Quad-Cities Native Recalls Theatrical Brilliance, Naturalness of Rebecca Luker
Pleasant Valley theater alum Laura Schutter always wanted to be Broadway star Rebecca Luker. After all, they both had clear, shining soprano singing voices, unpretentious warmth and profound decency.
Schutter realized her dream over 10 years ago, as she understudied for Luker as Mrs. Banks in her Tony-nominated role in the musical “Mary Poppins,” and is among legions of theater fans mourning Luker’s death Dec. 23 at 59 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“She was always a professional, a loving and compassionate woman. Such a talent, such a voice,” Schutter posted Sunday on Facebook.
“She was always the ingenue, with the pretty soprano voice. She always was such a natural on stage,” she said in a Monday interview from her New Jersey apartment outside New York City. “She was never big or showy; I’m not either. I was always such a quiet person, especially when I’m not on stage. So, she went from being a young ingenue – which I was wanting to go in my 20s – then seeing her kind of grow into the mother roles, and she did it with such success and grace.”
Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald tweeted after Luker’s passing: “Just devastating. She was an angel on earth. One of the most glorious voices and the sweetest of souls.”
Broadway author John Robert Altman tweeted: “Rebecca Luker’s shimmering soprano was one of the defining voices for a generation of musical theatre lovers, an immeasurable gift and an immense loss.
In a lauded three-decade Broadway career, the New York Times said Luker’s success was “fueled by her crystal-clear operatic soprano,” resulting in three Tony nominations. The first was for “Show Boat” (1994), in which she played Magnolia, the captain’s dewy-fresh teenage daughter, whose life is ruined by marriage to a riverboat gambler.
The second was for “The Music Man” (2000), in which she was Marian, the prim River City librarian who enchants a traveling flimflam man who thinks — mistakenly — that he’s just passing through town.
In between, Luker delighted critics by playing against type in a 1997 Encores! production of “The Boys From Syracuse,” the Times wrote. As Adriana, the neglected wife who gets her groove back (with her husband’s long-lost twin brother), she wore slinky 1930s gowns and exuded what Ben Brantley, in his review for The New York Times, called “a disarmingly confectionary sexiness.”
But by the end of that year, she was deep into ingénue territory again, playing Maria, the undisciplined novice nun turned live-in governess of seven, in “The Sound of Music.”
When she earned her third Tony nomination, this one for best featured actress in a musical, it was for playing Winifred Banks, a married Englishwoman with two children and a gifted nanny, in “Mary Poppins” (2006).
For all her success in musicals, Luker did not identify as a show-tunes type, her obituary said. “I am so not a musical theater person,” she told Playbill in 2003. “I love rock music and jazz. I love the ’70s stuff I grew up with.”
An Alabama native, just five years after college, she was on the Broadway stage in 1988, assuming the lead female role in “The Phantom of the Opera”— Christine, the chorus girl who is the object of the phantom’s affections.
“Phantom” was her Broadway debut; she began as the understudy to the original star, Sarah Brightman; became an alternate; and took over
as Christine in 1989. She remained with the show until 1991.
Luker moved on immediately to another Broadway show: She played a ghost, the little orphan girl’s dead Aunt Lily, in “The Secret Garden.” In his review in The Times, Frank Rich singled out “I Heard Someone Crying,” Luker’s haunting trio with Mandy Patinkin and Daisy Egan, for special praise.
In several of her later Broadway roles, she replaced the original actress in a long-running hit. She took over as Claudia, the director-protagonist’s movie-star muse, in “Nine” (2003); Marie, the temperamental fairy godmother, in “Cinderella” (2013); and Helen, the frustrated wife and mother who misses being an actress — just as Mrs. Banks had in “Mary Poppins” — in “Fun Home” (2016).
Luker also had a thriving cabaret career, appearing at intimate venues like Café Carlyle and Feinstein’s/54 Below, but she professed a special love for “the live experience in front of an orchestra,” the New York Times piece said.
She made her screen acting debut in her late 30s when she appeared in “Cupid and Cate” (2000), a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie in which she played the heroine’s perfect and perfectly sensible sister. Between 2010 and 2020, she had guest roles on series including “Boardwalk Empire” and “N.C.I.S. New Orleans” and appeared in three feature films, including “Not Fade Away” (2012), a drama about a teenage rock band.
Her final stage role was as a small-town minister’s narrow-minded wife in a 2019 Kennedy Center production of “Footloose.” She performed at a concert in honor of the lyricist Sheldon Harnick in March 2020.
Her last performance was in June, via Zoom, in a prerecorded benefit performance, “At Home With Rebecca Luker.” “When I sing,” she told The Times shortly before that show, “I think it heals me. It helps me feel like I’m still a part of something.”
From Bettendorf to Broadway
A Bettendorf native now in her 40s, Laura Schutter is the daughter of Kathy Schutter, who ran a Bettendorf dance studio for 30 years and has choreographed often for Quad-City Music Guild. Laura made her stage debut at 9 in “Annie” at Circa ’21, and was in 10 Circa shows through high school.
While she was at P.V., Laura played the lead in “Grease” at Music Guild, and Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” which her mom choreographed at P.V.
“She fell in love with it when she did ‘Annie,'” Kathy said in 2011 of musical theater and Circa. “She’s a triple threat – acting, singing and dancing.”
Schutter got a full theater scholarship at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and spent several years working in Chicago, where she started a long run in “Show Boat,” which went on tour and she got to do in London – in the same part Luker had.
“I remember watching videos of her, and I would say, ‘I’d love to be her someday’,” Schutter recalled Monday. She got her first Broadway role from a casting director on “Show Boat.”
Schutter moved to New York in 1999, when she landed an ensemble part in “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” She’s also been on Broadway in “Kiss Me Kate” and “The Apple Tree” and has done musicals across the country.
A 2005 national tour for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” gave her a big break, where Schutter was understudy for the title character. One time, the leading lady was losing her voice, and she had pen and paper as a prop and wrote Laura’s name on it, signaling the cast to get her ready to replace her — in the midst of Act II.
“They threw me into the red dress and wig,” Schutter said in a 2011 Dispatch/Argus interview, noting she was quite a bit shorter, and that confused the audience. But she finished the remaining 40 minutes (winning a standing ovation), and the next month of the tour.
She first met Luker in “Mary Poppins,” which opened in late 2006 and ran 2,619 performances (through March 3, 2013), the 23rd-longest running show in Broadway history. Schutter said Monday she was exactly her type – any roles Luker did, Schutter would want as well.
“To take over cover roles like that was a dream,” she said.
“A lot of times, when you have young ingenues and they get out of that stage, they don’t have anywhere to go,” Schutter said. “But she grew into that to play the moms. And that’s the next step, when I was following her career and wanting to cover her and be her, when I went in and had my kid, I got to understudy her as a mother on stage. It was a pretty cool experience.”
Schutter definitely watched the original 1964 classic (starring Julie Andrews) a lot growing up, and when it came to Broadway, she auditioned four times and didn’t think she’d get it.
“I went and watched the show, and I’m gonna book this at some point,” she recalled. “There’s tap dancing in it; there’s a part I’d love to cover, which was Rebecca. Then I got the call for the show, kind of out of the blue.”
Schutter got that call while she was working in Hawaii, and rehearsed for “Poppins” about three weeks before going on stage, and didn’t cover Mrs. Banks for a while after that.
“I thought, that’s such a great role. It would be so much fun to do,” she said.
Luker probably wouldn’t have fit as Mary Poppins herself, Schutter said, calling her “too gentle a soul.”
“She could have pulled it off, but the direction they were going with Mary Poppins, she was younger, danced more,” she said. “Rebecca could have pulled it off acting-wise, but she definitely had grown into the mother part, where she kind of moved past that part. This wouldn’t have fit as well as where she fit.”
Schutter said all Luker’s well-known songs (including from “The Secret Garden”) were in her audition book. “They were beautiful, gorgeous,” she said.
“Her path and career were exactly where I wanted mine to go,” she said.
For “Mary Poppins,” there were two understudies per leading role. When she started, the understudy positions were filled, but Schutter got one after someone left.
She was able to play the role quite a few times, mostly in bursts of two weeks in a row, when Luker took leaves of absence.
“She was so supportive,” she recalled. “The first time I went on, she gave me flowers, she wrote me a card. As an understudy, we use their dressing room. So she’s like, ‘use my couch; the fridge is yours, whatever you need, you just let me know’.”
“She was helpful if I ever had any questions,” Schutter said, noting Luker was very down to earth. “And she was goofy too. She would always play fun games backstage. She was a pro, but she always had a twinkle in her eye and always played with us backstage.”
Schutter got into “Mary Poppins” six months after it opened and stayed until closing. Luker was in the original cast and also was in the run nearly the whole time.
“They adored her,” Schutter said of the cast and show management.
“She was so natural in the part, and that’s how I approached things as well,” she said of Mrs. Banks. “Nothing was forced. I’m not believable if I don’t believe something, if I’m not completely in it, if it doesn’t feel right.”
“My voice type was similar to her. I didn’t copy everything she did, but it was very easy to understand how her approach was,” Schutter said. “There was another cover who was completely the opposite of me, and seemed the opposite on stage as well.”
That understudy had a lot of energy, she said. “Our personalities were very different. I connected more with Rebecca’s earthiness, her groundedness, and this cover was very high-energy and high-spirited.”
One of the Sherman brothers (who wrote the original songs) came to see the show, popped into her dressing room, where Schutter was going on at the last minute. He had expected Luker, but told Schutter she’d be fabulous. “He said ‘Have a great show; I look forward to seeing you’,” she said. “It was so natural, that anybody would come in and talk to her.”
Another time, Luker was rehearsing with a new Mr. Banks, and something came up and Schutter had to go on for her, and it was the first performance. Schutter said, “Hello, I’ll be playing your wife tonight. I look forward to kissing you on stage; what’s your name again? That was a fun moment.”
Laura performed in the show through her sixth month of pregnancy. The crew was “really great” about taking out the costumes, Schutter said. She came back to the show when her son Dylan was 2 months old, and he’s now 10.
Midtown Manhattan now like Davenport
Schutter lives on the Jersey side of New York City, with Dylan and her husband, Andrew, who works from home as a consultant.
“I’m glad I don’t live in the city,” she said. “I’ve driven in to bring some food to friends that didn’t have family in the area, and driving through Midtown is strange; it feels like downtown Davenport, it’s very weird.”
She and her husband also own a hard-cider business, Orchard Hill Cider Mill, with an event space and tasting room about an hour north (in New Hampton, N.Y.).
“We have a place to escape to; we’re still open,” Schutter said. “We’re doing delivery. People are still coming and eating inside – very few, but at least we have some tables every night. Waiting for things to go back to normal, we can have weddings and birthday parties.”
Schutter manages the books for that, and is grateful people are drinking during the pandemic, so sales are solid. They’ve had that business about 10 years.
“I’d never thought I’d be back on a farm, growing up on one,” she said, noting Bettendorf, where they returned to visit this summer.
Schutter has not been in shows since “Poppins,” and she discontinued a side jewelry business, since she wasn’t making money at it.
“Since I had my son during the show, I didn’t really want to perform anymore,” she said. “I started teaching, spending more time doing that. Performing? Eh. I still have a bug to do it, but not so much. I decided to get out of the business.”
Schutter did get a random call to audition for covering the mother role in “Dear Evan Hansen,” but didn’t end up getting it.
In an already devastating year (Broadway was shut down March 12 and doesn’t expect to reopen until June 2021), Luker was diagnosed with ALS last February. A progressive neurodegenerative disease, ALS attacks cells in the brain and spinal cord that are needed to keep muscles moving, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis.
When Schutter found out Luker had the disease, her son in school was actually learning about Lou Gehrig, the legendary Yankee who died from ALS in 1941 at age 37. “It was the weirdest timing,” she said. “I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that was what she was told she had.”
On Feb. 9, 2020, Luker posted on her website:
“Please visit this website (www.prosetin2020.org) and donate what you can to a promising ALS drug called Prosetin. It’s sponsored by #projectALS and needs to get to as many ALS patients as possible. Please help.”
Schutter kept in touch with Luker off and on over the years, including a lunch in Midtown where the theater was. You can hear an interview Luker did with NPR in 2013 HERE.
Luker had married Gregory Jbara, an actor, in 1993; they divorced in 1996. In 2000, she married the actor Danny Burstein, whom she met when they starred together in “Time and Again” in San Diego.
Burstein, 56, has drawn rave reviews for his superlative work in both plays and musicals. His performances have earned him six Tony nominations to date — for The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, South Pacific in 2008, Follies in 2012, Golden Boy in 2013, Cabaret in 2014 and Fiddler on the Roof in 2016.
Schutter saw Burstein in Broadway’s “Moulin Rouge” in early March (it opened the previous July) before the pandemic hit, and sympathized with what he was going through.
Schutter had a friend who saw Luker around that time. “I knew her well, but didn’t feel like I could call and say, ‘Hey Becca…,’ especially knowing what they were going through,” she said. “All the Mary Poppins people, we all know what’s going on in each other’s lives.”
“We did end a video, a couple months ago, we all said good morning or hi to them – we did a video and they put it all together for them,” Schutter said.
“What do you say to somebody going through so much?” she said. “I’m sure it made her feel good, the whole company got together and made videos, and one of our cast members put it on Facebook, including all of our time in Mary Poppins – people backstage being silly and Rebecca with all the children. They all played her children and now they’re all in college.”
Music Guild performed “Mary Poppins” in August 2015, but Schutter wasn’t able to come back to see it. After Broadway closed this past March, Burstein was hospitalized with Covid-19, and wrote about it in harrowing, inspiring detail – which you can see HERE.
A moving coda on Christmas Day
Luker’s unexpected death came just two days before the release Christmas Day of her last album, “All the Girls,” with fellow Broadway singer
Sally Wilfert, on Luker’s label PS Classics.
Schutter hasn’t heard the new album yet. “She stayed singing until the end,” she said. “She was a fighter, and a big political woman too. She would always post; she was so vocal about the election, and experimental medicine for what she was going through.”
After Luker’s death, PS Classics tweeted:
“Rebecca was a dear friend from the moment we met her in the mid-‘80s. Her talent, passion and fierce intelligence inspired us, and as we often said, there was no one we enjoyed working with more. We treasured her, and will miss her dearly.”
On the site psclassics.com, owners Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin wrote:
“In 2003, just three years after we started this label, she came to us with a new solo album that she wanted us to have, and from that point on, she entrusted us with all her recordings. And we were forever asking her to star on various studio albums and songbooks that we were releasing, because there was no one we enjoyed working with more.
“It wasn’t just the voice, which of course was unmatched: it was her passion and dedication and fierce intelligence. Tommy once said, ‘If I could have Rebecca Luker on every album I made, I would be the happiest producer in the world.’”
While “All the Girls” is now available on streaming services, the CD will be available on Jan. 22, 2021.
In a feature at ventsmagazine.com, Wilfert says: “Rebecca and I were overwhelmingly grateful to PS Classics for bringing the album All the Girls to fruition. It filled her heart with happiness to have something creative to focus on, and brought laughter, purpose and comfort to the time we spent together during what, we now know, would become her final days. She was very proud of this recording, and I am equally proud to release it to the world with the spirit and heart that is, my dearest friend, Rebecca Luker.”
Building on a special friendship forged on and off the stage, the pair recorded a “celebration of womanhood in all its complexities and expressions,” the review says. Adapted from their stage show of the same name, All the Girls is framed by songs from such theater luminaries as Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Fred Ebb & John Kander, highlighted by a delicious medley from musicals featuring iconic female duets.
“Luker and Wilfert enrich the tone and expand the scope by also embracing art songs, cabaret material, and settings of poems written expressly for them by the show’s music director, Joseph Thalken, who expanded the orchestrations from four to ten pieces for this recording,” the piece says.
“The album celebrates women with an empathy and optimism that radiate through the material. Individually, Luker and Wilfert’s dazzling voices and keen dramatic senses animate the tenderness, humor and resilience in these songs, while together their personal bond produces duets of extraordinary sensitivity and beauty. PS Classics is proud to present this inspiring ode to female friendship by two remarkable women.”
On Dec. 26, theater producer Jennifer Tepper tweeted her praise: “I have no words that can adequately describe how shattering, exquisite, and special it is. Stop everything you’re doing and listen.”
In addition to Burstein, indelible recordings, and memories of so many great performances, Luker is survived by two stepsons, Zachary and Alexander Burstein; a brother, Roger; a sister, Suzanne Luker; her mother, Martha Hales; and her stepfather, Lamar Hales. Another brother, Stephen, died around Christmas last year, Dec. 27, 2019, at 63.