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I know it sounds trite, but I'm more connected to my feelings. After all, over the past few years, I've had an in-your-face existence. There's less artifice in what I do and I can bring myself to the work more totally--not as an escape--but as an affirmation of being alive!

-Laurie Beechman, as quoted in TheaterWeek, 1995

 

Laurie Beechman Sings for Life


"I've said 'Why me? Why me?' But it is me." Singer Laurie Beechman is talking about her battle with ovarian cancer.

But after seven years with the deadly disease, her vision has changed. To coin a phrase, she's able to live with it. More important, she can now draw subtle distinctions between the disease and her identity. "It has become part of who I am. But it's not me."

She adds that cancer may help shape her day-to-day existence, "surviving with the disease and doing what I have to do to go on."--but it does not define who she is.

For the 42-year-old Beechman, dealing with cancer has essentially become, she insists, "a matter of re-scheduling.

"I know that one day a month [from February through the fall], I go in for chemotherapy, and the next few days I'm not up to much. But the rest of the time I continue to do what I was put here to do--sing and perform."

Best known for her award-winning performance in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and Grizabella in "Cats," Beechman is now in her third bout with the malignancy. During her two previous remissions, and each was over three years, she appeared on Broadway in "Les Miserables" and in "Cats" (for the tenth anniversary); in Philadelphia, she starred ub her first non-singing role in a revival of George Kelly's "The Show Off," and played Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" at the Sacramento Music Circus.

She also co-starred with Michael Crawford at Radio City Music Hall in "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber." She has given dozens of solo concerts internationally--has always enjoyed an impressive following on the cabaret circuit--and recently released "The Andrew Lloyd Webber Album" which is selling brickly. She is a mezzo-soprano with a belting style.

"And on October 23, I will be entertainment--Andrew Lloyd Webber selected me--singing three of his songs at Magaret Thatcher's 70th birthday party at Union Station in Washington, D.C." Abruptly, Beechman is doing a riff on upper-crust British speech. "The Clintons will be there and so will the Reagans. Black tie. Black tie. Black tie." After a moment, "This really is an honor, since I will be the only one performing. Barbara Walters is the scheduled emcee."

But that's not all. In addition to her professional accomplishments, Beechman for married three years ago and she is currently planning a Broadway-bound, one-woman show featuring her favorite songs. It is provisionally slated for a limited engagement this fall under the direction of Richard J. Alexander, exective director of Cameron Macintosh Inc.

"I used to have an inner debate with myself," Beechman reflects, "Am I in denial about my disease? Or am I just an optimist? I now believe I'm an optimist. Miracles can happen!"

This is a deeply held conviction, she maintains. And it is that positive image that she is determined to convey. Indeed, she sets up, in a firm but likeable way, precise groundrules for the interview--"I don't want to talk about the size of tumors or the agony of hair loss because of chemo"--and she is equally gung-ho about the story she wants to read in TheaterWeek.

"I want to be able to recognize me. In a story about me appearing in a national magazine, the editor took out something I said because she felt--and she wrote this in the margin of the copy--it was 'too perky.'"

Beechman is keenly aware that the picture of herself that she wants to emerge may be at odds with what readers expect to hear, or even fully believe. But that, she makes clear, is not her problem.

When Beechman agreed to appear on the Donahue Show last February in a free-wheling discusson of ovarian cancer, her demand was that she be allowed to sing. And she did, several times.

This is a difficult story to write. Striking the right tone for the interview was none too easy, either. There was the danger, at least I felt if, of sounding too somber on the one hand, or perhaps, worse, too jolly--as a smoke screen for my own fears and ambivalent feelings.

Like many people with serious illness, Beechman admits, she spends a lot of time reassuring others, making everyone feel it's okay to be at ease.

She is extremely matter-of-fact, and within short order it becomes obvious that this will be a comfortable interview.

I meet with the Philadelphia native--who looks robust--at a midtown restaurant where she packs away a solid lunch.

"I eat. I party. I'm even able to make love, " she quips. Her comic sensiblity, which has always been evident in her cabaret act, has not eluded her.

Still, the larger journalistic questions remain: What is this about? Why is it being told at all? What can be said? What are readers really hearing? And isn't there something potentially expoitative in the whole thing?

"Yes, there's the possibility of appealing to prurient tastes and sensationalism," Beechman concurs.

She admits none of these issues is simple. Nor was her decision to go public with the disease. Despite the cultural zeitgeist which cries out for personal confession and revelations, preferably on nationally televised programs, Beechman admits there was a lot of soul searching involved.

"My husband [set builder Neil Mazzella] and I really talked about this. We understood that suddenly we might have issues thrown back in our faces that we don't want to deal with. When you go public, you are concerned with how people are going to perceive you." In the theatre, that translates into would there be less work?

"When I was first diagnosed, I was not open about my health," Beechman recalls, adding, "not that I went out of my way to conceal it. The people I was working with at the time, or course, knew.

"I was performing in Henry Krieger and the late Tom Eyen's "Dangerous Music" at the Jupiter Theatre in Florida and really feeling exhausted," she recalls. "But I attributed that to the amount of physical exertion I expended in the play, including a rape scene where I was thrown around the stage."

Shortly thereafter, Beechman was performing in "Les Miz" in Philadelphia. The exhaustion was now accompanied by stomach pain. Apparently, Beechman reports, that's not an unusual pattern for women with ovarian cancr, which has usually metastatized at that point. A visit to her doctor uncovered an abdominal tumor. Exploratory surgery followed and ovarian cancer, Stage 3, was discovered. Stae 4 is terminal. There is no history of ovarian cancer in Beechman's family.

The doctors were not able to remove all of the tumor, but felt certain Beechman recalls, that chemotherapy would take care of the rest.

"At that point, I really didn't understand the course of the disease."

Still, that was seven years ago.

Although most people in the theatre community have known about Beechman's condition, it was not until her third bout with the cancer that she decided to come out, as it were.

"I know you're supposed to say 'I did it to help others with the same problem,'" Beechman acknowledges the cliche. "But I did it to help myself. It was my way of saying, this is who I am and I want to be accepted on my terms. Look, I had already lived with this for seven years.

"There's also so much misconception about this disease. On the basis of what you see on television and read in magazines, you'd think we were all scrawny skeletons with shrunken cheeks. It's so unfair. The fact is, most people with cancer are living just like me."

When I wonder aloud--yes, it's cynical--if these public appearances on the "Donahue Show" have, in fact, been a career booster, Beechman responds: "I certainly don't want to be famous for an illness. And while I haven't lost any jobs because of it--at least, I don't think I have--I certainly haven't gotten any either. It's possible, however, that those who might have given me a singing engagement and then changed their minds because of my illness, perhaps changed their minds again after they saw me and realized I was just fine and able to fo the work."

Beechman stresses the power brokers in the theatre community have been particularly supportive and enlightened in their attitudes. She singles out the Shubert organization and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company. After each of her cancer bouts, they've consistently said to her, she reports "'Whenever you're up to it, come back to work.'"

Still, there are moments, she admits, when she feels isolated within the theatre community: Beechman is specifically talking about fund-raising efforts on behalf of AIDS. She is very cautious in her comments.

"I'm not resentful at all, and I have always contributed to AIDS efforts. But," she pauses," there are times, especially when I'm sitting in the lobby of a theatre asking people for money on behalf of AIDS, that I feel alone. I'd like to see the theatre community doing more on behalf of cancer as well as women's health issues in general."

And there are other sticking points, Beechman has to contend with among some of the theatre community who believe you necessarily create your own destiny, consciously or unconsciously, but with the right attitude you can turn it around. It's an all too familiar and repellant viewpoint to Beechman.

"No one can say I haven't had the right fighting attitude. Throughout my life, I've kept going, audition after audition, with plenty of rejection, and still came back again. There is nothing in me that has contributed to this.

"There's a well-known woman in the theatre community who said to me when her sister got breast cancer, 'It's not surprising. She's so depressed. It will never happen to me because I'm aggressive. I let my feelings out.' Some time later, this same woman ended up with a double mastectomy."

Beechman insists she believes in God. "That doesn't mean I think everything has a purpose or meaning. Whatever learning I'm supposed to have achieved as a result of my illness--and I think I've learned a few things about myself, I've learned enough. There's nothing more I need to learn, thanks to my illness. For me, God is a comforting, positive force. When things go well, I thank God."

Asked if the disease has made her reevaluate her ambitions, she remarks thoughfully: "In some ways, I'm more ambitious, but I suffer less, meaning I'm more aggressive about my ideas and more willing to take risks.

"An example: I wanted to meet record producer Bruce Kimmel because I was eager to make an album with him. At one time I mght not have said to my agent, 'Let's set up a meeting,' as rapidly as I did this time. I might have been more self-effacing and timid."

Her meeting with Kimmel led to her Andrew Lloyd Webber album.

Beechman makes the significant point that her disease has also profoundly affected her artistry as a singer/actress.

"I know it sounds trite, but I'm more connected to my feelings. After all, over the past few years, I've had an in-your-face existence. There's less artifice in what I do and I can bring myself to the work more totally--not as an escape--but as an affirmation of being alive!"

Show biz was in Beechman's blood from the outset. After all, her late father, a Philadelphia restauranter, was also a semi-professional opera singer who liked to sing to his customers as they ate dinner.

Beechman's mother, Dolly Beechman-Schnall, was a professor of theatre at Penn State and the author of a well known play, "Sojourner Truth," based on the life of the black civil was feminist and evangelist. The play has been performed in regional theatres nationwide.

After attending NYU School of Arts for two years, where she majored in acting, Beechman joined a small touring band as a singer.

Early on, in the mid-70s, she encountered composer Cy Coleman, her first major break. When he heard a tape of her voice, he invited her to be a soloist in a concert of his music at Hunter College.

Beechman launched her Broadway career in "Annie." She looks back at her audition for that musical almost nostalgically.

"I was so naive," she laughs. "The song I chose for the audition was, 'I Was a Witness to War.' It was a serious anti-war song, and couldn't have been more inappropriate for a comic strip musical. On the other hand, director Martin Charnin was a '60s activist and at the time of the audition, dating Mary Travers [of Peter, Paul, and Mary]. But I didn't know that," she stresses. Whether or not the choice of material spoke to his political sensibility is moot. The fact is, Beechman was hired on the spot.

By the time Beechman was 21, she was starring on Broadway in "Annie."

From there, she moved on to "The Pirates of Penzance" with Kevin Kline, initially as swing ("I'd sit behind a scrim, singing and doing needlepoint"), and later as Kate, a featured role.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" was the next step in Beechman's climb up the career ladder.

Interestingly her role as narrator had orignally been written for a man and previously played by an actor. "But Andrew [Lloyd Webber] gave me his blessing."

She recalls her first impression of the famed British composer. "He was polite, quiet, low-keyed, but always encouraging and very kind to me."

"Joseph" garnered Beechman a 1982 Tony nomination, a Drama Desk nomination, and a Theatre Award for Best Newcomer. "In my acceptance speech, I said 'Its taken me a long time to be a newcomer!'"

In fact, Beechmn has had very few stumbling blocks in her professional life. For 13 years, from 1975-1988, she performed steadily.

"I was successful very early," she muses. "On the other hand--I think if success had come later, I would have appreciated it more."

In addition to her Broadway roles and on going cabaret appearances, Beechman was on the cast albums of "Joseph" and "Pirates." She also recorded her own album of rock music, "Laurie and the Sighs."

"In 1981, rock was the only popular music women could record unless they were superstars. Radio stations would not play many female vocalists singing the kind of pop tunes Barbra Streisand or Whitney Houston could perform.

"'We already have a seventh woman on rotation,' the D.J.s would say. They'd never say 'We have too many men,' only 'too many women.' They don't do that now."

It wasof course, with "Cats," in the starring role of the bealeagured Grizabella, and her heart-tugging rendition of "Memories," with which Beechman is still most identified. And it was a role she desperately wanted.

"When I met with ["Cats"] director Trevor Nunn, he said I had too much youthful exuberance to play Grizabella in the original Broadway company. Instead, I opened the first national tour [1983] and won the Boston Critics Circle Award. And after Betty [Buckley] left the Broadway show, I got first refusal.

"It was four monthsinto the tour and a year after Trevor said I had too much youthful exuberance. I guess he felt in the 12 months that had passed I had lost it." A sly grin. "I had 48 hours to make up my mind. I said 'Yes' in four seconds." Beechman starred in "Cats" from April 1984 to October 1988.

Because of her illness, Beechman has not enjoyed an extended stay on Broadway since 1988 and on occasion misses it sorely. "The discipline of doing eight shows a week and the comraderie..." She pauses. "But I've been out of the loop so long, I don't even know a lot of the new directors." At the moment, Beechman's thoughts are most focused on her upcoming one-woman show. Although no contracts have been signed yet, Beechman has a lot of heavy-hitters in her corner.

Says Phil Smith, execcutive vice-president of the Shubert Group: "audiences will have a warm, lovely experience at her show. Laurie is a terrific and beautiful person and that will come through in her performance."

Adds Richard J. Alexander: "Laurie's singing voice is remarkable. There are no breaks. And as a performer she's full of surprises. She's funny! I am convinced that audiences will walk out of the theatre with goose bumps!"

For Beechman, of course, the planned production has personal significance way beyond artistic and career triumph.

"When I am singing, I'm alive!"



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