Rebecca Luker on stepping into Fun Home and how theatre can change the world

Rebecca Luker

Since making her Broadway debut as Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera in 1988, Rebecca Luker has continued to play some of the most memorable roles in musical theatre. From originating the role of Lily Craven in The Secret Garden to replacing Victoria Clark in Cinderella to playing Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins for nearly four years, this three-time Tony nominee is one of the brightest stars on the Great White Way. You may also be familiar with her husband, the great five-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein, who is currently playing Tevye in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

Luker is about to take over for Judy Kuhn in Fun Home from April 5 to May 22 while Kuhn is on leave for hip surgery. She caught up with Stage Door Dish to chat about joining this Tony Award-winning Best Musical, working with Michael Cerveris again, and why she and Burstein aren’t a ‘showbiz-y’ couple.

You’re about to take over the role of Helen Bechdel in Fun Home for a few weeks. Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting ready to step into her shoes?

It’s a little bit daunting when you’re replacing in a show. You have very little time to learn the show. When I found out I got the part, I did a lot of work on my own: learning the show cold, sort of memorizing it, so that when I got to the first rehearsal I would be a little bit ahead of the game. It’s been really fun. You learn everything very fast. The stage management team has been amazing. Everybody over there is amazing. I read Alison Bechdel’s book and I’m reading another book of hers called Are You My Mother? I haven’t even spoken to Judy about it – Judy Kuhn, who’s my good friend – I’m going to maybe sit down with her and have a little talk too. I’m just trying to think about Helen and who she is and, at the same time, learn this very complicated but really fun show. 

Several of your roles, including Helen now, have involved working with children. How does the dynamic of acting alongside children differ from that of working alongside other adults?

These kids in particular, the understudy kids and the actual kids that do the roles for most of the shows, are all extremely bright and extremely talented, but also extremely sweet and kind. They’re very hard workers. A child is just so honest and so willing to work hard and give it their all. Not that adults aren’t, but with children there’s another level of sweetness and honesty that is so refreshing. They’re the greatest kids, and they’re so helpful to me because they know the show better than I do. They’ll wave, like, ‘Oh it’s me you’re talking to now,’ or, ‘Come over here to me now.’ They’re hilarious. They’re really, really exceptional young people. It’s really a joy, truly.

You previously performed opposite Michael Cerveris in Passion for the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration years ago.

We did, and Judy Kuhn. She was our Fosca, so all three of us did it. It was really wonderful to work with Michael. That’s where I met him, I really didn’t know him before 2002. He gives everything on stage. He’s a completely giving actor and a very lovely person, so I’m really looking forward to doing this with him.

What’s it like to work with him again but with such a different relationship between your characters this time around?  

I know! It’s completely different – we’re going from passionately in love to ‘I can’t even touch you.’ It’s so funny. I haven’t worked with Michael yet; I’ve not done anything with him yet. My first time to work with him is probably going to be just a little bit before April, maybe? It’ll be right toward the end of this month, so it’s very fast. Then they throw me into this thing called a put-in, and then I do it, then I’m on. Two or three days later, I’m on. It’s so crazy. But I’m sure it’ll be just a joy. I know how hard it is for the cast to have new people come in. In a way, when that happens to me and someone replaces a cast member, I find it refreshing. It’s a chance to freshen up my role as well, because you’re opposite someone who’s totally different. So I think that’s the way they’re all looking at it. We’re all old friends and we trust each other already. I think that it’s just going to be fun – and I hope so, for him – to play with a new actor. It certainly will be fun for me to do this completely new show that’s like nothing I’ve ever done. I’m very excited about it.

What do you think is the most important message that Fun Home has for the world we live in today?

I think that Alison’s book and the show are just all about acceptance. It’s from the perspective of this young woman who’s coming of age and trying to figure out who she is, and there’s the dynamic of her parents not understanding her. It’s what all of us go through and that’s why the show is so relatable, whether we’re gay, straight, or something in-between. I think it’s about acceptance and love. The father’s character, Bruce, that Michael Cerveris plays, is so tragic. But in the end it really teaches us all a lesson of self-acceptance as well, of loving yourself and accepting yourself and living the kind of life you want to live instead of hiding that under a bushel and living a dysfunctional lie and not being happy. I think it’s mostly that: self-acceptance and acceptance of everyone in the world. It’s such a good show.

You have one of the most iconic soprano voices in the history of Broadway. What’s your favorite song to perform from the whole anthology of soprano musical theatre songs?

My favorite song! Oh my gosh, that’s a hard one. I think it has to be something Jerome Kern wrote, because I’m such a ‘Kernophile.’ I did an album of his and I do a concert of his songs. It’s a toss-up between ‘All the Things You Are’ and ‘Why Was I Born,’ perhaps. There are so many, but if we’re trying to think about beautiful soaring soprano,  I think those two are pretty good examples.

Speaking of beautiful soprano roles, you recently reprised your role as Lily in The Secret Garden for a couple concerts benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation. What was it like to return to a character that you originated 25 years ago?

It was quite an experience. When they asked me to do it, I of course said yes immediately, but then I thought, ‘Oh gosh, can I sing those high notes like I did? It’s going to be kind of weird.’ But I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that I can still sing those high notes, and in a way, I think I sang the role better than I did 25 years ago because I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in 25 years. But it was amazing to revisit the show and the score. It was like a blessing for my soul, not to get too dramatic, but that score is just inside me. It’s always spoken to me and to revive it again was just a wonderful blessing for me. I did the show with Gabby (Pizzolo), who’s going to be my Small Alison. I met her doing that concert. I had just seen her do the show, and she’s just amazing. She’s an amazing person, she’s an amazing Mary Lennox, and she’s amazing in Fun Home. She’s just a little old soul. 

I have to ask you a couple questions about your husband.

Oh, please! I love talking about him. We could do the whole interview about him.

You and Mr. Danny Burstein are quite the power couple on Broadway. So what is it like to come home at the end of the day after playing two very different characters in two very different worlds?

As much as we take our work seriously and love what we do, we basically leave it at the stage door. We have very normal lives. Danny comes home and ices his feet and I’ll make popcorn, and we sit and watch Stephen Colbert. We’re very normal, boring people at home. But we do talk about our work; obviously, it means a lot to us. He helps me with mine so much, and I hope I help him with his. He’s an invaluable resource for me when I’m working on something, because I completely trust his judgment and his taste. He’s my husband, but I’m in awe of his talent and of who he is as a performer. It’s a lot of fun but we have very, very normal lives too.

It’s good to have something to ground you.

Right, you’ve got to have that. We’re mostly that, I would say. We’re mostly not ‘showbiz-y’ at all. We’re not flashy like that. That’s not us.

Danny is currently playing a very different kind of parent (in Fiddler on the Roof) from what you’re about to play on Broadway right now. What have you learned about being a parent by seeing and playing these characters?

Danny as Tevye, and his love for his daughters, is so moving. I love what he does with the role, and it’s so tragic when he has to reject one of his daughters. But Danny is that kind of devoted father in life to our two sons, who are 23 and 20 now. He’s very much that kind of father, very involved with their lives and very loving and supportive. And the character I’m playing, Helen Bechdel – wow, she’s complicated. But the more I work on the role, the more I see that she completely adores her children, but she’s also caught up in this very dark, dysfunctional place in her marriage. It’s a very hard role to really get a handle on. I think about it every day and try to figure out how to do that through my lines and my songs. But what have I learned from it? That’s a good question. If the boys were younger I might be able to answer that more easily but now I don’t really feel like I parent very much these days. But Helen has to be a very patient person to get through her days and to make sense of her life but this character is not always patient. That’s why I love her. She’s very complicated, and you can’t just put her in a box. She can be impatient one second and desperately trying to hold on to her sanity in the next second. She’s a very different mother than I have been because I have been in a happy marriage. So that’s hard to imagine but it’s going to be fun to play with that.

If you could perform with Danny in any show, which show would you choose?

I’d love to do a play with him like a Noël Coward,  drawing-room comedy because he’s so funny on stage. I love to do comedy but I don’t get to do it very much. I don’t know what that would be. I’m terrible at remembering titles. But it would be fun to do some old classic or even a Shakespearean comedy. Danny is such a good actor and he always makes me better when I perform with him. I think something like that would be awesome one day. He’s so busy; I’m sure he’ll never get free time to do anything like that with me, but we’ll see.

You’re fairly outspoken about your political views on Twitter. In what ways do you think theatre can make a difference in this time of political pandemonium?

I was just speaking to somebody else about this. As an artist, and Danny and I both feel this way, it’s difficult to say ‘who cares about what I think’ as an artist. But I do feel that as artists, what we do changes the world, and I believe that our social commentary helps change the world as well. That’s the great thing about Twitter and Facebook and all these sites: it does reach the world. We’re becoming so interconnected that our messages do get out there to people, and that can change the world. Look what happened during Barack Obama’s candidacy when he was first running, how it was just a wildfire of everyone talking to each other via these social sites. It just took off and he became president and it changed the world. There’s so many scary things happening right now that I just feel like we all have to fight the good fight and, even more, fight against the horror of people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. I’m so frightened of both of them. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I still have faith that either Hillary or Bernie is going to clean their clocks. I’m a big believer that we should keep talking about these issues and keep landing on the right side – or the left side, as it were – of human rights; the side of compassion, love, and acceptance, all those things that will make the world a better place in the end.

What are you most looking forward in your few weeks at Fun Home?

It’s going to go by so fast! I’m really looking forward to working with these actors. I’m going to share a dressing room with Beth Malone and I’m excited to really get to know her. I’m just so looking forward to playing with the kids and getting before an audience, because the audience will teach me so much in my first couple of performances in early April. And then just having my short little run. I’m just really so excited about it. I want to rise to the occasion and be there for everybody. I’m a little nervous about that, but I’m sure I’ll get there. I’m so honored to be stepping into Judy’s shoes. She’s a good friend, and I so love her work and respect her. It’s a real compliment to be replacing her. 

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"Don't wait for people to tell you who you are. Show them." - Laura Benanti

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