Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times
Rebecca Luker The Broadway veteran (“The Sound of Music” and “The
Music Man,” among others) performs from the Jerome Kern songbook at 54
The Cabaret of an Actress Inspired by Jerome Kern
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: May 19, 2013
The comparison of a soprano with a nightingale goes back at least to the time
of Jenny Lind, the 19th-century opera diva known as “the Swedish nightingale.”
The term evokes a sweet, soaring voice in the night with an otherworldly aura. I
thought of that on Friday evening as I listened to the glorious, richly hued
timbre and fast vibrato of Rebecca Luker singing the
Jerome Kern repertory at 54 Below.
Ms. Luker and Kern, the arch melodist of the classic American songbook, are a
celestial match, for Ms. Luker has a sound that is
as pure and perfect in its way as the melody for “All the Things You Are,” which
she performed as an encore along with “Look for the Silver Lining.” Those
ballads were among the dozen or so famous and obscure Kern songs that she sang,
accompanied by Joseph Thalken on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass.
There wasn’t a false note, technically or emotionally, in an evening in which
Ms. Luker’s singing embodied a paradoxical combination of the ethereal and the
down-to-earth. One of the lighter numbers was “The Bullfrog Patrol,” with lyrics
by Anne Caldwell from the 1919 show “She’s a Good Fellow,” which Ms. Luker sang
with Sally Wilfert. Ms. Luker found a delicious balance between sarcasm and
humor in “My Husband’s First Wife,” from “Sweet Adeline,” in which a man’s
second spouse is hounded by comparisons to her supposedly saintly predecessor,
who “sang as she brought up the coal every morn/and she mentioned vacations with
Ms. Luker lifted “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” out of its usual niche as a
dreamy contemplation of marital happily ever after and treated it as breezy,
upbeat song of immediate anticipation. When she sang the great ballads “The Song
Is You” and “Why Was I Born?,” the nightingale ascended.
The Song Is Him: Rebecca Luker Talks About the Joy of Singing Jerome Kern
By Kenneth Jones
July 2, 2012
July 2, 2012
Rebecca Luker, the Tony Award-nominated star of Show Boat, knows her way
around a Jerome Kern song — and she'll prove it in an upcoming 54 Below concert. She shares her thoughts on all the things he is.
If you care about musical theatre, you have to care about composer Jerome
Kern — or at least you ought to. Broadway actress Rebecca Luker, whose career is punctuated with Kern songs, cares deeply, and will seek to satisfy fans and
newcomers with an all-Kern concert at 54 Below, the new theatre-district
cabaret, July 6-7.
The title says it all: Rebecca Luker Sings Jerome Kern.
Luker's first of three Tony Award nominations came when she was Best
Actress-nominated for playing Magnolia in Harold Prince's revised 1994 revival
of the 1927 Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II classic Show Boat, which changed the
face of musical theatre back in the Jazz Age. In it, she sang the standards
"Make Believe" and "You Are Love," among others. It was not her first brush with
Kern (1885-1945), the American master with one foot in operetta and the other in
modern musical theatre (complete with jazz, blue notes and, in the case of Show
Boat, serious themes and tragic characters). Fans of Kern's music cherish the
studio recordings of his popular and obscure work preserved by late conductor
John McGlinn (most notably, "A Jerome Kern Treasury" and "Broadway
Showstoppers," both in 1993), for whom Luker sang.
Luker admitted, though, that Kern was not on her radar as a girl growing up
"I didn't really get to know who Kern was until I moved into New York City
and became involved with some productions," Luker told Playbill.com in recent
days. "I didn't even really know much about even Show Boat when I was growing
When she first came to New York City, she was cast in a 1985 New Amsterdam
Theatre Company concert revival of Kern's Music in the Air at Town Hall, and
then went on to do his Leave It to Jane at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.
"John McGlinn — I met him just after that," she said. "We started to record
various Kern things in London. I was launched into Kern early on; I was sort of
inundated with Kern and learned to love him, but not before I got to New
Why is Kern such a match for Luker?
"I think it's a perfect match for me because I'm a certain kind of soprano
that maybe he might have written for," she said. "But I'm not that old-fashioned
soprano — I'm not that thing, but I'm a good musician. I was classically
trained. His music is not the easiest thing. I enjoy singing the difficult
ballads, the operetta-type stuff that he wrote, but I also enjoy his more
contemporary ballads with Dorothy Fields and Johnny Mercer and all of his Oscar
Hammerstein stuff from the Hollywood period."
She continued, "When I started putting this concert together, I wasn't as
knowledgeable as I thought I was about Kern. I've since learned that his range
over a 30-year period — from the early, early days at the Princess Theatre until
when he died — is just astounding. The range of his styles and what he wrote! I
think I fit in because I'm kind of a versatile singer."
Will the 54 Below concert reflect all the things Kern is?
"It will reflect all shades," she said. "It's a lot to do in an hour, but I
think I have a pretty good group of songs that really shows every part of his
career. Trying to pick 14 songs was like torture for me. It really was."
Her music director and arranger for the gig at 54 Below, the 160-seat venue
one flight under Studio 54 on West 54th Street, is pianist Joseph Thalken, who
was also Patti LuPone's music director at the venue in June. Dick Sarpola will
be on bass.
Who picked the Kern repertoire for the show?
Luker said, "I picked it for the most part. I've been doing research on it
for months and months. And [Joe] had some suggestions. I was starting to do all
obscure stuff, and he said, 'That might be a little hard to take, so why don't
we sprinkle in some more well-known stuff?' So that's what I did, and he's
absolutely right. It makes for much a easier time for the audience. He helped me
choose a couple of the more popular ones."
What obscurities will we hear?
"I don't know if anybody would know the obscure titles, but there's a really
funny P.G. Wodehouse song called 'Saturday Night' from one of their old, old
shows; a beautiful ballad called 'Not You' that he wrote with Herbert Reynolds;
and then I'm doing some lovely old favorites like 'I'm Old Fashioned' and 'The
Song is You' — things like that."
Luker, who was also Tony-nominated for The Music Man (Best Actress) and Mary
Poppins (Best Featured Actress), said that Show Boat will be represented on her
54 Below show.
"I don't want to give away the show," she teased, "but one wasn't written for
Show Boat, but ended up in Show Boat, and then I'm doing one that I actually
sang in Show Boat. I figured I had to give a tiny nod to Show Boat."
Does this mean she's singing Magnolia's "After the Ball" — a non-Kern song
that sweetens a famous scene in Show Boat?
"It's a possibility, maybe as an encore thing, but not really sure," she
said. "It's not going to be in the body of the show."
(By process of elimination, and by looking at the 54 Below website, we can
see that "Bill" — written by Kern and Wodehouse — is the non-Show Boat/Show Boat
standard that Luker will perform. In the musical, the broken chanteuse Julie
sings it, not Magnolia.)
The death of music director, preservationist and historian McGlinn (who
recorded a 1988 studio version of the complete score of Show Boat, including
variants, cut material and film music) was a major loss for the music-theatre
community, and for lovers of Kern. Luker observed, "John's passing was just
tragic on so many levels. He was a good friend of mine, and he made a big
difference in my life and my career, and I just miss him. But there are people
around now like Tommy Krasker [co-founder of the record label PS Classics] and
Greg MacKellan [artistic director of San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon Company].
They're doing some amazing stuff — recording some amazing shows."
For more information about Rebecca Luker Sings Jerome Kern at 54 Below, visit
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor Playbill.com. His first brush with Kern was
seeing the pre-New York tour of the 1983 Broadway revival of Show Boat. Follow
him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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