Teaching with a French song in her heart

June 24, 1999
By Marc Schogol

Chanteuse Claudia Beechman would love to spend a year in Provence.

But she can't, because language teacher Claudia Cohen will be spending the year at Keith Valley Middle School.

Beechman and Cohen are very close. In fact, they're one and the same. You could call them the two faces of Claudia.

As Claudia Beechman, she appears regularly at such cabarets as New Hope's Chez Odette, where she performs the classic torch songs of Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and other French chanteuses and chanteurs.

As Claudia Cohen, she appears every September through June in Montgomery County's Hatboro-Horsham School District, where she teaches French to adolescents who would not know Piaf and Brel from peanut brittle.

Beechman, the sister of Broadway star Laurie Beechman, who died of ovarian cancer last year, often wonders what might have been if she had pursued her musical career full time.

Like her sister, Beechman has been on the musical-theater stage, having starred in a Canadian production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

But she loves her family and, even though she just left for a few weeks in Provence (not as good as a year, but the best she can do), she says there is no place like home.

Like Piaf, whose music Beechman fell in love with when she was 5 years old, Cohen non elle ne regrette rien.

She regrets nothing.

Because she will always have Paris.

She went to acting school there in 1972, after graduating from Rutgers University. She loved Paris, and she loved the acting school.

"A famous French actress ran it," Beechman said. "It was really hard -- harder than I imagined.

"But they treated me so nicely. I think if I'd stayed, I probably could have made some kind of career for myself. But I'm very close to my family -- I missed my family very much. So I came back."

She was not entirely sure what she was coming back to. At Rutgers, she had not chosen a major until her junior year, when she decided to get her certification as a language teacher.

To sing in French, or to teach French -- "I was kind of confused for a long time."

Eventually, she split the difference -- and her professional personality.

"I went to the Headhouse Tavern one night and someone was playing guitar there in the corner. I thought to myself, 'I could do that.' "

She taught herself to play guitar, and soon was singing "Suzanne" in coffeehouses and "getting a lot of publicity in Philadelphia."

At the same time, she began teaching, first in the Philadelphia school system and then eventually in Hatboro-Horsham.

Along the way, she married, had two sons (now 15 and 18), took her husband's name for her teaching career and continued using her maiden name for her music.

So it was Claudia Beechman who recently headlined at "A Cabaret Evening" held by the Sisterhood of Beth Sholom temple in Elkins Park.

A few days later, it was Mrs. Cohen who was patiently teaching tongue-tied eighth graders how to say their phone numbers in Francaise.

When one girl mispronounced the number five, Beechman/Cohen said: "It's just like the boat Titanic -- it sank."

When several boys in the grip of early onset testosterone surges began goofing around, Beechman/Cohen sharply -- and ironically -- admonished them to "watch your language!"

Which they immediately did.

"She's a very gifted, talented lady," Keith Valley Middle School principal Christine Coleman said.

"She's able to translate her talents in the French curriculum. She's very well-versed in a lot of popular French songs. On occasion, she's even brought her guitar in and sung to the classes. It's a . . . meeting of the twain of the French language and the international language of music."

On that note, Bob Egan of Bob Egan Entertainment said Beechman was "a sweetheart." Egan, who books the entertainment for Chez Odette and other nightspots in the area, said that although there were several singers who performed the same kind of material Beechman offerred, "she's one of the better ones who does the whole French program -- Piaf and the others."

Wherever Beechman appears, Egan said, a hard-core group of 60 to 70 loyal fans is sure to go.

"Claudia always makes mention of her sister," Egan said. "We're all very touched by it. [ Laurie Beechman ] was incredible, and they were very close."

Laurie Beechman had starred in Annie, Cats, Pirates of Penzance, Funny Girl, Les Miserables and, in a Tony Award-nominated performance, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

She also recorded four solo albums. On her last, the sisters performed a duet of Brel's "If We Only Have Love."

Of all the memories of her beloved sister, Claudia Beechman especially treasures that one. "I feel her spirit is guiding me. She used to say, 'Keep doing what you're doing,' she encouraged me a lot."

In 1994, her sister said, "Claudia, it's really about time you recorded." So she did, making a CD called Souvenirs of Paris, on which she performs 13 of her favorite cabaret songs.

Although it is a solo CD, it is very much an ensemble performance. Her entire family backs her up: her father, an operatic baritone who gave singing lessons to Mario Lanza; her mother, who gave acting lessons in the basement of their home; and, of course, her sister. "Laurie and I inherited the pipes," Beechman said.

That was apparent at Beth Sholom, where, if the audience was not transported to France, Beechman certainly seemed to have been.

"Sometimes I wish, 'If I lived in Paris, oh, I would be in Paris and it would be so exciting!' " she said.

"But I guess I just need the certainty and structure and routine of teaching. I'm forced to come out of myself. It's another way of giving of yourself."

Besides, she said, "I'd have to decide if I wanted to quit my day job. It's a really nice day job. I really love the kids."

Which is why she'll remain Claudia Cohen during the school year and Claudia Beechman at nights and on weekends.

"So far, it's worked out," she said. "I try to just take one thing at a time."

1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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