In Front of and Behind the Curtain
IT was 9 P.M. on a Saturday midway into a performance of the musical
"Big" in Detroit. Part of the scenery, a huge house, which was meant
to pivot, got jammed. "Call Neil at home," the producer shouted. "Quickly."
Neil is Neil Mazzella, a Broadway set builder who has made sets for
"Cats," "Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" and "Victor/Victoria."
"I asked if a certain piece had been properly connected to its drive
machinery," he said. "It hadn't." With a calm that must get him through
many a frenzied moment backstage he said, "We fixed it by phone."
Mr. Mazzella's success (he is the founder of Hudson Scenic Studio,
the largest custom scenic supplier in New York) is the result of the
kind of person he is, said his wife, the actress and entertainer Laurie
Beechman. "Neil wants to protect the production always," she said. "People
feel secure when he's around."
Under his guidance, scenic artists, metal workers, graphic artists
and carpenters make scenery in his 50,000-foot studio in the Bronx.
Mr. Mazzella, a graduate of the Yale Graduate School of Drama specializing
in technology, said: "We develop highly sophisticated, computerized
systems to move scenery, work lights and sound. Backstage is no longer
an Old World industry."
One of his latest projects, the New York production of "Big," opening
on Broadway tonight, includes an interior of the Fifth Avenue toy store
F. A. O. Schwarz. As the lead performer dances on a 40-foot-long set
of piano keys, they light up with each step -- computer controlled by
light boxes. A three-tiered birthday cake comes out of the floor on
an elevator and telescopes up to 12 feet.
Backstage met front stage when Mr. Mazzella was overseeing the mechanical
flow of his sets for "Cats" 12 years ago. Ms. Beechman was playing Grizabella.
They married in 1992. Since her Broadway debut in 1977 in "Annie," Ms.
Beechman has sung her way through the leads in many Broadway productions,
including "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Les Miserables."
She has four solo recordings, performs in concert and in cabaret. "I
only sing songs that reflect my optimism and the positive way I look
at things," Ms. Beechman said.
Mr. Mazzella put on Ms. Beechman's new recording, "No One Is Alone,"
which will be released in September. Tucking his shoulder-length hair
behind his ears, which revealed a tiny earring, he played his favorite
of Ms. Beechman's songs, "I Am Changing" from "Dream Girls." As her
voice filled the kitchen and living room with the lyrics, "It's gonna
work out fine," "No one's gonna stop me now" and "Yes, I know how,"
she put her arms around her husband. "Laurie is getting an award from
the Leukemia Society for her support and courage," Mr. Mazzella said.
"She does an enormous amount of benefits."
She was asked about her courage, and after a moment said: "I am a
seven-year cancer survivor. I have ovarian cancer. I'm mentioning it
because this is part of who we are as a couple, but I don't want this
to be just a cancer article."
Her choice of music, the uplifting lyrics, suddenly took on a deeper
meaning. "My new album is about hope and courage," she said. With two
major surgeries, many years of different chemotherapy medications, a
three-and-a-half-year remission and now a new course of chemotherapy,
she wants people to know, she said, of the active life she is leading
despite some down days when the medication may drain her energy or make
her feel ill.
"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. During the whole time I have had
cancer, I have fallen in love, gotten married, appeared on Broadway,
done concerts and recorded three albums. My life didn't stop. I'm doing
better work than I ever did."
In addition to a one-woman show, "Songs With a View: The Laurie Beechman
Show," performed recently in Philadelphia where she sings and tells
funny stories about her career, she has created a nightclub singing
act with two Broadway friends called "Absolutely Thrown Together." Mr.
Mazzella tries to attend all of them. Ms. Beechman said, "I kissed a
lot of frogs, and I got my prince."
Among the many benefits they do together -- he supplies the scenery,
she sings -- they will appear at one of a series of Celebrity Salons
in support of Westchester Community College in Valhalla next Sunday.
In the intimacy of a private home in Scarsdale, they will talk about
the fun and frustrations behind the scenes of a Broadway production.
Tickets are $50 a person. The number to call for reservations is 785-6670.
"We're living a life other people read about -- show business," Mr.
Mazzella said as he pushed chairs back into place after a photography
session. "I have no complaints."
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