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."
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."
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