Tony-nominated actor and singer Rebecca Luker died on Dec. 23, 2019. She was 59.
She fled a world of closed minds and low expectations to fly, always in unexpected and brilliant ways. She defied the odds of the universe by finding true love with the only man worthy of sharing it with her. Hers was a pure and needful heart, always open and always joyous. Woman, activist, wife, mother, friend, performing artist—Rebecca Joan Luker had a voice of such soaring and singularly crystalline quality that referring to her in angelic terms became a habit for people.
She was an exotic animal that looked like the girl next door. She had a Grace Kelly vibe, but her background and inner life couldn’t have been more different. In a time when the approved notion of what a contemporary Broadway leading lady should look and sound like was closer to a rock belter, Rebecca seemed like a retro throwback. With a determination typical of her she surmounted this obstacle, vaulting into a career without hesitation from the moment she arrived in town. Beautiful in an idealized, blonde, doll-like fantasy figure way, cheerful, graceful, and with a voice that defied comparison, she surprised us at every turn: She could be genuinely funny, even bawdy at times, earthy in a barefooted, let’s-run-in-the-rain sort of way, passionate in love and food and music, always aware of world events, well-read, and curious about everything and everyone. She and her husband, Danny Burstein, may be just about the only members of our theatre community about whom nobody has ever tossed any snark. “Beloved” is the word I’ve most encountered when people talk about them.
Becca read voraciously as a child, and began challenging the reality of the world around her: a tiny, highly conservative Christian, rifle-toting community in Alabama. She was trusted to sing in the church choir, date the football captain, get married, get pregnant, get a local job, and be silent and satisfied. Of that list, she checked off singing in the choir and getting pregnant. Her candor about her abortion and support for women’s right to choose quickly formed a dividing line in her family and immediate community. Once she realized her voice could help her shape a previously unimagined future, she scampered off to New York City and wasted no time making her dream of a Broadway career come true.
It wasn’t just an ambition to excel that drove her. She had an interest in the world and a desire to be an active part of it. She once told me that she appreciated at an early age that time was finite, that our path on the earth was meant to be lived fully and without hesitation. She opened the door of opportunity and walked through with confidence and hope.
Both she and Danny had come through the rings of fire of past relationships, including first marriages that easily might have discouraged them both from opening their heart once more. They were working together in San Diego when their friendship blossomed. They enjoyed each other’s company, they laughed, they took day trips, they confided, and this pal-ship became a deeply rooted love. They took down the masks and trusted in a way that most people never do. They became Danny-and-Becca in a profoundly connected way, so that marriage seemed an inevitable step. Watching them together was moving and inspiring, seeing a partnership so complete that you realized what all those love songs she sang so convincingly were written about.
She immediately became the caring and supportive mother to Danny’s two sons. The love that Danny-and-Becca shared was generous in that they embraced all of us lucky enough to be admitted into their circle with a support and care unique to them. Their bond continued to grow for over 20 years, and, when Becca was diagnosed with ALS, there was no question that Danny would be with her 24/7 as her caregiver. In that regard, those of us who joined the team to help out were inspired by a devotion I’d never experienced with any others. Ever. It was a swift-moving illness that robbed her of any independent movement and, finally and inconceivably, her voice.
Becca believed in us, believed in our best potential, believed in our power to do good. She never failed to inquire how we were, how our day had gone, what we’d been doing, never complained about her lot or inability to move her limbs. During the last months of her illness she was generally drawn to watch MSNBC, determined to stay in touch with world events, needing to feel a part of it even as she became increasingly removed. Blessed with a sharp and complex intellect, Becca was patient if unforgiving with people who deliberately behaved badly. She had a strong sense of right and wrong.
Facing life with a sense of humor was one of her greatest attributes. She appreciated the irony that surrounds us, and was quick to point to the absurdities that often elude others.
Rebecca Luker was a life force that effervesced from the stage. Danny once told me he was convinced that, in one of her productions, the lighting designer had rigged a special light to follow her around. No such light existed; it was the glow that she carried with her always. That light, that energy, is with us still. And always will be.
David Staller is the founding artistic director of the New York City-based theatre company Gingold Theatrical Group.
My first job on Broadway at 18 years old was understudying the luminous Rebecca Luker in The Sound of Music. I cannot imagine a young performer having a better example of a leading lady than Becca. The first thing that struck me about her (beyond her otherworldly beauty and angelic voice) was how…well…real she was. Rebecca knew everyone’s name, she was polite and on time, she worked hard, and never complained. She sat with the ensemble on breaks and chatted and laughed. She asked me (her understudy) about myself and really listened to the answers. She genuinely cared.
I had the great honor of observing her, learning from her and being in her orbit for a year, and in that time I never saw her be anything other than wonderful. Even during the most stressful moments of a production (tech, previews, opening night, Tony nominations), she never wavered from her authentic self. I never once saw her snap or even complain! She was also genuinely hilarious. I never had the honor of hearing one of her famously dirty jokes but they are legend, like Rebecca.
Rebecca never missed a show. Not a single one. After almost a year, she finally took a well-deserved vacation and I went on for her. Becca made sure I knew every detail of the tricky backstage moments and quick changes, she walked me through the unseen moments of her track, answered my many questions, and filled me with love and confidence. To top it off, she took the last Sunday of her vacation to come and see me in my final performance. My mom sat near her and marveled at how Becca genuinely smiled, laughed, clapped, and hooted throughout the entire show. I will never forget how generous and loving she was after the performance, how genuinely thrilled for me.
Genuine. That is the word. Rebecca was genuine. In an industry that sometimes seems to applaud the superficial and delight in the “diva”, Becca was…Becca. She showed an entire generation of young performers that you can be profoundly talented and also truly kind.
I feel the need to clarify that I am not claiming to be one of Rebecca’s closest friends. I write as someone who idolized Rebecca Luker, learned from her, laughed with her, and ultimately maintained a friendly and loving relationship with her over the course of 23 years. There are certainly people who can speak more intimately—i.e., people who heard the dirty jokes!
But anyone who knew Rebecca even a little could tell you that the most treasured aspect of her life was her beloved husband, Danny Burstein. It was rare to see one of them without the other, and if you did, it wouldn’t take more than a moment for the conversation to turn to the unseen partner. A love like theirs is the kind they write songs about. I don’t know if I will ever see its equal.
A world without Becca is unimaginable, and will take quite some time to process. Rebecca fought to her very last breath for what she believed in. She lived her values daily. She emboldened a generation of sopranos to be more than ingenues. And her legacy lives on in her many glorious performances and original cast recordings, as well as in the hearts of the many who loved her. But mostly, the glorious spirit of Becca will always live on through Danny and his two boys.
Rebecca Luker will never be forgotten. Her memory blesses us all.
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