Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
REBECCA LUKER is currently starring in The Music Man on Broadway. She has also starred in The Sound Of Music, Show Boat, The Secret Garden, and The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and she can be heard on her Fynsworth Alley cd, Anything Goes: Rebecca Luker sings Cole Porter.
DL: You’re from Alabama, and I understand you were recently inducted into the Hall of Fame there. What’s that about?
RL: Paul Luney started this whole thing three years ago, down in Tuscaloosa. He just wanted to honor Alabamians that had done something in the arts. I am very, very honored, because the night I was honored this past March, To Kill A Mockingbird was also being honored, and Truman Capote was also being honored. I was flattered to death. It was a lovely ceremony. I’m still not sure why it happened, but I’m very, very honored that it did, and now I’m on a plaque on a wall at a Tuscaloosa college, and I have a plaque on my coffee table. It’s very sweet. It was just a lovely night.
DL: When you grew up there, were you involved in theatre and the arts in the community?
RL: Certainly as a young child I was not at all. I sang at church, at school, and in various groups, but we weren’t theatre-going people. There wasn’t much to see around there. I saw the occasional children’s theatre, but there just wasn’t time for that. It wasn’t part of our culture. As I grew up, I began to watch movie musicals when I could, but I still was very removed from that world.
DL: So how did you get into it?
RL: Well, as I got older, I decided I wanted to sing more. I started studying voice at the age of 16, and I gradually became aware of the university there. When I became a senior in high school, I won a Junior Miss scholarship, so I chose the local state university as the college I wanted to attend. My music education was paid for, so I majored in music. I started doing musicals in college, and that’s how it happened. I just sort of snuck into it. I met a few people in community theatre that were New Yorkers, and that’s how I made the connection.
DL: Do you also have an operatic training?
RL: In college, I studied opera only because as a music major I was required to, but my voice isn’t totally suited for that. It’s a lyric soprano voice that’s more versatile than opera, and it’s not quite big enough, so I never really went that route. I’d like to do more of that, and I have done a little (very little) professional opera.
DL: And you’ve done those Aria CDs.
RL: Yes, exactly! That was the best of both worlds, getting to do two different styles on one album. They were a lot of fun.
DL: Those albums, which combine the worlds of opera and electronica, are sort of wacky. How did you get involved in those?
RL: Paul Schwartz, who started the group with Mario Grigerov, called me up one day from his Tarrytown home studio and said, “I need a soprano to do background vocals for this thing I’m working on.” This was the summer of 1997, and I was free, so I got on a train and went up there and did the background stuff he needed in my Secret-Garden-sounding voice. I did one song, and when he started to listen to it, he said, “Hey, you’ll sound really good on this next one.” So we started to play, and before I knew it, I was on the entire album except for a couple of songs. That’s how that started, and then I was used on about five songs on the subsequent album. We’re going to do an Aria 3 soon. It’s turned into this crazy thing – I’ve done some of them in London, and we’re even talking about doing a tour, although my schedule hasn’t allowed it. Maybe I’ll be “The Voice of Aria” some day.
DL: So how did you end up in New York?
RL: When I was in college, I was doing community theatre, and one of the New York people that I met was a choreographer named John Calvert. He was doing Night Music with me at a community theatre in Birmingham. He said, “I’m doing this show again the following fall with the Michigan Opera. Would you like to audition for it in New York? I’d love to have you, and I’ll talk you up to the director of the opera.” I was green and scared to death to do something like that, and a girlfriend of mine talked me into it. I was still in college and comfortable with where I was, but I guess I was just scared – that’s what it all boiled down to. But I did get on a plane and flew to New York, where I gave a terrible audition for the Michigan Opera. I was scared, I had just gotten off the plane, so I didn’t sing very well. I was nervous and all that. I just knew I hadn’t gotten it, but somehow he talked the director into using me, and I became an apprentice for the Michigan Opera for the season of 1983-1984. I got do one lead each time. That’s how I met all these New Yorkers, and that’s how I met my agent even. He came to see me do Sweeney Todd with Judy Kaye, and he sent me a letter saying he’d like to sign me if and when I moved to New York. That’s how it happened!
DL: So once you got to New York, what would you consider your big break?
RL: Oh, gosh. I probably think for most people, it’s just a steady climb to somewhere. I thought all of my first jobs were big breaks, because they were all these leads, but I suppose if you use Broadway as a yard stick, it was when I got Phantom, I suppose. I was in the chorus of the original company. I did that for a year before taking over the role of Christine. It was unusual for understudies to do that at the time.
DL: Were you the first American to play Christine?
RL: Oh no, Patti Cohenour took over briefly after Sarah Brightman left, and then I became her alternate for about four months. Then I took over in June of 1989. That’s really how I got rolling on the Broadway stuff.
DL: You started as a music major in college, was using the music in a theatrical setting always your goal?
RL: I suppose so. As I said, except for the few jobs at the various opera companies, that hasn’t been my path. I think you really have to pursue that separately when you’re younger and establish yourself in one or the other.
DL: The Secret Garden was your next big show, and it was the first time you actually created a role. What was the experience like for you, doing your first new show as a young artist, particularly coming off such a gigantic experience like Phantom?
RL: It was so amazing. When I left Phantom, I was so ready to leave it. Three years is a long time, no matter what you’re doing, and since then I haven’t done anything for that long, and I hope that I never have to again. Plus, I adored the score of The Secret Garden, every note of it, and I was amazed that I was going to be a part of it. I enjoyed every minute of creating it.
DL: Do you feel that there was any difference in the process of putting together a show when the creative team was entirely made up of women?
RL: I didn’t. I really don’t remember it being different in that way. They were all very authoritative and good at what they did, no different than a normal staff that’s mostly men. I suppose the only difference was they had plants in the windows at rehearsals, but that was just about the only feminine touch I remember.
DL: The Secret Garden was also the first cast album you got to take part in.
RL: Yes, but I wasn’t new to recording. I had done little things with John McGlinn before that. Songs from old musicals and such.
DL: How did you meet John initially?
RL: I met John in 1985, when I was at the Goodspeed Opera doing Leave It To Jane, which is a Jerome Kern musical from 1917. John had just done the show at Town Hall. He had some friends in our production, and he met me after. We went out and had dinner, and that just started a good friendship. He needed a Nanette for the following Carnegie Hall concert of No, No Nanette, and he asked me to do it on the basis of seeing me in Leave It To Jane. It was just good timing.
DL: Now you’re going to be involved in his new project of recording the entire Jerome Kern catalog. Will you be recording any roles you’ve previously performed?
RL: I have done various songs from these four albums that I’ll be doing in London this summer. The main one we’re doing is Leave It To Jane, which I’ve always wanted to record. It’s been 16 years since I did it, but it’s just great. We’re doing Oh, Boy, from which I’ve sung “Till The Clouds Roll By” before. We’re doing The Girl From Utah. I’ve never recorded anything from The Girl From Utah. And I did a Kern special on the radio once when I sang “Bill,” which is from Oh Lady Lady.
DL: John specializes in doing historically accurate recordings. When you record with him, is there a difference in the approach to recording than when you’re doing a new show or a solo album?
RL: I think it has a lot more to do with the way John works. As you said, he’s known for his wanting to capture the original orchestrations, certainly, and he’s a bit of a purist in the way he wants everyone to sing the songs. I enjoy doing both, recapturing the right way to sing a song – if there is a right way. What I mean is honoring the song itself, bringing out its beauty through your voice, instead of changing it to interpret it as though you’re in a cabaret atmosphere. That’s not so much me. So I enjoy working with John because of that. But when I’m doing something on my own, it is fun to interpret and go off on a tangent. I’d like to do more of that. I haven’t done a lot of that, actually.
DL: Lately on Broadway you’ve been in a few revivals, which fall somewhere in the middle. When you do a Show Boat or a Music Man, how much of the history of the show goes into your performance?
RL: Who can say? I think that for all of us, those old shows are in us in some way we don’t even realize. I’ve heard recordings of Barbara Cook and seen the movie of The Music Man umpteen times, so those performances are in my consciousness. I guess all I can say is along the way somewhere into the rehearsal period, you find little things that are your own. You find them naturally. Sometimes I look for them, but with me they mostly happen over time. I wish I could do it quickly. Everyone’s very different, and certainly I’m very different from [Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones], so what I do as Marian is different.
DL: Do you have a particular approach or a particular method when you start working on a new role?
RL: I don’t really. Nothing exotic at all. I try to familiarize myself with the script and the story, but basically I just take it scene by scene. I work with the director’s ideas to make it truthful and more real. It’s very hard. It takes months for me to really settle into a role and forget all the technical aspects of a role in favor of the acting aspects. I’m doing that better as the years go by. Really, it’s kind of technical in a way at first. You have so much to learn: all the steps, all the blocking, how not to get run over by the set or the other actors.
DL: Your new leading man, Eric McCormack, stepped into the show just over a month ago. How did you find adjusting to a new leading man?
RL: It was surprisingly not hard at all. I know that’s so funny because [Eric and Craig Bierko] could not be more different. I suppose when you’ve done a show with someone for a year, it’s fun to change gears and do a different thing. What makes it easier is that Eric’s very nice, and he’s an ensemble player like all of us. He adjusted to us as well. It was very, very easy. He’s a little smaller than Craig, so that was a little adjustment when we dance, but that adjusted itself fairly quickly too. I can’t believe how easy it was, actually.
DL: Do you find that your performance changes in reaction to having a different Harold Hill?
RL: Absolutely. It can’t help not. He has different readings, he’s a different person. He throws me a line in a very different way, so I react a different way. I respect Craig so much, he’s very talented, and I enjoyed doing the show with him a lot. But the thing I love about Eric is that he’s a little more with you on stage as far as his eyes, for instance. Every actor is different. Craig had a very funny, slick way of doing Harold at times that was very popular with the audience, and very funny. But I think that Eric is more of a one-on-one actor, a little more intimate with all of us. So that’s the chief reason why I think the show changed a bit when he joined it. It brought it down to a little quieter level in a way. That’s a very general way to describe it, but that’s the biggest difference.
DL: Do you ever read your reviews?
DL: Did you see the piece in the Post last week about Eric that ended with a line basically saying it’s a shame you’re not on TV because then you could be really famous? What did you think about that?
RL: I didn’t see it, but several people told me about it. I think they were just being nice. It’s great that someone thinks that. I’d love to do a sitcom one day.
DL: Are you interested in branching out to television and film one day?
RL: Yes, absolutely. For years I’ve been trying to.
DL: Is there a particular type of film or television that you’re interested in doing?
RL: No. If it’s a good story and a good script, and I feel comfortable in it, I’d love to do a comedy or a drama. I did a TV movie in 1999 for the Hallmark Hall of Fame called Cupid and Cate with Mary Louise Parker. That’s the first movie I’ve done, and it was great fun. So different! It’s hard, and yet it isn’t hard. It seems so much easier physically than doing something on stage. Like night and day. For that reason alone, it would be great to rest a little bit and have some time off.
DL: Would you ever consider moving to LA?
RL: I don’t think so. My husband and I are very based here. I have two stepsons from his first marriage, and everybody’s here. It would be very difficult for me to do that. I’d have to make a quick trip and come back. The only reason I’d ever consider that is if he had to move with me, and even that would be very hard to do.
DL: What’s it like being married to another performer [Danny Burstein]?
RL: It’s great. I’ve often joked that if Danny drove a truck, he’d be the same person and we’d still be in love, and it would be a great marriage. But it’s great being married to an actor, because it’s him. He’s been a great help to me and I him – we’re sort of a team that way, supporting each other and advising each other. Totally.
DL: Have you guys ever performed together?
RL: We have! We’ve recorded together, and we did Barry Manilow’s show Harmony out in California. Danny was the Rabbi in that, and I was his wife. We had a great time, and we got to do one of those dances together.
DL: You’ve been involved in a couple of workshops and first productions of new musicals. How are these first productions different from doing a finished show on Broadway?
RL: Well, it’s great. I have not done too many workshops that went on to actually become productions, but you have a wonderful freedom there. You can really create something and go in many different directions. You can change something that’s never been done before. I love that experience.
DL: And how about working in these west coast theatres versus working in New York?
RL: Well, Danny and I both had fun in those theatres, and it’s a beautiful part of the country. But maybe I’m just used to being in New York because my home is here. But it’s more professional on Broadway because it’s not a LORT theatre out of town. I mean, they’re fine theatres. But if you put down all the points about how they both work, I prefer to work on Broadway with a Production Contract. They were fun, though.
DL: Do you have any idea how long you’re going to be with The Music Man?
RL: I really don’t. My contract comes up at the very end of September, and I’ll probably stay a little bit longer unless something comes along. There’s a rumor that we’ll run into the spring of 2002, so maybe I’ll be there for the run.
DL: In terms of what you’d like to do next, if there were no boundaries, and you could have any show, any concert, any project in the world, what would you like to do?
RL: I wouldn’t do another musical right now. It’s very hard. I would love a break, even maybe a year. I’d like to do something totally different. I’d love to just record every day if that was my job. Maybe do a play somewhere for five weeks, and then a guest spot on a TV show. I’m ready to take a rest and do something different; do something nice to my home and go grocery shopping and take a vacation. It’s a boring answer, but it’s true. These eight show a week jobs are hard, and when they go on for more than a year, I start to feel it in my bones. I enjoy it, but I’m ready for a little bit of a break.
DL: Let’s talk about your new album that you’re going to start working on with Fynsworth Alley. Have you started working on it yet?
RL: No, it’s still just the germ of an idea. Bruce called me and said he wanted to do another one, so I said great. He said let’s get Patrick Brady to arrange it again, and I said wonderful. That’s as far as it’s gotten, and now Patrick and I have to talk.
DL: What’s your gut feeling about the content?
RL: I haven’t even thought about it. I have no idea what even Bruce was thinking. Maybe something new – new songs from young composers and old composers from the musical theatre and even the opera world. I love singing popular styles, even jazz. I’d like to do something different, not just make it your run-of-the-mill musical theatre album.
DL: How did you meet Bruce?
RL: He called me on the phone one day when he needed somebody to do the Unsung Sondheim album, way back in 1993. He had heard my name, and we had lots of mutual friends, but that’s how we met – on the phone. He just said, “Would you like to do this album?” and I said, “Sure!”
DL: How did the first solo album develop? Who came up with the Cole Porter idea?
RL: Bruce did, the whole thing. He thought of Patrick Brady, and Patrick and I really came up with the body of the CD and the arrangements.
DL: Had you worked with Patrick before?
RL: I had known Patrick before; he had played for me at a couple of auditions, but I hadn’t known him that well until the Cole Porter CD got started. He and I worked very hard together. I went over to his apartment just about every day and went over tons of arrangements and songs, and we finally came up with it. Bruce had two requests, that we do “Don’t Fence Me In” and “True Love.” Ironically, I said, “I don’t want to do Don’t Fence Me In! Who wants to hear that?” But it turns out that it was my favorite song on the entire CD. It was a one-take song; everything just fell into place. The whole album was a lot of fun.
DL: Do you remember how long it took from the first meeting with Patrick until the recording?
RL: Oh my gosh, we worked for months! Patrick and I started working very soon after the first of the year in 1995, and then for the last six months before we recorded in November, we really concentrated on it. We did it in November, and then it was released the following March.
DL: Do you ever perform the songs from your album in concert?
RL: I haven’t. I’ve tried to, but I haven’t done that much concert work where it was called for, although I’d like to do more of it. Cole Porter just wrote such great stuff.
DL: Do you have favorite composers or musicals that you like to perform?
RL: Jerome Kern is way up there, and also Gershwin. All those greats: Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Vincent Youmans – that whole era. I really love that era, but I’m talking about a huge time – Kern started in 1917. Even Rodgers and Hart. The theatre music of the early part of the first half of the century is my favorite.
DL: When you’re at home and you’re not working, do you listen to this kind of music?
RL: We do, although I like rock music more. When I’m just boppin’ around the house, I put on more New Age rock, popular stuff. I love James Taylor, The Beatles, Billy Joel, the Eagles. Rock groups of the 1970s – I grew up in that era. Journey and Kansas – I love that stuff.
DL: Continuing down the path of Rebecca Luker at home, do you ever watch television? What do you watch?
RL: Oh sure. Danny and I are big news junkies. We love that Emergency show. The bloodier the better! I love Frasier. I love mysteries with a passion, and I love reading mysteries even better than watching them. I love movies too. I’m not as much of an old movie buff as my husband is, but I enjoy those, too.
DL: Let’s wrap up with a question I like to ask every performer, because we have a lot of younger readers who want to know what advice you would give them. What do you say to a kid who wants to be a performer on Broadway?
RL: I love this question, because it’s so individual. I know the times have changed, but I think what it always comes down to is if you think you have talent, go and develop it. That’s the thing everyone needs to do, and it’s something I wish I had done more of. It’s something I still need to do, and should, and probably will. I say, get into acting and dancing and movement classes; try to find a good voice teacher. Start from there and audition for everything you can. Do some community theatre if that’s all you can do. I say go see all the theatre you can, too. That’s a big, big education. Go see all the musicals and operas and plays that you can. I wish I had done more of that too as a young person; I just didn’t have the right atmosphere around me. Show up for casting calls for things that you’re right for and see what happens. From there, it’s partially up to fate and luck, who’s going to see you and how persistent you are and how much you want to do it. It’s such a crazy chance that everyone takes. Every time I get a job, I’m amazed that I got it. I think “How did that happen?” and feel so lucky. I really do feel that way every time, which I’m glad of.