Actress Rita Gardner, who originated the role of Luisa in The Fantasticks, has passed away from leukemia. She was 87.
Known for her multifaceted soprano, Ms. Gardner made her stage debut in the Jerry Herman revue Nightcap before originating the role that would make become her trademark, Luisa in The Fantasticks. The allegorical musical ran Off-Broadway for a record-shattering 42 years, making it the world's longest-running musical.
Ms. Gardner remained with the production for two years before making her Broadway debut in the short lived A Family Affair, which was quickly followed by the 1963 revival of Pal Joey, and the musical Ben Franklin in Paris. She became an in-demand understudy throughout the late 1960s, including in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and she understudied Estelle Parsons and Piper Laurie in the 2002 revival of Morning's At Seven.
Off-Broadway, Ms. Gardner appeared in The Cradle Will Rock, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Steel Magnolias, Wings, and The Foreigner.
Her final Broadway performance was in 2006 as Rosie in The Wedding Singer.
Regionally, Ms. Gardner performed in Show Boat and The Impossible Years at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, the musical Lucky in the Rain at the Goodspeed Opera House, and Eleanor: A Love Story at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Nationally, Ms. Gardner toured with the musicals Taking My Turn and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
In 2002, Ms. Gardner presented a one-woman revue called Try to Remember: A Look Back at Off-Broadway. Combining her memories alongside the ballads from The Fantasticks, the revue was scheduled to be revived in 2020 before being cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On screen, Ms. Gardner appeared on Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. She taught acting at HB Studio, where she had originally been a student, and was a guest teacher at numerous colleges and universities.