Rebecca Luker, the three-time Tony-nominated actor who possessed a remarkably rich soprano, passed away December 23 following complications from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Her death was confirmed to The New York Times by her agent. She was 59.
Born April 17, 1961, in Birmingham, Alabama, Ms. Luker made her Broadway debut in 1988 in the original cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (as the Princess in the musical's Hannibal scene). She also understudied the role of Christine Daaé, eventually taking over the lead part at the Majestic Theatre in 1989. Years later, in a 2016 interview with Playbill, Ms. Luker recalled the first time she had the chance to play the up-and-coming opera star Christine, explaining, "The very first time I went on [as Christine], Michael Crawford was my Phantom, and I'll never forget it. It was an out-of-body experience. He was so kind, though, and I‘ll never forget that."
In 1991, Ms. Luker had the chance to create her first role on Broadway, playing Lily (the late aunt to 10-year-old Mary Lennox), who appears as a ghost throughout the Tony-nominated musical The Secret Garden. Ms. Luker's soaring, ethereal rendition of "Come to My Garden" was one of the most memorable moments in the acclaimed production, which also featured Tony winners Mandy Patinkin and Daisy Eagan as well as Tony nominee Alison Fraser. That staging also earned Ms. Luker her first Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical.
Famed Broadway director-producer Harold Prince subsequently cast Ms. Luker in his 1994 revival of Show Boat, which went on to win the 1995 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Ms. Luker also received her first Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for her work as Magnolia opposite the Gaylord Ravenal of Mark Jacoby. The cast also boasted Elaine Stritch, John McMartin, Michel Bell, Joel Blum, and Gretha Boston.
In 1997, Ms. Luker joined Debbie Gravitte, Sarah Uriarte Berry, and more for the New York City Center Encores! production of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's The Boys From Syracuse. The three women joined forces for the Rodgers and Hart classic "Sing for Your Supper" and provided not only the evening's highlight, but one of the most memorable moments from the entire Encores! series. In his New York Times review Ben Brantley wrote, "Just listen to the ecstatic roar that emerges from the audience after three comely young women finish stepping their perfectly synchronized way (and with close vocal harmonies to match) through a number called 'Sing for Your Supper.' There's both a giddy, sensual looseness and a mathematical precision in what the performers deliver here, and the pleasure they take from it is extremely contagious."
With her innate warmth, infectious joy, and gorgeous voice, it seemed only a matter of time before Ms. Luker would take on the role of free-spirited governess Maria Rainer in a revival of the family-friendly Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The Sound of Music. It was in 1998 when she had the chance to put her own stamp on the part originated on stage by Mary Martin and later immortalized on screen by Julie Andrews, the latter one of Ms. Luker's childhood vocal influences. The production, directed by Susan H. Schulman, also featured Michael Siberry and was Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Musical later that year.
In April 2000, Ms. Luker opened in a Broadway revival of Meredith Willson's The Music Man, directed and choreographed by Tony winner Susan Stroman. Cast as Marian Paroo opposite Craig Bierko's Harold Hill, Ms. Luker received her second Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, as well as a Drama Desk nomination. In his Variety review, Charles Isherwood wrote, "Luker’s singing is simply sublime. She has one of the prettiest and most polished soprano voices to be heard on a Broadway stage right now… Marian, the archetypal good girl, who gives piano lessons when she’s not at the library and has never been to the town’s local dallying spot, is not an easy role to pull off, but Luker infuses it with real, honest feeling, neither pumping up nor patronizing the role’s old-fashioned primness."
Marian, Ms. Luker told Playbill in 2006, may have been her favorite role. "I would have to say that Marian is up there, if not there. It was one of the life-long dreams to do that role." She also mentioned her subsequent Broadway outing, succeeding Laura Benanti as Claudia in the 2003 Tony-winning revival of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's Nine, in which she delivered a particularly mesmerizing "Unusual Way": "That was a lot of fun," she said. "I just did three or four months in that, [but] I got to be Italian and wear a dark wig, and [be a] totally different person."
Ms. Luker would earn her third Tony nomination playing Winifred Banks in the Disney and Cameron Mackintosh musical Mary Poppins, which opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre in November 2006. She stayed with the Tony-nominated production for much of its run, telling Playbill in 2011, “It's hard to leave a job that's steady like that, but for me, once you've done a show for three years, even if I don't have a job coming up, I tend to leave, just because you are worried about getting stale, and you just want to move on to something else. And, somehow leaving a show frees you up to do that, and so, for me, it was not difficult. I felt that I stayed enough time. It was a wonderful job and a very great time. I made life-long friends. I'll never forget it. But, I was happy to move on from it.”
The production she moved on to was Roundabout Theatre Company's Off-Broadway world premiere of the Maury Yeston musical Death Takes a Holiday. The romantic, Italian-set musical, based on the Alberto Casella play of the same name, debuted in June 2011. Ms. Luker, who portrayed matriarch Duchess Lamberti, provided one of the musical’s highlights when she wrapped her rich, full-bodied tones around Yeston’s lovely ballad "Losing Roberto," an ode to the Duchess’ late son that she delivered simply and with heartfelt emotion.
“I just think Maury has written, yet again, another gorgeous, glorious score in the tradition of big, grand, romantic fashion,” Ms. Luker told Playbill at the time. “I think romantic is the operative word for him. I think he is one of the most wonderful melodists we have. I love singing his music. When you work with Maury, he is always more than willing to change the key, change the phrasing, change the lyrics—whatever makes the show better and whatever makes you more comfortable as a singer. It's just a pleasure to sing his music.” Ms. Luker was nominated for a 2012 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in Death Takes a Holiday; her other Off-Broadway credits included Indian Blood and The Vagina Monologues.
Ms. Luker would return to Broadway two more times, succeeding Tony winner Victoria Clark as Marie in 2013 in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and temporarily replacing Judy Kuhn as family matriarch Helen Bechdel in 2016 in the Tony-winning musical Fun Home. She was also seen as Vi in the Kennedy Center’s October 2019 Broadway Center Stage production of Footloose.
In addition to performing around the world with major symphonies and orchestras, Ms. Luker was also a frequent presence at the Kennedy Center Honors, where she paid tribute to Julie Andrews in 2001 and Barbara Cook in 2011. “It’s difficult to describe how I felt as the curtain went up just before I had to sing each time,” she told Playbill in 2016. “Everyone in the world is in the audience—including, of course, the President and First Lady. It’s terrifying at first, and then it was such a thrill. Once I told myself that I was just there for the honoree, it was fun.”
Ms. Luker also ventured into the world of cabaret, conquering small stages as easily as she did larger ones. In his 2006 New York Times review of her show at the now-closed Feinstein’s at the Regency, Stephen Holden wrote, “Her lyric soprano lends a quality of robust well-being to everything she sings. As her voice swells, it gains in beauty, textural fullness and emotional power. Never do you feel that she is showing off her prodigious vocal talent for its own sake. She unfurls sweeping vocal lines without ornamentation and in perfect pitch. This doesn't preclude her from occasionally venturing toward jazz in a song like ‘The Best is Yet to Come.’ But it is most impressive in lyrical flights that demand a pure, steady, semi-operatic legato.… To hear Ms. Luker perform ‘Come to My Garden’ and ‘How Could I Know?’ from [The Secret Garden], back to back, is to hear a singer shoot the moon not only technically but also dramatically as she locates the songs' eerie romantic mysticism and rides it heavenward.”
Ms. Luker spoke about playing more intimate spaces, explaining to Playbill, “When you are in that small cabaret space, it's a lot of fun, but when I first did it, people are right in your lap! I think that everybody needs to have a script because it keeps you on point and makes the show move along, but you quickly find [that] you have to get off script… It's impossible to stand up there and be stodgy and stay on your script, so it taught me to improvise better and have a fun rapport with the audience, and I really enjoyed it.”
On screen, Ms. Luker was seen in Bull, NCIS: New Orleans, Elementary, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Rewrite, Russian Broadway Shut Down, Boardwalk Empire, Not Fade Away, Submissions Only, The Good Wife, Spectropia, Cupid & Cate, and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas.
Among Ms. Luker's final public appearances were a Stars in the House stream to benefit the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, and At Home With Rebecca Luker, a benefit event hosted by Tootsie Tony winner Santino Fontana. The evening of song with Ms. Luker also featured a conversation with journalist and talk show host Katie Couric and benefited Prosetin, a new drug candidate for ALS.
Ms. Luker will be heard on the upcoming recording All the Girls with fellow Broadway actor Sally Wilfert. Adapted from their stage show of the same name, the album is an ode to female friendship. It features songs by Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kander and Ebb, and more. The PS Classics release will be available digitally December 25.
Rebecca Luker was married to Gregory Jbara from 1995–1997 and wed six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein in 2000. The couple met during a production of Time and Again at the Old Globe directed by Jack O'Brien. “We were just buddies for about a year-and-a-half before we started dating,” Ms. Luker said in 2011. “Who knew that he'd turn out to be the one? The one to grow old with. We were married in 2000, so we've been married 11 years now, and [have] two teenage stepsons—that's a whole new life. It's been great, and he's a great guy.
“We are a great team,” she added. “He's my coach, he's my best friend, he's my touchstone in all things, and I hope I am for him.”