In December, I, along with thousands of others, gave a great deal of thought to the late, great Rebecca Luker.
But for the last couple of decades, I’ve always thought about her each January.
For on the January 19th, 1999, I was in the bowels of the Martin Beck Theatre doing a story on Bobby Wilson. He was THE SOUND OF MUSIC’s child-wrangler, hired to accompany the young performers who played the seven von Trapp children.
Each time before the kids got on the stage – and every second as soon as they got off – Wilson was with them, supervising their costume changes, entrances and exits. Nothing was going to harm them, not while he was around.
Did director Susan H. Schulman realize when she staged the revival what her cast would endure? When they exited stage right, she often had them make their next entrance on stage left (and vice versa). To get from one side of the stage to the other, cast members rushed down a flight of stairs, traveled through a series of tunnels the length of the stage and then climbed another flight to prepare for their next entrances.
I was standing and taking notes near a corner when – thump! — Rebecca Luker, rushing to get to her next entrance, bumped into me.
“Oh-please-excuse-me,” she hurriedly said as she kept running – to which I croaked a quick, “Hey, it’s MY fault,” which she didn’t hear, because, quick sprinter that she was, she was already well past me.
Later, I accompanied Wilson to the lobby where he’d park the kids prior to their entering through the house as part of the wedding processional. Luker arrived in her bridal gown, but out of the corner of her eye, spotted me at the other end of the lobby.
To the surprise of her Captain von Trapp and the kids, she broke away from them and rushed over to me. As their faces sported where-is-she-going looks, she was already saying “I feel really terrible about running into you, but we only have so much time to get from one place to another, and, gee, I just hope you don’t think I was rude.”
“‘Rude!’” I semi-screamed. “As I said, it was MY fault. I was in YOUR way. You make that run every night and usually there’s no one there, so you weren’t expecting me! I’M the one who’s sorry!”
She took my apology as my forgiveness. “Thanks for understanding,” she said, putting a hand on mine before raising her eyebrows as if to say “Now I’ve got to get back to the show.”
And wasn’t everyone glad that she did. If you missed Luker as Maria von Trapp, you can still hear her on the revival cast album of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
I had the opportunity to spend more time with her on March 16, 2001 when I was asked to come to Tuscaloosa and run a press conference for the Alabama Stage & Screen Hall of Fame. One of the inductees was Luker, the pride of Helena, Alabama, a 6,000-population hamlet where they don’t do HAMLET, let alone ROCKABYE HAMLET.
I learned that Luker’s mother Martha was a show music enthusiast who spurred her four kids to sing on car trips. She soon noticed that third child Rebecca had a natural ability.
Nevertheless, Martha Luker was surprised when Rebecca came home from middle school with some news. “She’d just won a singing contest,” the proud mother told me before the ceremony, “where she’d sung ‘My Favorite Things.’”
It wouldn’t be the only time that Luker would thrill with that song.
Luker majored in music at the nearby University of Montevallo, appeared at the adorably named Town & Gown Community Theater before heading to Michigan Opera, where she played Johanna in SWEENEY TODD and Anne in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.
Then to Broadway, where she had a small role in the original cast of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Better still, her understudying and alternating with Sarah Brightman resulted in her winning the role outright seventeen months into the run.
Luker played it for three years until the opportunity arose that every performer wants: to create a role.
That’s where Lily in THE SECRET GARDEN came in.
Getting a show off to a good start is crucial, and Luker made sure that THE SECRET GARDEN did. She sang the first eight lines with such skill and beauty that the audience relaxed and started thinking “This is gonna be a good show.”
You can discover that for yourself on the original cast album. Although Lily had already died before the show began, Luker had an abundance of material, appearing in seven songs and one reprise. Archibald and Neville Craven sang about “Lily’s Eyes,” but what about her voice? It’s no accident that “Come to My Garden,” the musical’s most remembered song, had Luker singing most of it.
In Tuscaloosa, as we rode to the induction ceremony, Luker told me how grateful she was to the producers of the MUSIC MAN revival in which she was playing Marian the Librarian. “They were so nice to give me this time off,” she said appreciatively. Yes, but I grieved for ticket buyers who wouldn’t savor seeing and hearing Luker use her heavenly soprano in “Goodnight, My Someone” and then best that triumph with “My White Knight.”
As soon as the Hall of Fame emcee called her name, the tears started down her cheeks. “I’ve never been good at this sort of thing,” she confessed. Maybe not, but we all know that Rebecca Luker was good at plenty of others.
Bios in Broadway Playbills often state that a show’s cast members attended the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, University of Michigan or Carnegie-Mellon. But graduates of The University of Montevallo aren’t as plentiful on Broadway stages. So here she was at Shelton State Community College, spending time with the many family members who came to cheer her, yes, but maybe just a bit more with the school’s students. She encouraged them by letting them know that they too could succeed without a famous school’s pedigree on their resume.
A few days after we both returned to New York, I got a note from her: “It was,” she wrote, “nice bumping into to you again!”
What a honeybunch!
I next saw her on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001 – when Broadway reopened after 9/11. For two days, I’d wondered how the attack would affect Broadway. Would tourists stay away, worried that the theater district would be the target?
The show I wanted to see that night was THE MUSIC MAN, an all-American show if there ever was one. Yet how would the actors and audience feel during “Ya got trouble, right here in River City” when we certainly had in our city? Would the performers break into tears? Would they cry if they saw the audience crying?
As I entered the lobby, three understudies were listed on the board. Were the regular performers ill? Not emotionally ready? Downright scared?
But Luker was there to perform in front of a house that was less than a third-filled. As I feared, scores of people who’d bought tickets wouldn’t take the risk.
I was grateful that the show’s lines and lyrics are so funny; they spurred the first laughter I’d heard in two days. By the time “Ya Got Trouble” rolled around, I realized that I didn’t have to worry; the excellent cast had already taken us from the world outside to this one.
Now came Luker’s moments to shine. As one of the captains of this ship, she too was utterly professional in giving us the escape we so needed. When she began singing, “Till There Was You,” a woman behind me hummed the melody with her. Usually, that’s annoying, but I loved that a theatergoer was so caught in the moment that she could put the tragedy aside for at least a minute or so.
Afterward I waited at the stage door to see Luker. Many other cast members came out first; I saw that they’d left their sunny faces onstage and now looked somber. When Luker emerged, she gave the best smile she could under the terrible circumstances. “I’m not sure if it was or wasn’t too soon to resume performances,” she said. “But we had to start again some time, didn’t we?” she said bravely.
I’m glad that she lived long enough to see Broadway survive that tragedy. I only wish that she could have lived long enough to see this current one end, not to mention long beyond.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He also writes for the new magazine Encore Monthly.