Rebecca Luker Birmingham native Rebecca Luker (1961-2020) starred in Broadway, television, and movie productions that featured her wide-ranging soprano voice. Her singing was notable for its compelling beauty, and The New York Times compared her to actresses such as Julie Andrews and Barbara Cook.
Luker was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on April 17, 1961, to Martha, a public school official, and Norse Luker, a construction worker. She was the third of four musically inclined children. At the age of three, her mother’s voice teacher declared that Luker had perfect pitch and with training could one day be a very good singer. In order to raise their children in a small-town environment, the parents moved the family to Helena when she was four years old. While in the sixth grade at Thompson Middle School in Alabaster, Luker entered a talent contest, sang “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, and was declared the winner.
In 1979, Luker entered the University of Montevallo (UM) in Shelby County, where she majored in vocal performance. She sang leading roles in four major productions: The Music Man, Oklahoma!, Camelot, and Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. In the fall of 1982, she took a semester off to perform dinner theater in Florida, and in the fall of 1983, she apprenticed with Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre, where she was cast as Anne in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Luker returned to Montevallo in the spring of 1984 and completed her education, graduating with a bachelor’s of music in vocal performance. Luker’s Michigan Opera Theatre performances resulted in her being rehired for the following season for a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which she was cast as Joanna. Her performance impressed New York agent Bret Adams, and he offered to represent her should she decide to move to New York, which she did in February 1985. With Adams’s help, Luker quickly landed performances in and around New York. In 1985, after only two weeks in the city, she performed at the New Amsterdam Theatre and not long after was given the title role in Jerome Kern’s Leave It to Jane at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. Other opportunities followed, including a minor role in the premier performance of New York City Opera’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X in 1986.
Luker’s big break came in 1988, when she was selected to be Sarah Brightman’s understudy in The Phantom of the Opera. Luker served as understudy to Brightman until 1989, when she took over the female lead role as Christine, which she performed until 1991. Luker next created her own Broadway role as Lily Craven in Marsha Norman’s The Secret Garden; she received a Drama Desk nomination for her efforts. Her next role was Magnolia in a revival of Showboat in 1994, with that performance earning Luker her first Tony nomination in 1995. That year she married actor Gregory Jbara; they divorced in 1997. Luker took the role of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music in 1998 and received numerous positive reviews for her singing and acting and a nomination for the Outer Critics Circle Award that year. In the 2000-2001 season, Luker played Marian in The Music Man and earned nominations for a second Tony, a second Outer Critics Circle Award, and another Drama Desk Award. She married actor Danny Burstein in June of 2000. In 2003, she stepped into the role of Claudia in Nine, opposite Antonio Banderas, and in 2006 she was cast as Mrs. Banks in the stage version of Mary Poppins, appearing for four seasons and winning a third Tony nomination in 2007.
Rebecca Luker in Cinderella Throughout her career, Luker made numerous recordings. She was a featured soloist on Aria, Aria II, and Aria III, The Boys from Syracuse, Strike Up the Band, Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway Showstoppers, Placido Domingo: The Broadway I Love, and many others. She was also featured on cast recordings of The Secret Garden, Showboat, The Sound of Music, and The Music Man. She released three solo collections: Anything Goes: Rebecca Luker Sings Cole Porter, Leaving Home, and Greenwich Time. Her television credits include the film Cupid and Cate as well as appearances on Boardwalk Empire, Law and Order SVU, The Good Wife, and Matlock. She was also a featured performer in The Rodgers and Hart Story, My Favorite Broadway—The Leading Ladies, Kennedy Center Honors, and Backstage at the Sound of Music, among others. She performed live with many orchestras, including the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, and the Boston Pops.
In 2012, she starred in the film Not Fade Away and performed her one-woman cabaret act Rebecca Luker Sings Jerome Kern. In 2013, she starred as the Fairy Godmother in a Broadway revival of Cinderella and reprised her role as Lily in The Secret Garden in 2016.
Luker was inducted into the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame in 2001. In May 2010, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Montevallo, and in May 2011 she was presented with the Distinguished Artist of the Year Award by the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
In February 2020, Luker announced that she had been diagnosed with the terminal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis the previous year. She died in her adopted home of New York City on December 23, 2020.