A Collision of her roles in life,
Laurie Beechman takes what she sings to heart, so it isn't surprising
that she finds particular meaning in the songs of Les Miserables
and Cats, the shows that frame her eight-year battle with cancer.
When the Philadelphia native learned in 1989 that she had ovarian
cancer, she was rehearsing to play the tragic Fantine in the Philadelphia
engagement of the national tour of Les Miserables. Fantine's
big song is "I Dreamed a Dream" and Beechman said, "It was spooky singing
'Life has killed the dream I dreamed. . . I had a dream my life would
be so different from the hell I'm living" at exactly the time she received
such life-affecting news.
Now Beechman has returned to the Broadway production of Cats-
which tonight becomes the longest running show in Broadway history-
and to the featured role of Grizabella, an outcast cat ill-used by life
but redeemed at show's end.
"I don't think there is any role in a Broadway musical that could
fulfill me at this time like Grizabella can," Beechman said. "It says
everything- it's the way she looks, it's who she is, it's what she wants.
She's finally understood and accepted for what she is."
Grizabella's song is the Cats show-stopper, the affecting,
can't-get-it-out-of-your-head tune, "Memory/" It pretty much expresses
how she feels, Beechman said, "to be intact at this point in my life
and to be singing 'If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness
is./ Look a new day has begun."
If Beechman's first association with Les Miserables has unpleasant
connotations, her most recent appearance in the show proved to her and
to others that she is capable of taking on a demanding musical role.
She was asked to reprise Fantine in Les Miserables at the
end of last year along with another Philadelphia native, Andrea McArdle,
and McArdle's 8-year-old daughter. The aim of the hometown casting
may be to boost the show's appeal to Philadelphia audiences, but to
Beechman the invitation was a god-send. Since a second cancer
operation in 1994, she had not appeared in a musical.
"For me personally it was a triumph," she said of doing the Philadelphia
Les Miz. "I never felt I'd be in a show again. I
thought people wouldn't hire me."
Beechman, 43, was born in Philadelphia and raised in Westmont. Her
mother- Dolly Beechman Schnall, who now lives in Wyndmoor- was active
in community theater, and as a child Beechman performed at Haddonfield
Plays & Players and Philadelphia Music Crafters.
She and her two sisters also sang at home with their father, Eugene
Beechman. A trained singer, Beechman was for years the proprietor
of Gino's Restaurant on Walnut Street and was famous for serenading
the customers with show tunes and arias.
She majored in performing arts at New York University, spent a while
singing with rock bands, then auditioned and got a part- actually several
small parts- in the original production of Annie. The show
previewed at the Good Speed Opera House in Connecticut, and it was there
she met McArdle, the musical's 11-year-old star. Both made their
Broadway debuts when the show moved to New York.
Beechman performed in the Broadway production of The Pirates of
Penzance, then became the first woman to be cast as the Narrator
in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor
Dreamcoat, a role that won her a Tony nomination. That engagement
also brought her to the attention of Webber's producing organization,
and in 1982 Beechman was cast as Grizabella in the first touring company
of Cats. After four months, she was put into the Broadway
production where she stayed until 1988.
Beechman sang Fantine in Les Miz for six months in 1990, after
she was diagnosed with cancer. In 1991 she came to Philadelphia
to play her first nonsinging stage role in a Walnut Street Theatre production
of The Show-Off. She had to drop out when her cancer reappeared;
she had major surgery and underwent a year of chemotherapy.
During that period she began dating Neil Mazzella, a theatrical-scene
builder, with whom she had been acquainted for several years, and they
wed in October 1992. "My marriage to Neil has prolonged my life,"
Beechman said. "Things are much, much easier with him. . . He's
not afraid, and that gives me courage."
After nearly four cancer-free years, Beechman suffered a relapse in
1994. She had additional surgery and is now taking chemotherapy
pills every month.
Professionally, the last year has been a good one. Her fifth
album, No One Is Alone, was released in October and is selling
well. Beechman said she recorded the album- a selection of songs
from musicals with an inspirational tone ("Climb Every Mountain," "If
You Believe," "You'll Never Walk Alone")- "as much to make myself feel
optimistic, to keep myself moving forward, as to say to other people,
'You know, this is a really important way to look at life.'"
In December, she appeared here in Les Miz. So when the
Grizabella in the Broadway production wanted time off, Beechman felt
ready to fill in for several months. According to Gerald Schoenfeld,
chairman of the Shubert Organization (a producer of Cats), the
show was glad to have her. "We're very fond of Laurie," says Schoenfeld.
He pointed out that Beechman has played Grizabella longer on Broadway
than any other performer.
In January, Beechman closed President Clinton's Second Inaugural Gala
singing "You'll Never Walk Alone." She then introduced the President
to the audience. He came onstage, hugged her and whispered, "I'm
proud of you for so many reasons."
She has also found satisfaction this year helping to boost the spirits
and finances of other cancer patients. At the end of march she
came to Philadelphia to put on a benefit show, composed primarily of
inspirational songs from No One Is Alone, for local actor Doug
Wing, who had cancer surgery in January. Last month she spoke at a gathering
of cancer patients in Charlotte, N.C., where she gave a humorous talk
about the various reactions people have had to her illness. It
was so well-received that she is thinking about turning it into a one-person
show. "This was the first time," she said, "I got a standing ovation
But Beechman acknowledged that her eight-year fight with cancer sometimes
leaves her dispirited. "Just this past week it's been heavily
on my mind," she admitted, during an interview in her Cats dressing
room. "I was losing my perspective about it. I was feeling
cheated, that it was terribly unfair, that. . . I had this talent, this
God-given thing, and hadn't been able to fully use it."
Beechman said she was expressing these feelings to her stepfather,
Dr. Nathan Schnall. "He said to me, 'Laurie, I think you should kiss
those pills. . . It's not fair that you got cancer, but that you're
able to live with cancer is more than fair.'"
At her next treatment, Beechman said, "I did kiss those pills."
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