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For me it's important that I look beautiful so people can say, 'If that's cancer, it's not so terrible.' I want to show them that you don't have to be in remission to be alive.

-Laurie Beechman as quoted in The New York Times, 4/28/96

 

TALES OF A TROUPER
SHE'S BEEN AROUND B'WAY 20 YEARS - NOW SHE GETS HER OWN SHOW


Laurie Beechman was sitting at a table on the 65th floor of the GE Building in Rockefeller Center, sipping a white wine and thinking about the last two decades.

On Tuesday, she'll open there at Rainbow & Stars for two weeks, in a cabaret act with her friend Sam Harris.


In 20 years on and Off-Broadway, Laurie gives real meaning to the phrase "been there, done that ... got the T-shirt."

So, does one memory stand out? Well, there was that embarrassing night during her years playing Grizabella in the hit musical "Cats."

"There was a lot of time backstage in that show," remembers Beechman. "I got to do a lot of needlepoint, that's true. One night, I suddenly discovered that I'd sewed the needlepoint right to my costume had to go on with it hanging off my leg."

But if there was a lot of down time during that production, there wasn't a moment to breathe when she first opened on Broadway, at age 22, in not one, not two, not three or four, but five roles in the landmark musical "Annie." At 5-foot-2 (add maybe 3 inches with heels), black hair, big bug eyes, a big grin and an even bigger voice, she stood out in a show where she was cast, as she says, "with a bald man, a dog, seven kids and the talented and show-wise professional Dorothy Loudon."

She was a member of the chorus, and her roles included a stage-struck newcomer to New York, a parlor maid, a Depression-era down-and-outer living in a Hooverville, a radio entertainer and Frances Perkins, the only woman member of President Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet.

Of course, it helped that she also got to sing the hit number, "N.Y.C.," and had featured billing. "You know, I didn't even know what billing was at that time. I had just recently dropped out of NYU, where I was an acting major, and my only professional experience was touring with a band. And oh, yes, I was a singing waitress. One of two, at a little place in the Village.

"When I sang, nobody got waited on. So they didn't have me do it too often.

"I was cast for 'Annie' in summer stock, up at the Goodspeed Opera House, in 1975. When it ended up there and looked like it might be able to transfer to Broadway, and Mike Nichols signed on as producer, the cast would go off to various parties and sing the music for people to raise money for the production.

"I remember Charlie Strouse, our composer, would play the music, the rest of us would sing and Tom Meehan, who wrote the book, would be sitting off in a corner chewing his nails."

But they raised the money, the show opened and the rest is history. The New Jersey native stayed with the show two years, then left to work with her own band, Laurie and the Sighs. Made an album, went on tour, but the album didn't work, the tour was canceled, and she was walking the streets again, looking for work.

She was cast in "Pirates of Penzance," with Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline and Rex Smith, when it moved to Broadway from Central Park, for all of about six hours. She'd been asked to replace an actress who'd been injured but the director had already hired someone else, and she was out in the cold again. Not for long, however. She was called again to work as a multiple understudy to go on if anyone of the maids in the show got sick, or took a day off.

"I spent six months standing backstage, waiting to go on. Best thing about that show was watching Kevin Kline. He was so wonderful. Every night, he'd do a little sword fight with the conductor he'd use his sword, the conductor his baton. And Kevin would try to make it a little different each night. He and Rex they used to say they'd swash till they buckled.

"Treat Williams replaced Kevin in that role, and Treat and I worked together in the movie 'Hair.' There was an all-black choir in that one, except for me. I'd stand next to Nell Carter. I remember I used to try to outsing her. Nobody could, but I tried."

After that, Beechman auditioned for the role of the narrator in the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." It was a role that had been written for a man, but she was cast in it just the same, and she worked in it for years again with kids and animals. She was in it when it opened Off-Broadway, moved to Broadway with it, toured with it and still remembers it fondly.

She moved from that to the touring company of "Cats," then came to Broadway in the role of Grizabella, replacing Betty Buckley who had won a Tony for the part, and singing the hit number, "Memory."

Grizabella is the cat who's nearing the end of her way. She gets to be lifted up to the roof in the huge tire "and you can't escape," Beechman says. "What do you do when the tire doesn't rise all the way to the top? I'll tell you what you do you scrunch down and hope the audience thinks you've taken off exactly the way you should.

She was next cast as Fantine in "Les Miz," in 1989. She remembers it well. It was the year she discovered she had ovarian cancer, for which she was operated on. It was in remission for several years, but it flared up again last year, and she was being treated for it even while she was working. . .

[In 1992,] she was working at Radio City with Michael Crawford, singing the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber. "It was quite an experience," she says. "Michael Crawford never spoke to me once during the whole show. First I was hired, then I was let go, then I was hired again because Andrew decided he wanted two singers. It was a very odd situation, because I would do my numbers, then I would go off, and never be seen again. I didn't even get a curtain call.

"But I did get a chance to sing solos at Radio City Music Hall. That's something."



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