2 Broadway Stars Grapple With COVID And ALS: 'We're Adapting To A New Reality'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The nominees for Broadway's Tony Awards will be announced tomorrow. The award ceremony was originally scheduled for June but was postponed because of the COVID pandemic. One of the shows likely to receive nominations is "Moulin Rouge!," the musical adapted from the film of the same name. Just hours before all of Broadway shut down last March in response to the pandemic, "Moulin Rouge!" cancelled a matinee because someone in the production was suspected of having COVID.
COVID then spread to several other members of the production including one of its stars, my guest Danny Burstein. He had a severe case, had to be hospitalized. And there were several times when he thought he would die. When he returned home, his wife, Rebecca Luker, who's also with us and who's also a Broadway star, came down with COVID. Her case was relatively mild. But it was on top of having been diagnosed just a few months earlier with ALS - or Lou Gehrig's disease - a progressive disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord causing loss of muscle control, which can make it increasingly difficult to move, speak or even breathe.
Burstein and Luker are two of my favorite Broadway performers. And I know many people share that feeling. She's received three Tony nominations. Burstein has been nominated six times. And it's likely he'll receive a seventh nomination for his performance in "Moulin Rouge!," for which he's already won this year's Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance. Last week, it was announced that Broadway will stay dark until the end of May.
Let's start by hearing recordings by Luker and Burstein in roles for which they received Tony nominations. First, we'll hear Rebecca Luker as Maria in the 1998 revival of "The Sound Of Music." Then we'll hear Danny Burstein as Tevye in the 2015 revival of "Fiddler On The Roof."
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")
REBECCA LUKER: (As Maria, singing) The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years. The hills fill my heart with the sound of music. My heart wants to sing every song it hears. My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake to the tree.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")
DANNY BURSTEIN: (As Tevye, singing) If I were a rich man - (harmonizing). All day long, I'd biddy, biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man. Wouldn't have to work hard - (harmonizing) - if I were a biddy, biddy rich, yidle-diddle-deedle-didle (ph) man. I see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man's wife, with a proper double-chin, supervising meals to her heart's delight. I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock - oh, what a happy mood she's in - screaming at the servants, day and night.
GROSS: Rebecca Luker, Danny Burstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You've both been on our show several times. It's a pleasure to have you back. I'm so sorry about all the medical problems you've been having. And I know it's been a rough time. So you've both had COVID, so I want to start with that. I'd like to hear your reaction to President Trump's message that it was a blessing from God that he caught COVID.
He said that the remdesivir, the antiviral medication, he was given, which doesn't have government approval yet, was a cure when a lot of people are saying - a lot of medical experts are saying, if anything helped him, it was probably the dexamethasone. And the president urged people not to be afraid of COVID and said he felt better than he did 20 years ago. So what was your reaction to hearing that?
BURSTEIN: Well, you would think that someone who went through such a traumatic experience would have learned something from such a difficult experience. Also, he had the best doctors in the world and the best - the newest medications. When I went in at the beginning of March, I happened to be in a room next to the nurse's station. And there were literally people dying all around me.
I was very sick. I was in the hospital for about a week. And I heard when people needed to be intubated, when they needed to be put on respirators, when they were rushed to the ICU, when they died in their rooms. My roommate almost died a couple of times. I literally had to rip off my own oxygen to get - to run to the door to get the nurses in there because he couldn't breathe. And the idea that someone thinks that this is a blessing from God is just...
BURSTEIN: It's absurd. It's a perversion of reality. And I'm sorry that he was sick. And I'm sorry so many people in the government have gotten sick from it. But I truly wish they had actually learned something, that it's a very dangerous thing. And it should not be toyed with. It should not be treated lightly. And to brush it off as nothing, as, you know - as now he feels better after having had it, is just a slap in the face and such an insult to not only everyone who has passed away, but everyone who's gotten it and has suffered and is still suffering, like myself, with residual issues.
GROSS: Now, you said you had residual effects from the COVID. What are they?
BURSTEIN: I have a lot of swelling in my hands. I get very lethargic. And that's mostly what's left of it. But it took my lungs months before I could walk outside, walk a couple of blocks outside. My lungs - I had double - COVID and pneumonia in both my lungs. And they showed me my chest X-ray five weeks after I came out of the hospital initially. And I had - my - they were all white. On a normal chest X-ray, your lungs are supposed to look black. And mine were all white...
BURSTEIN: ...Except for two little strips in the middle. And those were the reason, I'm sure, I wasn't on a respirator.
LUKER: Exactly. You were strong.
GROSS: Danny, you wrote two very moving articles about dealing with COVID and with Becca having ALS - articles in the Hollywood Reporter. Why did you write them? And what has the response been?
BURSTEIN: Well, my buddy Sarah Ruhl, the playwright, wrote me after I got out of the hospital. And she said, you should really memorialize what you went through in some way. And I did. It took me a week or so to write the essay that I wrote. And I wrote it. And I sent it to several friends including my buddy Bartlett Sher, the director.
And he said immediately, well, this has to be published. It has to be published. And he pulled some strings. And he called some people. And the next thing I know, I was talking to David Rooney at the Hollywood Reporter. And he said he loved the article and wanted to publish it exactly as it was. And so I thought, OK, (laughter) you know? And he took it. And the surprising thing that I got back from it was that people were calling and emailing me and saying, thank you for writing this, because they had relatives and friends who didn't believe that this was actually happening. They, you know, believe the president when they said it was a hoax.
GROSS: I imagine just about everything in your lives has changed because of COVID and because of ALS. Becca, let me ask you to describe where you are physically now in relationship to the ALS.
LUKER: I've been wheelchair-bound since March, so you know, seven months or so. I'm progressing. My limbs aren't working. My hands aren't working. I have no diaphragm, so it's a little bit hard for me to speak loudly.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, she's using a voice amplifier right now.
LUKER: Yeah, so you can hear me. I sleep with a BiPAP machine to help me breathe better while I sleep. But, you know, I still have a lot of health inside me. And so I'm pushing forward to find a cure...
LUKER: ...Find a drug that will help me.
BURSTEIN: She's the strongest person I know.
GROSS: COVID is a kind of famous disease now. It's a pandemic. Everybody knows about it. And most people who have any understanding of science are afraid of it. But, Becca, you have ALS, which doesn't affect nearly as many people as COVID. Most people don't really know what it is. And I'm interested in the difference between having a kind of famous disease like COVID and that's contagious like COVID and having one that is more rare, less understood - less understood by scientists as well as by, you know, just regular people. You know, compare - you know, you've had both. Like, what are some of the differences for you?
LUKER: Well, with COVID, I barely noticed that I had it. I had - I lost my taste and smell for a couple of weeks and had a low-grade fever that I really couldn't even feel. So I was very lucky. ALS is much more difficult. You know, you heard about how I am physically. It's very difficult. And I need help with everything, which is hard for me because I was a very active, healthy person. So it's been really, really hard.
GROSS: But in terms - like, for instance, one of the things you're trying to do now is call attention to a drug that's still in its experimental phase. But you want to expedite the testing. And because COVID affects so many people, you know, the government has been trying to really fast-track experimental drugs, which is, you know, good. Let's get the testing done. Of course, let's do the testing (laughter) before we start distributing it. But - so you're trying to call attention to a drug candidate for ALS and for other neuromuscular disorders like MS and Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease. So what, specifically, are you trying to do?
LUKER: One thing we're doing is joining forces with other ALS activists to get a certain bill passed. Some 168 congressmen have already co-sponsored it. And we're trying to get all of them on board so that the people with these types of diseases can get quicker access to medical trials, certain drugs. You know, it could change everything, this bill.
BURSTEIN: And the bill is HR...
LUKER: Seven, zero, seven, one.
BURSTEIN: But we are writing letters. We're going to have a write-in, write-a-thon (laughter)...
BURSTEIN: ...Next week...
LUKER: On the 19th.
BURSTEIN: ...On the 19th of October on Monday at 6 o'clock.
LUKER: Eastern time.
BURSTEIN: And we're going to write letters to our representatives. And we're hoping other people will show up. We'll have, basically, a Zoom meeting with as many people who show up, show up.
BURSTEIN: It could be 1,000 people. It could be 500 people. And we're going to teach them how to write letters. And the instructions and the Zoom link will be on broadwaycares.org/letters
BURSTEIN: And we hope people will join us.
GROSS: I think we need to take a break here, so let's do that. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Broadway stars Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein, who've been married since 2000. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE SHEARING'S "THINKING OF YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Broadway stars Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein, who are a married couple. He was starring in "Moulin Rouge!" when it went dark because of COVID. He came down with a severe case. Luker had a relatively mild case soon after. But she had been diagnosed just a few months earlier with the progressive disease ALS - Lou Gehrig's disease - which interferes with the brain's ability to initiate movement and control muscles.
So the Tony nominations were postponed in June because of COVID. And now nominations will be announced tomorrow. Was "Moulin Rouge!" the first show to go dark because there was a case of suspected COVID in the production?
BURSTEIN: Actually, it was. We were - we had an unusual schedule. We had Thursday matinees. And we knew that people were getting sick all around us. But we didn't know in the company that anyone was sick or anyone in the building was sick or suspected of being ill. And we all got a text at around 12:30. The normal time for a show to start, for a matinee to start, is 2 o'clock. And we got a text from our producers that said, come to the house. And we're going to have an emergency meeting at 1 o'clock. And so literally everybody in the building had to be there - stagehands, the ushers, the house manager.
And they said, one of our cast members has taken ill. And he's at the doctor right now. And there was - it was suspected that he might have COVID. And so to be proactive and to make sure nobody else got sick, they were going to cancel the matinee and evening show. And they were going to sterilize everything that they could. And I really applaud our producers for taking that step before any other show did.
And they canceled the show. And nobody knew that they were going to cancel the show. Even the house manager said, there's a whole line of people waiting outside to come in. The line goes around the block. And he was just told to tell them that an emergency has come up. And we're very sorry. But the show is canceled today. And later on that afternoon, Governor Cuomo actually canceled all of the Broadway shows.
LUKER: That very day, yeah.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, that very day, that evening, for a month.
LUKER: And how soon after that did you get COVID, Danny?
BURSTEIN: Like, I think a week later, I was - a week?
LUKER: Something like that.
BURSTEIN: A little over - like, nine days later, I was in the hospital.
GROSS: Were you afraid to go to the hospital, thinking, like, well, maybe I don't have COVID, but I'll be exposed to it if I do go?
BURSTEIN: Well, I had a feeling I might have it. But - and I got a - I tried to get a test. And that took a week and a half to finally come through. But I felt ill. And my doctors kept telling me, if you don't feel - if you don't have trouble breathing, don't go to the hospital, because right now, the hospitals are dangerous places to actually go.
So I was holding on. I was sick. And I had fever. And I was trying to stay away from Becca as much as I could. And our son, Zach, was here with us at the time. And I wasn't feeling good. And I decided to take a shower in the evening - one evening. And I went into the shower. And I couldn't breathe. And I fell to my knees in the shower. And a voice just came out of me that said, guys, I need to go to the hospital. And it just literally came out of me. And that voice...
BURSTEIN: ...(Laughter) That decision saved my life...
BURSTEIN: ...Because my lungs were so bad, if I hadn't gone, you know, it...
LUKER: You'd have gotten worse and worse.
BURSTEIN: ...Probably would've been worse because I just kept getting worse. And then my son, Zach, walked me to the hospital, St. Luke's, which is about a block and a half away. And he was looking back at me the whole time, you know, so worried about me. And, you know, as a parent, all you want to do is take care of your children, you know, desperately...
BURSTEIN: ...Take care of your children and not have them worry. And to see that look in his eyes, that worry for me and him walking me to the hospital, was quite a reversal and quite emotional for me.
BURSTEIN: But they took me in right away. And I got great care there. And I'm very grateful to everybody in that building.
GROSS: You wrote in your articles that there were times you thought you were going to die. Were you reflecting on your life during that time, during those times when you thought, like, I might be dying right now?
BURSTEIN: Sure. I was reflecting on everyone in my life that I love - my children, my wife, my friends, my parents - leaving my - you know, not being there for my children, not being there for my wife, who was home in a wheelchair. And I just knew that this was not going to be the way it ended, I just did. I was so focused on not letting that happen. Now, you know, if circumstances were different, if my lungs were a little worse, you know, I would've left the world, of course. But I was lucky enough that I was able to turn things around. And I mean it, I was lucky. I know I was lucky. And I just kept my attitude.
LUKER: And you were strong.
BURSTEIN: I was strong enough.
LUKER: You were, yeah.
GROSS: Danny, in your articles about having COVID, you wrote about strength in stillness and trying to find that strength in stillness. What does that mean?
BURSTEIN: It had to do with the conservation of my movement during that time. I knew that anything extraneous took a lot of energy and took the wind out of me. And I knew I had to just find the strength in just being in the bed there and just concentrating on breathing, that that's all the energy my body had strength to do at that particular time. And one of the nurses told me that - she gave me a little thing to remember. She said that I should smell the roses - in other words, breathe in through my nose - and then breathe out through my mouth. And so she said, smell the roses, and blow out the candles. And...
BURSTEIN: ...I thought those were - those two phrases...
BURSTEIN: ...Were kind of wonderful. And they helped get me through because that's what I thought about while I was lying in bed there trying to be as still as possible, that I would one day smell the roses again...
BURSTEIN: ...And that one day I would blow out the candles and move forward.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Broadway stars Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein. We'll talk more about COVID, ALS, Broadway and their lives together after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW BROADWAY CAST OF FOLLIES' "PROLOGUE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Broadway stars Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein. Their lives have become very complicated by health crises. Burstein was starring on Broadway in "Moulin Rouge!" when it was forced to cancel performances because someone in the production had COVID. This was just before all of Broadway went dark.
Soon after, Burstein came down with a severe case of COVID. After he returned home from the hospital, Luker had a relatively mild case of COVID, but that was on top of having been diagnosed a few months earlier with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive neuromuscular disease that affects the brain's ability to initiate and control muscle movement and, in later stages, can lead to paralysis. Luker has starred in revivals of "Show Boat," "The Sound Of Music" and "The Music Man" and is a three-time Tony nominee. Burstein won awards for his performances in revivals of "South Pacific," "Follies," "Fiddler On The Roof," is a six-time Tony nominee and won this year's Drama League Award for distinguished performance for his performance in "Moulin Rouge!"
There's no test for ALS, so how did you know you even had it?
BURSTEIN: It's basically a fallback diagnosis.
BURSTEIN: They test you for everything that they can test you for, and if everything else is negative, then they go, well, I guess you have ALS.
BURSTEIN: And it's that kind of thing. I mean, they tested her for everything.
LUKER: Yeah. It's amazing.
BURSTEIN: I mean, MS and...
LUKER: Toxins and...
BURSTEIN: Toxins, metals - on and on.
LUKER: You name it.
BURSTEIN: And several times because one doctor thought that this one meant the other doctor missed it. And then we got to work with doctors from Mass General and also Columbia Presbyterian, two of the greatest hospitals in the United States, and they have incredible ALS units. And the doctors there agreed, after looking at all the tests, that Becca had ALS. And it was - we found that out at the end of November, and that was - it was devastating, to say the least.
GROSS: Becca, how have you dealt emotionally with knowing that this is a progressive disease and that there is no cure? Have you wanted to know what the future might look like, or do you want to protect yourself from thinking about the future?
LUKER: Well, everyone has a different experience with this disease. Some people plateau. Some people - it just stops. You know, I'm hoping that I'm one of those people. I don't think about the future too much. I'm still convinced that I'm going to find a way to be better somehow.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
BURSTEIN: Yep, that's me knocking on wood.
LUKER: Yes, yes.
GROSS: I'm going to knock on for a mic (ph).
GROSS: That's the best I can do right now. Oh, here's some wood. I'll knock on that. There's a wooden chair. All right (laughter).
If you don't mind my asking - I think you have just such a beautiful voice. I love your singing so much. And I know it's hard for you just to have enough breath to talk right now. And as recently as June, there was a Zoom event for you, related to ALS and raising awareness about it, and you sung three songs in that and sounded gorgeous. So I can hear that, you know, in terms of your voice and the breath that you need for voice, that that's progressed. Are there songs that go through your mind now, even if you can't really sing them?
LUKER: Oh, yeah. And we listen to me sometimes, you know, recordings, and that's lovely. So, you know, I'm proud of what I've done.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, yeah. There's a type of...
GROSS: Should be. Gosh.
BURSTEIN: There's a type of immortality that we were talking about the other day that Becca's recordings give her, and she was expressing how proud she is of those recordings. So - and they are. They're glorious. They are.
GROSS: I agree, let's - why don't we pause and listen to one?
GROSS: So I'd like you, Becca, to choose one that you'd particularly like to hear, especially if it's a song that has special meaning for you now or that's taken on a new meaning for you.
LUKER: I was going to suggest "My White Knight."
GROSS: Say a few words about why you love this song, and then we'll hear it.
LUKER: Oh, I was just - well, I was just going to say that Danny's my white knight. So...
LUKER: So here's Rebecca Luker from the Broadway revival of "The Music Man" singing "My White Knight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WHITE KNIGHT")
LUKER: (As Marian, singing) My white knight, not a Lancelot, nor an angel with wings - just someone to love me who is not ashamed of a few nice things. My white knight, what my heart would say if it only knew how. Please, dear Venus, show me now. All I want is a plain man. All I want is a modest man, a quiet man, a gentle man, a straightforward and honest man to sit with me in a cottage somewhere in the state of Iowa. And I would like him to be more interested in me than he is in himself and more interested in us than in me. And if occasionally he'd ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great, him I could love till I die - him I could love till I die. My white knight, not a Lancelot, nor an angel with wings - just...
GROSS: That was Rebecca Luker singing "My White Knight" from the musical "The Music Man." And this is from a Broadway revival of the show. And that is such a beautiful recording and - grateful to have it.
LUKER: It was one of my favorite parts of the show.
GROSS: Yeah. I always think it must be so hard to have something that you're so gifted at that you can't do anymore.
LUKER: Right. Yeah, it's been hard.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, that's been especially hard on Becca (ph) and on all of us who know Rebecca and - but I will say that she - there are some days she has actually no voice at all. And then it comes back, and she fights hard and she, you know, perseveres. There are many different things that we have to mourn along the way. But we also - it also teaches us something and we adapt because it seems like every few weeks we're adapting to a new reality with this illness.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. My guests are two Broadway stars who have been married since 2000, Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE SHIMABUKURO'S "143 (KELLY'S SONG) ")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Broadway stars Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker. They've been married since 2000. He was one of the stars of "Moulin Rouge!" when it went dark in March because someone in the production was suspected of having COVID. Soon after, Burstein got a severe case of COVID. After he was released from the hospital, Rebecca Luker came down with a relatively mild case. But that was just months after she'd been diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control, which can make it increasingly difficult to move, speak or breathe.
Danny, do you think you have a better understanding of what it's like to have an illness because you had COVID and had such a bad case of it? Like, there might be a level of understanding of the sense of what it's like to feel dependent, what it's like to feel a loss of control.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, there is a loneliness to having an illness, and - but it's hard - I still can't imagine how difficult it is for someone with ALS because you're trapped inside your own body. Your mind is (laughter) soaring and free and wants to be happy and move your limbs. And - but unfortunately, you're - it becomes more and more claustrophobic for you. So it's been difficult to watch her go through it. But I understand part of the loneliness of having an illness and coming close to having to make peace with your own mortality and feeling that maybe this was enough and maybe this has to be enough and being proud of all that I have accomplished in my life thus far. And, you know, if one of us did pass away, you know, like, one of us, meaning anybody who's listening to this, you know, you hope that you feel like that you've lived a productive life and that you've given back and that you've done good things for other people.
GROSS: Becca, do you feel similarly?
LUKER: I really do. There are times when I think I've made peace with dying and then I - and at other times, I reject that very strongly because, you know, I just always thought I'd be an old lady. And so I still plan on that - being old.
GROSS: You know, everybody says it's very, very hard to be a patient, but it's also very hard to be a caregiver. And it can also when - in a couple when one person needs care and the spouse is the caregiver, it can be a very loving, tender thing. It can also create a lot of impatience with each other. And if you're comfortable talking about it, because so many people are going through or have gone through or will go through this kind of thing, if there's anything you're comfortable sharing about the tenderness and the pressures when somebody is sick and the spouse becomes the caregiver.
BURSTEIN: Well, I feel like I haven't really slept in seven or eight months (laughter).
BURSTEIN: I laugh, but I honest - I say that in all honesty. It's exhausting and not easy. And I've been helping to take care of Becca now for a year and a half since the onset of the illness. You know, having said that, of course, there are the beautiful things that this kind of a situation presents you with - the closeness, the friendship, the deep understanding, the trust. And it's a privilege. And I mean that, that it is a great, great privilege to share this time together. Having said that (laughter), it's exhausting.
BURSTEIN: It is exhausting. And sometimes we are at each other because, you know, we're still a normal married couple...
BURSTEIN: ...Just going through this kind of awful, bizarre situation. But, you know, we still, you know, bicker and...
BURSTEIN: And laugh and kiss and, you know, all the normal things that everybody else goes through. It's just that everything is heightened because of the situation, because of the illness and the sheer exhaustion of it all.
LUKER: As hard as this is for me, I sometimes think that Danny has the harder job. So that should tell you something.
LUKER: It's tough.
BURSTEIN: It is tough. You're constantly on the phone with...
BURSTEIN: ...With doctors, with OTs...
BURSTEIN: ...With PTs, with the reflexology, with insurance companies and, you know, your home health aid. And we're so grateful to everybody who has stepped up and helped us out.
LUKER: Yes, we are. You know who you are. We love you.
GROSS: My guests are Broadway stars Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein, who've been married for 20 years. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Broadway stars Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein, who've been married 20 years. He was starring in "Moulin Rouge!" when it went dark because of COVID. He came down with a severe case. Luker had a relatively mild case soon after, but she had been diagnosed just a few months earlier with the progressive disease ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, which interferes with the brain's ability to initiate movement and control muscles.
You both have received Tony nominations for your performances in musicals. Becca, it seems like you are just such a natural singer, I can't imagine - no one could learn to sing like you unless they had a gift that they just had, you know? And, Danny, you've said you never really thought of yourself as a singer and that you had to work at it, although I think you're a terrific singer. I've heard you in several musicals. But compare your approaches to how you developed into singers.
BURSTEIN: Well, Becca opens her mouth and her heart falls out.
BURSTEIN: It's just a gift that, you know, just...
BURSTEIN: It's just a gift, you know, that she had from birth. She opened her mouth and this beautiful sound came out. And I know she worked like crazy at it, but it's something that is innate in her, this beauty and goodness that comes out of her when she sings.
I never had that. So I had to concentrate on the lyric and putting the lyric over and storytelling more than anything, and that got me by. And I was a good enough musician to make it work. But that's how - I have to work twice as hard on a song, maybe 10 times as hard (laughter), and Becca will pick up - and she's also an amazing musician. So she'll pick up a song and be able to read it down, you know, and then just sing it. And I don't read music that well. I read some, and it takes me forever.
LUKER: But I learned a lot from Danny because he's such a great actor that it made me better over the years. Absolutely.
GROSS: Can you put your finger on something that you learned from him?
LUKER: Oh, just how to communicate a song. You know, I - when I was younger, I would really fall back on just the fact that I had a pretty voice, you know? So as I matured - and especially after I met Danny - he would help me, you know, make things work more, you know, mean more. I learned to act, act a song, as opposed to just sing it. It was really wonderful.
GROSS: Just a few months ago in June, when you had a little more breath, before the ALS had advanced to the point where it is now, you did a Zoom event to raise awareness about ALS, and you sang a Jerome Kern song called "Not You" that's also on your Jerome Kern album from - and I thought, since we're talking about your voice, that we might hear a little bit of that. And so if you could maybe compare for us the - what the song means in context - in the context of the show that it's from, but what the song - with what the song means personally to you now.
LUKER: Oh, I just think it's one of the most beautiful early Kern songs ever. Sondheim said he liked it, too, so that's good. What it means to me - I just think it's one of the most beautiful Kern ballads ever. And I forget how I discovered it. I think my musical director, Joseph Thalken, found it, and we just play around with it and found an arrangement. I just really - Kern just speaks to me so well, you know? I feel like it's - I was meant to sing Kern.
GROSS: And he's a kind of transitional figure, really, from, like, operetta to Broadway shows. And, like, you're kind of transitional in that sense, too, 'cause I'm sure you could sing opera, even though your career has been on Broadway.
LUKER: Yeah, I've sung a little opera. I'm definitely a crossover performer. I like singing many, many different styles. I enjoy that.
GROSS: So this is Rebecca Luker, recorded in June, singing the Jerome Kern song "Not You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT YOU")
LUKER: (Singing) I used to think that men were all the same and different only as to name. I used to think that sentiment was nothing more than accident and that things just were, that they had to occur and no one was to blame. But now I know that they are not the same, that love is somewhere in the game. There's a certain someone, and I'm anxious he should hear me. Who? You. Always has me worried and in trouble when he's near me. Who? You. Someone born to make all they know forlorn, raising wall where only a laugh should grow. But there's one I know, if he were near me now would cheer me. Who? Not you. I used to think...
GROSS: That was my guest, Rebecca Luker, recorded in June singing the Jerome Kern song "Not You." And in the months since then, her ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, has progressed. And at this point, Becca, you're saying you can't really sing anymore or you don't have enough breath or diaphragm support to do that...
GROSS: ...Sadly for you and for all of us who love your singing, like me.
LUKER: Thank you so much.
GROSS: So, you know, also with us is Danny Burstein, who is a six-time Tony nominee. Rebecca Luker's a three-time Tony nominee. And so, Danny, we've been saying that you got COVID shortly after "Moulin Rouge!" closed on Broadway because there was a suspected case of COVID that turned out to be a real case of COVID. And then you got it soon after. What are the odds that "Moulin Rouge!" will ever reopen? I mean, it seems like a really expensive, lavish musical. And, you know, Broadway, - financially, who knows what Broadway's future is going to be.
BURSTEIN: Yeah. It may take a while. I mean, they said in the most recent press release that we should be back June 1, but, you know, even that's - we're unsure of that.
GROSS: Yeah. No one's sure of anything right now when it comes to when will things reopen?
BURSTEIN: It's true. They're going to have to set up new protocols for theatergoing or think of new ways to get the shows out to people. There is a need - there is a desperate need for people to experience art again, for ideas and entertainment and that kind of energy that only happens from a live experience. There is a deep need for that, a human desire.
BURSTEIN: And we're going to try and figure out some way of making that happen. And as for "Moulin Rouge!" coming back, our producers are intrepid, and they are really in it for the long haul. And we will be back. I'm sure we will be one of the shows that will return.
BURSTEIN: It is expensive, but they are committed to keeping the show open. And one way or another, we will be back.
GROSS: OK. Well, good luck with the Tony nominations, and I will be thinking of you both. Thank you so much for this conversation and for sharing so much with us.
LUKER: Thank you.
BURSTEIN: Lovely talking to you, Terry.
GROSS: Our thanks to Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be filmmaker Craig Foster. His new documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," is about a year Foster spent diving off the coast of South Africa into a kelp forest. There, he gained the trust of a wild octopus that taught him about its life and Foster's own. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILL THERE WAS YOU")
LUKER: (Singing) There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing. No, I never heard them at all till there was you. There were birds in the sky, but I never saw them winging. No, I never saw them at all till there was you. And there was music and there were wonderful roses, they tell me, in sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew. There was love all around...
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