Rebecca Luker, Broadway star nominated for three Tony Awards, at 59 of ALS

Ms. Luker was one of the leading figures of musical theater for 30 years, appearing in nine Broadway productions and many others off-Bro...


Ms. Luker was one of the leading figures of musical theater for 30 years, appearing in nine Broadway productions and many others off-Broadway and on stages across the country. Known for her clear, crystalline soprano voice, she recorded several albums and was a popular cabaret performer.

She had starring roles in “The Phantom of the Opera,” Maury Yeston’s “Nine” and musicals by Stephen Sondheim, but she gained particular acclaim for bringing new life to beloved musicals from Broadway’s past.

She received Tony Award nominations for her performances in revivals of “Show Boat” and “The Music Man,” and her third nomination came for a role in “Mary Poppins,” a 2006 musical based on the 1964 movie. Ms. Luker also starred as Maria in a 1998 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” which ran for more than a year.

“During her audition, Rebecca brought such a freshness to the music, as if I had never heard the score before,” Susan H. Schulman, who directed Ms. Luker in “The Sound of Music,” told Playbill in 1998. “Little hairs stood up on the back of my neck. You don’t expect songs that you are so familiar with to take you by surprise that way. She has the most glorious voice. The instrument is so pure.”

“The Sound of Music” has never impressed the critics — only the audiences that flock to see it and memorize the words of every song. But even some cynical Broadway scribes found something to like in Ms. Luker’s portrayal of Maria, a high-spirited nun — “Unpredictable as weather / She’s as flighty as a feather” — who becomes governess to the seven children of an Austrian nobleman in the 1930s as Nazis take over the country. (The role was first performed on Broadway in 1959 by Mary Martin, then on film in 1965 by Julie Andrews.)

Hartford Courant theater critic Malcolm Johnson called Ms. Luker’s performance “true and wonderful, never too sweet . . . a Maria who far surpasses Mary Martin, and perhaps even Julie Andrews.”

Ms. Luker received her first Tony nomination for a 1994 revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Show Boat,” which was first presented on Broadway in 1927. She played Magnolia, an innocent girl who falls for a shady riverboat gambler named Gaylord Ravenal. Her songs included “Make Believe” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

“Rebecca is a very truthful actor,” Mark Jacoby, who played Ravenal in that production, told the Raleigh News & Observer in 2016. “By that I mean that she doesn’t play the character, she inhabits the character . . . And what a great singer. I have not heard another voice like hers on Broadway in my lifetime.”

Ms. Luker was nominated again for a 2000 revival of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” for playing Marian (the librarian), a role first performed on Broadway by Barbara Cook and later in a 1962 movie by Shirley Jones. In “Mary Poppins,” for which she received a Tony nomination in 2007, Ms. Luker played Winifred Banks, the mother of two children under the care of Mary Poppins, their nanny. She appeared in the musical for more than three years.

Ms. Luker made her Broadway debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1988, eventually taking on the lead role, and also was in “The Secret Garden” (1991-93), “Nine” (2003), “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (2013-15) and “Fun Home” (2015-16).

Elsewhere, she appeared in the 2014 world premiere at the Kennedy Center of “Little Dancer,” about a teenage dancer who inspired painter Edgar Degas, and in other productions in Washington and California. Seeking to expand her acting roles beyond those of ingénues, Ms. Luker had parts in several television series, including “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Law and Order: SVU” and “Boardwalk Empire,” and was in several films. She last performed onstage in a 2019 Kennedy Center production of “Footloose.”

Ms. Luker often appeared in concerts with orchestras and in intimate cabaret settings, singing show tunes. She “lends even the most anecdotal lyrics a gravitas that keeps you hanging on every word,” critic Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times in 2005.

“If you’ve been wondering who, if anyone, might be the heir to the great Barbara Cook, Ms. Luker, who also comes from the South . . . and also played Marian the librarian (in the revival of “The Music Man”) is the one.”

Rebecca Joan Luker was born April 17, 1961, in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in the small Alabama town of Helena. Her father was a construction worker, her mother a treasurer at a high school.

Ms. Luker seldom saw live theater as a child, but “I sang in church a lot and every singing group I could get into,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. She was first runner-up for Junior Miss Alabama in 1979. She graduated in 1984 from the University of Montevallo in Alabama, then moved to New York, finding work in the theater almost immediately.

Her first marriage, to actor Gregory Jbara, ended in divorce. In 2000, she married Danny Burstein, a Broadway performer who has been nominated for seven Tony Awards.

In addition to her husband, of New York, survivors include her mother, Martha Hales, and stepfather, Lamar Hales; two stepsons; a brother and sister.

In February, Ms. Luker revealed that she had been diagnosed in 2019 with ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease. A month later, her husband became ill with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and was hospitalized for a week.

Ms. Luker later contracted the disease herself but recovered. Burstein published two essays in the Hollywood Reporter about caring for his ailing wife while trying to recover from covid-19.

“Will she ever walk again?” Burstein wrote in August. “Her shoulders went, seemingly overnight. And now her hands.”

Two months earlier, Ms. Luker was still strong enough to sing three songs from her wheelchair during a fundraiser for ALS research broadcast over Zoom.

“Well, physically, it helps my lungs,” she told the Times in June. “But more than that, when I sing, I think it heals me. It helps me feel like I’m still a part of something, like I’m doing something that’s worthwhile.”

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Newsrust: Rebecca Luker, Broadway star nominated for three Tony Awards, at 59 of ALS
Rebecca Luker, Broadway star nominated for three Tony Awards, at 59 of ALS
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