stuff that he wrote, but I also enjoy his more contemporary ballads with Dorothy Fields and Johnny Mercer and all of his Oscar Hammerstein stuff from the Hollywood period."

She continued, "When I started putting this concert together, I wasn't as knowledgeable as I thought I was about Kern. I've since learned that his range over a 30-year period — from the early, early days at the Princess Theatre until when he died — is just astounding. The range of his styles and what he wrote! I think I fit in because I'm kind of a versatile singer."

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 54below.com.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor Playbill.com. 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.)