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My life has been so unbelievably blessed in spite of everything and maybe because of it. I got married after two bouts of cancer. I have this whole different life and a career. I'm really like everybody else.

-Laurie Beechman, as quoted in The New York Times, 1994

 
The Ballad of Laurie Beechman
Battling Cancer, a Broadway Veteran Raises Her Spirits in Song


White Plains, N.Y.

From the moment she strode center stage 20 years ago as one of the supporting players in the original production of "Annie"- ambition blazing in her eyes- and blasted out "NYC," Laurie Beechman has been known as a "big voice."

She didn't need a body mike to blister the paint off the back wall of a theater. Body mikes were for the ill-trained or the ill-endowed, and Beechman came by her astonishing vocal power naturally. In interviews, she told reporters, "I worship at the altar of Ethel Merman," although her pixielike appearance and sunburst eyes usually prompted comparisons with Liza Minnelli.

Soon after, Beechman was playing the narrator in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" on Broadway. And not too long after that, she had taken over the lead role of Grizabella in "cats" and was sending the plaintive "Memory" through the rafters and beyond.

Beechman's voice still packs a wallop these days, but there's more to it than youthful vibrato. The clarion vibrancy has been replaced by something deeper, smokier and richer. Hers is now an adult voice. A wise voice. A voice of hard-won hope hope rising aboove life's pain.

For the past eight years, Beechman has been battling ovarian cancer. She has had three operations and undergone massive courses of chemotherapy. She has lost her hair several times. On occasion, doctors have pronounced her "cancer-free" only to have the malignancy recur and the arduous fight begin all over again.

"My body has this weird relationship with the cancer," she says. "It doesn't kill me, but I can't ignore it. It's part of who I am. I'm lucky, though. I've survived long enough to reap a kind of knowledge about life that, in a way, I'm too young to have. Maybe I would have figured things out when I was 70. I had to start when I was 35.

Beechman is now 43, and much of her odyssey is reflected in her newest CD, "No One Is Alone," which was released last month by Varese Sarabande. Subtitled "songs of Hope and Inspiration From Broadway," it consists of 14 numbers that include the title song (from "Into the Woods"), "Being Alive" ("Company"), "If We Only Had Love" ("Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"), "If You Believe" ("The Wiz"), and "Make Our Garden Grow" ("Candide").

Beechman makes them all intensely personal. If some performers sing for their supper, it is no exaggeration to say that she is singing for her life these days. Even such overworked spirit-lifters as "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" ("The Sound of Muisc") and "You'll Never Walk Alone" ("Carousel") become, in her interpretations, potent declarations of survival.

"I can't say it's an act of altruism to put out a record with a message of hope," Beechman notes. "I do these songs for myself. But if I can make myself feel hopeful or good or encouraged, then I can make other people feel that way, too. These last few years, I have come to think of singing as a form of healing. when you sing, you resonate. I visualize the vibrations going through my body as a kind of medicine.

"I remember when I would go on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre as Grizabella. I felt so poerful in that role. People would tell me afterwards how much I had moved them. And I realized that if I could take a fraction of the power I sent out to 1,600 strangers every night and direct it back to myself, then maybe I would be well."

The strategy may be paying off. Her doctors tell her that her condition is "stable" and, as Beechman points out, "you don't have to be cured to have a beautiful life. People have diabetes. They don't get cured. They live with it. Well, I can live with cancer. I will live with it. I am living with it."

Perhaps her artistry would have deepened under less critical circumstances. Many believe, however, that the travails of the past eight years are turning a good singer into a great one.

"There was always a beautiful desperation when Laurie sang, a real crying out," says Alan Menken, who wrote the score for "Little Shop of Horrors" before achieving worldwide celebrity as Disney's composer-in-residence ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"). Her style hasn't changed. but she's aged-we've all aged-and she's taken on more life experience. And that comes through between the lines. She has a whole palette of emotions now. It's rare for me to have long-term loyalties, but after all these years, she remains one of my favorite singers."

With a dramtic flourish, Beechman brushes back a lock of thick black hair. (It is a wig. The oral medication she has been taking since the beginning of the year caused her own hair to drop out yet again, and the regrowth, blond and fuzzy, has been slow.) "Yeah, I'm amazing," she says. "It's amazing what I am doing. I can do anything I want to do, if I put my mind to it. My life is still going forward."

She thows her arms wide in another dramatic gesture and announces with pride and candor: "This is what cancer looks like."

Figuring Things Out

Beechman lives with her husband, Neil Mazzella, in a split-level ranch house on a leafy suburban cul-de-sac a half-hour north of New York City. "It's called a 'splanch,'" she says, ushering a visitor around the house. "I don't think I'm making that word up."

Needlepoint pillows and pictures, evidence of Beechman's sewing skills, are everywhere, attesting not only to her patience but also to the hours she has spent backstage in theaters, waiting to go on. "I did that one," she says, "while I was understudying five roles in 'Pirates of Penzance.' Every nasty word I might have said was a stitch going into the canvas. Saved my butt. I was so unhappy at the time. I wasn't cut out to be an understudy."

Mazzella is the owner of Hudson Scenic Studios, which constructs much of the scenery used in Broadway shows. Beechman met him while he was a production carpenter on "cats" and she was tottering around in Grizabella's high heels and rags. The customized motorcycles in the garage are his, and he keeps them polished to a high gleam. On one, tooled into a leather flap, are the masks of comedy and tragedy.

In October 1992, they were married by a rabbi in Philadelphia, beechman's home town. "No, there was no flowing veil from the back of a motorcycle," she notes fryly. "But it was a beautiful cermeony." A year ago, the couple reconfirmed their vows in a nearby Catholic church. Beechman calls Mazzella "simply the moon"- noting, in the dedication of her album, that he "made me believe the tiny voic of hope living in my heart would grow so strong as to require the accompaniment of a choir and orchestra."

He also started her collecting the pairs of sculpted hands that can be found in every room of the house- plaster hands, porcelain hands, hands to store rings on, painted hands clasping delicate potpourri boxes, cupped hands in the form of a bud vase. Many of the hands are raised, as if caught in the act of applause or prayer, although it is not always certain which.

Beechman doesn't like to dwell on her illness, even less sentimentalize it. She recoils at the notion that someone might think she is exploiting it to sell records. But she does acknowledge the irnoy that her life has become fuller since she was told that the overwhelming exhuastion and the bloating in the stomach that she first experienced in 1989 were the manifestations of soemthing more serious than overwork.

"For 13 years, I went from show to show and had this provincial attitude about Broadway," she says. "Now I wonder what I was doing all that time. What was I thinking? I guess I'm from the anvil school of learning. You have to bang me over the head sometimes to get me to change. A lot has happened to me since then. I didn't just get brilliant, but I've staretd to figure things out- my career, my relationships, how to be good to myself."

In the eight years since her diagnosis, she has recorded four albums, inclsuing "The Andrew Lloyd Webber Album," her first release for Varese Sarabande and the label's biggest seller to date in what it calls its "Spotlight Series." She was featured at Radio City Music Hall opposite Michael Crawford and has starred in her own cabaret act at the Ballroom and Rainbow and Stars. Much of the time, she was also having chemotherapy. In an initial flush of panic, Beechman wasn't sure she would have the strength to perform in a Broadway show again. But after her first operation, she played the role of Fantine in "Les Miserables," and she has since gone back into "Cats" on three occasions for extended stays.

Richard Jay Alexander, the associate director and executive producer of "Les Miserables," is one of those who marvel at the change in Beechman. When she first tried out for the long-running musical in 1989, he found her singing marred by mannerisms and her self-confidence a little overbearing. Then, midway through rehearsals, cancer struck and Beechman had to withdraw from the production.

A year passed before she was well enough to return. "The Laurie who came back was very fragile, very open, very willing to listen," Alexander says. "She had been to Hell and back."

Halfway through "Les Miserables," the character of Fantine dies, pale and wasted, in a hospital bed, and to see Beechman perform the scene, Alexander recalls, proved doubly wretching. "It's one of the most delicate moments in the show because it's not a death scene so much as a scene about acquiring inner peace. Fantine's spirit is going to carry on and inspire the rest of the evening. I don't pretend to know where Lauire pulled the emotion from, but I never had to give her one bit of direction. I can't remember a Fantine more vulnerable or fetching, either before or after."

BR> Beechman is scheduled to reprise the role for a month when "Les Miserables" plays Philadelphia over the Christmas holidays. "People are beginning to get used to the idea that I have cancer and I can still be pretty powerful in what I am able to do," she says. "To stay well takes a tremendous amount of energy. But I feel good, I'm okay now. I thought I'd never do another show. I'm doing a show again. If the limitation doesn't exist, I don't try to put it out there."

Running Away From the Circus

She can be raucous and funny, but it's wistfulness that is coming through this afternoon as she sips coffee in the kitchen. Beyond the sliding door, a gray sky hangs low over an emerald-green lawn, where the squirrels have already started harvesting for winter.

"Most people want to run away from town and join the circus," she reflects. "But Neil says I am the person who is running away from the circus, looking for the town." A little stability, she has learned, is a reassuring thing.

"Laurie is pretty clear about where she is at this point in her life," notes Sally Jacobs Baker, a former stage manager for "Cats" and a longtime friend. "she wants no pints for cancer. she takes it in her stride. With her, everything is normal. She wants everything to be normal."

Beechman's deepest feelings seem to be reserved for the material she now chooses to sing. It doesn't matter that she would rather talk about the meaning of a song rather than the meaning of life. In her case the tow have merged. She has undergone so many radical changes- spiritual and physical- that when it came time for her to record "I'm Changing" (from "Dreamgirls") for her album, "the number just pouered out of me. She was not surprised.

"If you've been in extreme circumstances- it doesn't have to be cancer, it can be the death of a spouce, AIDS, anything- and you've been lucky enough to survive, it's incumbent on you to live the best possible life," she says. "What's the point otherwise?" But philosophizing comes awkwardly to her. And anyway, she's not sure what moral you can draw from "a virus."

"I'm not very good at articulating ideas," she admits. "My thoughts go round and round. I forget where I'm headed with them. It wears people out. That's why I sing. Singing is so pure. It's the uninterrupted, truthful expression of what I feel."

She draws her ahnds together pensively. "I would hope I'm not finished yet. I don't think 'No One Is Alone' is my last word. I still have so much more to say. No, that's not right." As the hands seperate, the kitchen light momentarily glints off her silver nail polish.

"I still have so much more to sing," she says, correcting herself.

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