For her latest album, Broadway soprano Rebecca Luker brings her live show — featuring songs by legendary theater composer Jerome Kern, recorded at the Manhattan club 54 Below — to the recording studio. The album, I Got Love: Songs of Jerome Kern, features 14 tracks and classics ranging from "Bill/Can't Help Loving That Man" to "My Husband's First Wife."
Although her own words to "My Husband's First Wife" didn't make it onto the album, Luker tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she and her husband, the actor Danny Burstein, had fun writing their own third verse — some of the lines of which go, "My husband's first wife, my husband's first wife / Her shopping was thrifty, completed by dawn / She'd beat you at chess just by suing a pawn / She had all five babies while mowing the lawn / My husband's first wife."
Kern's early work in the 1910s and '20s overlapped with the beginning of Broadway musicals and the decline of operettas, so one can hear operetta styles in those compositions. While Luker was classically trained, she says she'd never seriously considered going into opera because her voice wasn't strong enough.
Instead, she got her Broadway start as an understudy to Sarah Brightman in the original 1988 Broadway company production of Phantom of the Opera before taking over the role for a couple of years. She has since starred on and off Broadway in everything from The Sound of Music to The Vagina Monologues.
On how Irene Franklin came to write the words for 'My Husband's First Wife' (from Sweet Adeline) with Jerome Kern
She was in the cast, and she was a comedienne of the time. And she wrote her own showstopper with Jerome Kern because Oscar Hammerstein was too busy to write it or something like that. ... [A]s the story has it, Oscar Hammerstein was too busy writing other arrangements and ... [Kern] came to her and said, 'Would you write your own lyrics to this song?' And she said, 'Absolutely.' So she came up with this really funny song for the show — and it was a showstopper, turned out.
On how her voice has changed over the years
"Finally, after all these years, I learned I can belt a little bit. ... [T]rue belt is really hard, and that's not really what I do — and I don't really try to do that — but I've learned to do it more. And maybe I've learned to do it well enough so you may not know that I'm faking it. But mostly my voice has just gotten richer, I think, over the years: deeper and richer ... and more versatile, I think."
On the two different versions of 'Bill/Can't Help Loving That Man,' one of which appears in Showboat and the other of which predates Showboat
"P.G. Wodehouse actually wrote the first lyrics for "Bill" for a show called Oh Lady, Lady in 1917, and it was for the Princess Theatre shows that he and Jerome Kern were so famous for. And ... when Showboat was written ... about 10 years later ... I think the song was probably cut from Oh Lady, Lady and it was on the shelf. And, you know, Kern pulled it down and said, 'Well, what about this one?' and [Kern and Oscar Hammerstein] looked at the lyrics and thought, 'Well, this won't do for our Showboat story,' so Hammerstein rewrote some of the lyrics — so some of them did work and some of them didn't. And he rewrote a lot of them, but he always gave P.G. Wodehouse credit for the song, for the lyrics, generously."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The first time I saw Rebecca Luker and heard her beautiful voice, she was starring in the Hal Prince Broadway revival of "Showboat," the great musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Now she has a whole album of Kern songs that spans his career. Luker has also starred in Broadway revivals of "The Music Man" and "The Sound of Music." In the most recent season of "Broadwater Empire" she played a nun. And in the film "Not Fade Away" she was the girlfriend's mother.
Let's start with a song from her new album, which is called "I Got Love: Songs of Jerome Kern". This is "Once in A Blue Moon".
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE IN A BLUE MOON")
REBECCA LUKER: (Singing) Once in a blue moon, you will meet the right one. Once in a blue moon find your dear delight one. Then, with a thrill, you know that love is true. Once in a lifetime, when the moon is blue.
(Singing) Men are called deceivers ever, and women flirt with passion. One true love that lasts forever is sadly out of fashion. Moonlit madness under a pale sky; flames that turn to ashes and then die. All too soon the lips that kiss may learn to say goodbye. Once in a blue moon...
GROSS: Rebecca Luker, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new album. What a beautiful to song that is, which - a song that I wasn't familiar with until hearing your version. Tell us where it's from.
LUKER: Thank you so much. "Once in A Blue Moon" is, has a lyric by Ann Caldwell and of course Jerome Kern, who we're talking about today; it is from an old show called "Stepping Stones" from the early '20s.
GROSS: It's a lovely song. And I like the way you start off unaccompanied, which is a kind of brave way to start an album, to sing unaccompanied, because it's the first track on the record. What made you decide to do it that way?
LUKER: Yes, it is. You have to be sure that you're in the key when the musicians join you, which is - I always find that to be fun and challenging.
GROSS: You mentioned that the lyric for the song was written by Ann Caldwell. And it's interesting that Jerome Kern wrote with several women lyricists at a time when there were so few women lyricists, because there's Ann Caldwell, there's Dorothy Fields, who is probably the best-known woman who he wrote with.
LUKER: That's right.
GROSS: And then there is a third whose name I'm not remembering because it's a name that I was unfamiliar with.
LUKER: You could be thinking of Irene Franklin.
LUKER: But he only wrote, I believe, one song with her. That's a funny story. You know, in "My Husband's First Wife" she was in the cast and she was a comedian of the time and she wrote her own showstopper with Jerome Kern because Oscar Hammerstein was too busy to write it or, you know, something like that.
LUKER: So I believe that was his only song with Irene Franklin. I guess...
GROSS: She wrote the song for herself?
LUKER: She did. The show - I forget the name of the show all of a sudden. My husband's first wife was - oh, "Sweet Adeline"...
LUKER: That he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein. And I think as the story has it, Oscar Hammerstein was too busy writing other arrangements and she came to Kern and, you know, or he came to her and said, would you write your own lyrics to this song? And she said absolutely. So she came up with this really funny song for the show - and it was a showstopper, turned out.
GROSS: And you do it on the album and it is really funny.
LUKER: And I do it on the album.
GROSS: Yeah. So it's called "My Husband's First Wife." Anything you want to say about it? We'll give it a spin.
LUKER: Oh sure.
GROSS: That sounded so all fashion; we'll give it a spin.
LUKER: We'll give it a spin. Yeah...
GROSS: But old-fashioned suits the album because some of these songs like this one are so old-fashioned.
This sounds like an old vaudeville song.
LUKER: It - absolutely. And it, you know, was. Well, it was 1929, but a little bit after maybe. I guess vaudeville was the '20s, the whole '20s. My husband, Danny, wrote his own verse for it for my "54 Below" show. I don't know if I'm supposed to say that, but we couldn't record it because we weren't allowed to. But we had a lot of fun writing a third verse to this song. But I just think it's very funny, a wonderful old song.
GROSS: After we hear the song, would you sing your husband's verse?
LUKER: Yes, I'll see if I can remember that.
GROSS: OK. You think while we play this song.
LUKER: OK. Will do.
GROSS: So this is Rebecca Luker from her new album of Jerome Kern songs, which is called "I Got Love," and the song is "My Husband's First Wife."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HUSBAND'S FIRST WIFE")
GROSS: So that's Rebecca Luker singing "My Husband's First Wife" from her new album of Jerome Kern songs which is called "I Got Love." So did you remember the lyric that your husband wrote for this 1929 song?
LUKER: Yeah. We laughed a lot doing this, by the way. Mostly they're his, Danny Burnstein's lyrics, so...
(Singing) My husband's first wife, my husband's first wife, her skin was like porcelain, her pores always clear and wrinkles refused to appear. So he tells me. My husband's first wife, my husband's first wife, her shopping was thrifty, completed by dawn. She'd beat you at chess just by using a pawn. She had all five babies while mowing the lawn. My husband's first wife.
GROSS: Very good.
LUKER: Ta-da. Danny Burstein.
GROSS: I'm sure there's many, many more waiting to be written.
LUKER: Man, we laughed so hard. You should've heard some of the earlier, you know, versions that we came up with. Very funny.
GROSS: So now that you've gotten older, how has your voice changed?
LUKER: Well, I think finally, after all these years, I learned I can belt a little bit. You know, I've not usually been able to belt. I wasn't able to really belt and I still can't belt, mind you, like Betty Buckley and, you know, those gals.
GROSS: What do you mean when you say belt?
LUKER: I just mean that you're, you know, you use your chest voice, completely use your chest voice when you sing. You know, I'd blow the mic out if I did it. But what I do is what most sopranos do and I mix. Which means you bring some of your chest up into your head voice and you sort of mix through a line.
Instead of sounding all breathy like this you kind of sound like this, you know. But true belt is really hard, and that's not really what I do, and I don't really try to do that, but I've learned to do it more. And maybe I've learned to do it well enough so you may not know that I'm faking it, you know? But mostly my voice has just gotten richer, I think, over the years; deeper and richer and able to sing and more versatile, I think.
GROSS: So I want you to introduce another song from your new album, and this is the song "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" from your album of Jerome Kern's songs. He wrote this with Oscar Hammerstein. It's a pretty famous song. It's a standard in the jazz world.
GROSS: What do you love about this song and tell us where - you know, more about its origins.
LUKER: Yes. When we decided to do this song I heard a million versions and I thought, well, should we do it? Because everybody's done this song. But I discovered it through just listening through many, many different Jerome Kern's songs and I wasn't familiar with Jerome Kern's Hollywood period as much as his, you know, earlier theater works.
But he and Oscar Hammerstein wrote some astounding songs for Hollywood scores in the '30s that are just, you know, I can't even describe how wonderful they are. Jerome Kern reinvented himself so many times with, you know, different styles. And this movie, "High, Wide and Handsome" has a couple of songs in it that just floored me and this was one of them.
"Folks Who Live on the Hill" and "The Things I Want" is, I believe, also from that show. So I chose "Folks Who Live on the Hill" and we made it. We sort of went with the jazz tradition that so many people do, but I think we put a slightly fresh spin on it and I just wanted to represent that period of his career which I think is so rich and full and unexpected.
GROSS: Is this more chest voice than some of the other songs on the album?
LUKER: I think, yes. I think it's one of them. One of those that I was able to have fun and do the - be sort of laid back and jazzy on more than some of the others. Yeah.
GROSS: OK. So this is the "Folks Who Live on the Hill" from my guest Rebecca Luker's new album called "I Got Love: Songs of Jerome Kern."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL")
GROSS: That was Rebecca Luker singing "Folks Who Live on the Hill," a song by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. And it's from her new album of Jerome Kern songs which is called "I Got Love." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rebecca Luker and she's starred on stage in revivals of "Showboat" and the "Sound of Music," "The Music Man," and now she has a new album of songs by Jerome Kern called "I Got Love." I want to play another song from your new album of Jerome Kern songs. And this is "Bill," which a lot of people know from "Showboat."
In fact, when you did the revival of "Showboat" that was directed by Hal Prince you sang this song.
GROSS: And it's a very tender song about - sung by somebody who is in love with Bill even though he's not, you know, a talented or gifted guy or incredibly handsome. It's great to be on his knee.
LUKER: Right. Right.
GROSS: And there's a certain physical attraction there but it's a very tender song. But the version that you're doing is not the version that's in "Showboat." It's a version that precedes that.
GROSS: So tell us the story of these two different sets of lyrics for the song.
LUKER: Well, P.G. Wodehouse actually wrote the first lyrics for "Bill" for a show called "Oh Lady, Lady" in 1917, and it was for the Princess Theatre shows that he and Jerome Kern were so famous for. And when "Showboat" was written, when he wrote it with Oscar Hammerstein about 10 years later, they wanted to use - I think the song was probably cut from "Oh Lady, Lady" and it was on the shelf.
And, you know, Kern pulled it down and said what about this one? And they looked at the lyrics and thought, well, this won't do for our "Showboat" story, so Hammerstein rewrote some of the lyrics. So, some of them did work and some of them didn't. And he rewrote a lot of them, but he always gave P.G. Wodehouse credit for the song, for the lyrics, generously.
GROSS: And I think the Hammerstein version is like the more tender version and the Wodehouse version is the more comic version.
GROSS: As a more comic version that you sing. Would you maybe compare for us the lyrics?
LUKER: Sure. Let's see. This is a phrase from the "Oh Lady, Lady" version when you - the song proper. It's (Singing) But along came Bill who's quite the opposite of all the men in storybooks. In grace and looks I know that Apollo would beat him all hollow. (Speaking) That kind of thing. And then in the "Showboat" version it's (Singing) But along came Bill who's not the type at all. You'd meet him on the street and never notice him.
(Singing) His form and face, his manly grace, are not the kind that you would find in a statue. (Speaking) So they're both great. And you know the great thing about the early version, the comic version, is that it's still sung as if it's a serious, beautiful song. And I think that's what makes it all the more delightful.
GROSS: Let's hear your version of it. And this is Rebecca Luker from her new album of Jerome Kern songs which is called "I Got Love." And Rebecca Luker, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
LUKER: Oh, this was just delightful, Terry. Always a pleasure to speak with you.
GROSS: Always a pleasure. Thank you.
LUKER: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILL/CAN'T HELP LOVING THAT MAN")
GROSS: Rebecca Luker's new album of Jerome Kern songs is called "I Got Love." On Thursday she begins a series of four performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra of love songs from Broadway and the movies. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.