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Broadway star Rebecca Luker dead at 59 after battle with ALS

by Staff • Dec 23, 2020 

Rebecca Luker
(Photo by Emilio Madrid for

Rebecca Luker, a celebrated actress who lent her crystal-clear soprano to a variety of roles on Broadway, has died, according to The New York Times. Luker revealed in February 2020 that she had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The three-time Tony nominee was 59.

Born in Helena, Alabama on April 17, 1961, Luker attended University of Montevallo, receiving a B.A. in music, taking a year off to perform as Johanna in a 1984 production of Sweeney Todd (alongside Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett) at Michigan Opera Theatre. Soon after, Luker made her Broadway debut as part of the original cast of The Phantom of the Opera (1988), understudying Christine and later taking over the role from original star Sarah Brightman and alternate Patti Cohenour.

Luker went on to originate the role of Lily in the Broadway musical adaptation of The Secret Garden (1991). This followed a showstopping turn as Magnolia in a revival of Show Boat (1994), which earned Luker her first Tony nomination as Best Leading Actress in a Musical.

Next, Luker took on the iconic role of Maria Rainer in a new staging of The Sound of Music (1998) alongside Cohenour as The Mother Abbess and Michael Siberry as Captain von Trapp. At the start of the millenium, Luker was seen in another legendary soprano role, as Marian Paroo in a revival of The Music Man (2000), opposite Craig Bierko as Harold Hill. The performance earned Luker her second Leading Actress Tony nomination.

Her next role was in a Broadway revival of Nine (2003), replacing original cast member Laura Benanti as Claudia. A few years later, Luker played Winifred Banks in the Broadway premiere of Disney's Mary Poppins (2006), earning her third Tony nomination, this time as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Off-Broadway, Luker took the stage in the The Vagina Monologues (1999), Indian Blood (2006) and as Duchess Stephanie Lamberti in Death Takes a Holiday (2011), the latter performance earning her an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination as Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical. Luker recorded the role of Clara on the cast album of the 2013 off-Broadway revival of Passion, filling in for cast member Melissa Errico, who was unable to take part in the album due to illness.

Luker later appeared on Broadway replacing as Marie in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella (2013) and Helen in Fun Home (2016), succeeding Judy Kuhn, also of Passion. Luker was seen the Kennedy Center in 2014, headlining the world premiere musical Little Dancer. More recently, she returned to that Washington, D.C. venue as Vi Moore (also alongside Kuhn) in a starry production of Footloose (2019), which marked her final stage credit. Her new album, All the Girls, which features duets with Sally Wilfert (recorded in 2019) is due to be available digitally on December 25 with a CD released on January 15, 2021 on PS Classics.

Married to actor Gregory Jbara from 1995-1997, Luker became friends with Danny Burstein in 1996 while rehearsing together for the musical Time and Again at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. The pair reconnected in New York following Luker's divorce and nearing the end of Burstein's marriage to his first wife. A romance blossomed between Luker and Burstein, who began dating and were married in 2000. Luker is survived by Burstein as well as stepsons Zachary and Alexander. 

Editor's notes:  Rebecca's unique blend of sweetness plus her soaring soprano voice graced many Broadway leading roles. Together with her husband Danny Burstein they formed one of Broadway's favorite couples. Aware of her terrible illness hearts were with her and the community mourns her deeply.

                                         Jeanne Lieberman, Publisher