Rebecca Luker, a three-time Tony Award nominated actress, whose crystal-clear soprano voice and stunning presence established her as a star in some of Broadway’s more noted musicals of the past three decades, died on December 23, 2020. She was 59.
Luker, who had been cared for by her husband, fellow multiple Tony nominee Danny Burstein, died as a result of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive nervous system disease commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Luker had only revealed her diagnosis late last year, but the speed by which it ravaged her already compromised body was accelerated by her battle with what appeared to be COVID-19 in the spring, according to news reports.
Luker first garnered attention when she played Christine Daaé in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera – her Broadway debut – and a role in which she understudied the original lead Sarah Brightman and her alternate Patti Cohenour. Luker played the role from 1988-1991.
Later in 1991, she followed with a remarkable production of The Secret Garden in which she originated the role of Lily. She was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Around the end of that run, she married her fellow actor Anthony Jbara. The two had no children and the couple divorced in 1996.
Luker received the very first Tony nomination for Magnolia Hawks, the wayward daughter who falls in love with a gambler in the 1994 revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat. When she left the role two years later, she was cast in an early version of Harmony in San Diego, a Barry Manilow musical that is now slated to open on Broadway in 2021. Her leading actor was Danny Burstein, whom she had befriended when they had met a year and a half earlier as part of the cast of Time and Again, also in San Diego at the La Jolla Playhouse. Because the show did not perform well, the principals all became fast friends in a valiant effort to save it and were still close many years later.
While cast as lovers in Harmony, Burstein and Luker bonded over their marital woes and eventually realized they were more than just friends. At the time, Burstein was married with two small children.
Meanwhile, Luker garnered outstanding notices as Maria Rainer in the 1998 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music and she continued to play leading roles in major Broadway revivals. Following his divorce, Burstein married Luker in 2000.
Her next Broadway outing as librarian Marian Paroo in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man garnered more rave notices. It was the first time anyone had played the role since it had been originated by the legendary Barbara Cook more than four decades prior and she received her second Tony nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. The show closed in December of 2001, cut short following the devastating drop in sales following the 9/11 attacks.
She was last nominated for a Tony Award as a leading actress in 2007 for the role of Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, which she originated in 2006 and played all the way until 2010.
Around that time, Luker began to take on small television roles in dramas like “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “The Good Wife,” “NCIS: New Orleans” and, as recently as this past February, when she appeared in a part on “Bull.” She had a noted recurring role in the HBO Series “Boardwalk Empire” in 2012 in which she played Sister Agnes in four episodes.
Luker’s concert stagings were oftentimes elaborate works with full orchestras and detailed costumes. The first of these was for the City Center Encores! Great American Musical production of Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse in 1997. Her last New York staging was for the City Center Encores! 2011 production of Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley? in which she played Charley’s aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez. However, her most recent two concert stagings were in Washington, D.C. at the John F. Kennedy Center in 2019’s Footloose as Vi Moore, the supportive wife of the town’s crusading minister, and in the world premiere of Flaherty and Ahrens’ Little Dancer in 2014 (since retitled as Marie, Dancing Still) as the adult Marie von Goethem.
It was in 2002 that Luker appeared as Clara in a concert staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion opposite Judy Kuhn as Fosca also at the Kennedy Center. After Melissa Errico was struck by vocal difficulties in 2013 during the Classic Stage Company’s Off-Broadway run, Luker was brought in to take on the role of Clara again for the original cast recording on PS Classics.
When Kuhn took time off during her successful run in Fun Home as Helen Bechdel, Luker appeared in her stead from early April till late May of 2016. She was an ideal replacement for several productions among them as Marie/Fairy Godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 2015 at the Broadway Theatre (where a year later her husband would play Tevye) and in the concluding performances as Claudia Nardi in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Nine: The Musical by Maury Yeston.
With a voice considered as one of the best sopranos on the Great White Way, she also made many concert appearances with philharmonic orchestras promoting the Great American Songbook and was the darling of several cabaret shows at swank watering holes like Feinstein’s 54 Below. She received a 2007 Bistro Award for her solo cabaret show at Feinstein’s at the Regency.
In addition to two tribute albums to Jerome Kern (“I Got Love”) and Cole Porter (“Anything Goes”), Luker also recorded an album of of new and little-heard show songs titled “Greenwich Time,” all for PS Classics. Her extensive discography of more than 50 albums includes nearly two dozen recordings of concert stagings and studio recordings of works like the original Off-Broadway cast of Yeston’s Death Takes a Holiday in which she starred, and studio cast recordings of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun.
Born in Birmingham, AL., Rebecca Joan Luker was raised in the nearby town of Helena. After receiving a college scholarship as the first runner-up in the Alabama Junior Miss contest, she attended the University of Montevallo, Alabama’s only public liberal arts college, where she graduated with a master’s degree in music in 1984.
Rebecca Luker is survived by her husband Danny Burstein, her two stepsons, Alexander and Zachary Burstein, her mother, her step-father and her brother.
– Alan Smason