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Rita Gardner, Original Luisa in The Fantasticks, Dies at 87

Gardner's multi-decade Broadway career also included turns in 1776 and The Wedding Singer.

Rita Gardner and Jerry Orbach in the original production of The Fantasticks
(© Friedman-Abeles Collection/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Rita Gardner, originator of the role of Luisa in the long-running off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks died Saturday, September 24 at the age of 87 from leukemia.

Gardner made her stage debut in the Jerry Herman musical revue Nightcap, before landing her role, also known as "The Girl," in the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical in 1960. The Fantasticks ran in the now-defunct Sullivan Street Playhouse for 42 years; Gardner remained with the show until 1962, when she made her Broadway debut in A Family Affair.

In the ensuing years, she would appear in Pal Joey, The Cradle Will Rock, Ben Franklin in Paris, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, 1776, Steel Magnolias, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Morning's at Seven, The Foreigner, and The Wedding Singer, playing the rapping grandma Rosie. That 2006 production was her final of nine Broadway credits.

Gardner also taught acting at HB Studio. She is survived by her husband, Robert Sevra.


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