It’s always a pleasure and honor to speak with Rebecca Luker, and as Little Dancer ends its run at The Kennedy Center this Sunday, November 30th, I asked Rebecca about the new Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical.
Joel: Rebecca, it’s so nice to have you back in DC once again. How did you get involved in Little Dancer, and what was it from the beginning that made you want to be part of this exciting new musical?
Rebecca: Thanks Joel. It’s great to be working on another production at the Kennedy Center. About 3 years ago, Susan Stroman asked me to do a workshop of Little Dancer. We also did another reading of it after that. Then Max Woodward, Kennedy Center producer, expressed interest in presenting it. I was so happy to be asked to stay on with the project and I didn’t hesitate for even half a second. I said “yes!” I wanted to be a part of this show for so many reasons; the stunning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Lynn also wrote the book), and the chance to once again, work with Susan Stroman, whose direction and choreography in this piece is outstanding. I was also drawn to the project because I knew that Boyd Gaines would be our Degas and that Tiler Peck would be Marie. They both break my heart every night. In fact, we have such an exceptional company. Everyone is amazingly talented and everyone is a mensch.
You play the adult Marie in Little Dancer and Tiler Peck is playing young Marie. Tell us about Marie, how you relate to this character, and any life experiences (did you ever study ballet?) you have brought to your performance.
The show opens in 1917, when my character, adult Marie Van Goethem, is introduced; a few decades after Degas made his famous sculpture. Marie comes from very humble, tough circumstances. Abandoned by her father, she and her two sisters are raised by their alcoholic mother, who is also a laundress. It’s a hard life. Marie’s life is little more than delivering laundry and trying to be on time for ballet class. Ballet is her passion and her savior. Degas sees Marie at the ballet and sees something special in her and asks her to pose for him. It’s a beautiful story about what it means to create art in the face of very hard challenges. Marie affects Degas’ art and he affects hers.
I’ve studied very little ballet. I played “Christine” in Phantom, ironically, also a dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet! But that was years ago. In preparation for the role of Marie I went back to ballet class this past Spring. It has been wonderful to get back to it and I’m inspired everyday by the beautiful dancers in this production; particularly Tiler Peck.
What has impressed you most about Tiler Peck’s performance and Susan Stroman’s direction?
Tiler is an extraordinary young woman and a brilliant dancer. She dances effortlessly; or I should say, she makes it look effortless. It’s anything but! She’s so perfect for this part. Her personality, her look, it’s amazing. There’s not room enough in this article to say everything I want to say about Susan Stroman. We call her ‘Stro’ and we all just adore her. She has the ability to command respect while also inviting intimacy. She’s so smart and creative, and she’s one of that rare breed of director that is confident enough to allow collaboration with the actors and the creative team. It’s a very satisfying way to create a show. Stro said to the cast the other day “we just made a musical where there was no musical!” We’re all very proud of this show.
How would you describe Stephen and Lynn’s new score, what songs have they written for your character, and what do we learn about Marie while you sing these songs?
Little Dancer is their most beautiful score; and that’s saying something. I’ve always loved Lynn and Stephen’s work. They’re such a good team, and individually, they’re wonderful people. Stephen has found the perfect combination of the romanticism of the late 1800’s and some contemporary romanticism to create a heartbreakingly beautiful and also joyous score. And Lynn has found the right language to make it come alive.
My first song is a trio with my young self and my sister called “Little Hole in the Wall.” It’s such a sweet song. My character is integrated in various songs throughout the show, commenting on the action, etc. I open Act 2 with a song called “Looking Back at Myself” which has me watching my young-self rehearse. It’s one of my favorite moments in the show. The eleven o’clock number is “What You Made of Me” in which I confront Degas. It’s a very emotional moment in the show. I do feel that they wrote these songs with my voice in mind, so they fit like a glove. I have to pinch myself constantly!
Since you are debuting this character for the first time on stage, and the show is a world premiere, (about a young ballerina immortalized by Edgar Degas) how has your character, performance, and songs changed since you came on board and in rehearsals, and what’s been the most fun for you during his whole experience?
My character wasn’t written for the earliest versions. I think Stro, Lynn, and Stephen smartly added the addition of Adult Marie. For this world premiere, my song at the top of Act 2 is new. It’s tough to say how I’ve changed during rehearsals. It’s a slow and painstaking process to find and develop one’s character. I hope I’m telling Marie’s story in a way that draws the audience in. As I said earlier, being around all the wonderful ballet has really inspired me and that has been delightful.
Why should theatre goers, especially families with children, make a special trip to see Little Dancer, and what do you want these audiences to take with them after watching you perform in this new musical?
I wholeheartedly urge families to see Little Dancer. It’s not just for young dancers. It’s for everyone. We feel so much love from the audiences at The Kennedy Center. First of all, it’s a highly entertaining show that is also extremely moving. And it’s one of the most gorgeously designed shows I’ve ever been a part of. William Ivey Long, Costume Designer, has outdone himself, Ken Billington, Lighting Designer, along with Set Designer Beowulf Boritt, and Projection Designer Ben Pearcy, have created an extraordinary world that invokes one giant Degas painting. It’s as if we’re all performing in the middle of a beautiful painting. It’s not to be missed. I think anyone of any age who sees our show leaves with an appreciation or a renewed appreciation of art, dance and what it means to create something you’re passionate about.
You and your husband Danny Burstein continue to flourish in your careers. Any suggestions and words of wisdom you can pass along to young actors and singers who are also dreaming of having successful and distinguished careers?
Thank you Joel, for the shout-out to my husband! I’m so proud of him. We both feel so lucky to be working on projects that we’re passionate about. Danny and I love to speak to groups of young actors. We always encourage them to go into this business only if you have a huge desire to do so. It’s a tough business, but if you’re talented and work very hard, we also believe that you’ll work. The cream rises to the top. We also encourage aspiring performers to learn all they can about their craft. See everything, read everything and perform as often as possible, in workshops, readings, etc. It will enrich and inform your performances. And one last thing…find something or someone to love. This life isn’t, or shouldn’t be, just about our work. Personally, nothing works without Danny. He’s my rock.
Review of ‘Little Dancer’ on DCMetroTheaterArts by Diane Jackson Schnoor.
Rebecca Luker’s website.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s website.