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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

 

The Cleveland Plain Dealer: Monday April 6, 1998
 

Laurie Beechman: A never-to-be forgotten voice of Inspiration


Today at 3 p.m., the Winter Garden Theatre in New York will be filled with actors, directors, writers, technical people and others associated with the performing arts.  They will not be there for a performance of Broadway's longest-running musical, Cats.  They will be there to pay tribute to the memory of a remarkable young woman who, among other things, sang the keynote part of "Grizabella" in that show for more years than anyone else, and who redefined not only that role but the meaning of a heroine and a "showstopper."

Laurie Beechman died last month after living with ovarian cancer for nine years.  She was my friend and the inspiration for my two daughters as they have made their way through the elaborate journey of childhood and adolescence.  Not every youngster has a true artist in his or her life to edify, illuminate, to challenge, to offer access through so many stage doors.  My daughters, grieving, knowing and grateful, have been deepened by this experience in all its dimension.

Not everyone in today's notable Winter Garden audience may realize where and when Laurie Beechman last was heard singing in public concert.  It was in Cleveland, last November, at a benefit for the Cleveland Play House.  My family had an indirect role in the invitation that led to Beechman's performance and a poignant reunion with our famous and courageous friend.

Indeed, this was Beechman's second appearance in Cleveland in recent years.  The first, in 1991, which took place following her reprised starring role in Cats and her leading role as "Fantine" in Broadway's "Les Miserables," was during a gala upon the "stage" of my congregation.  It also was in between operations and chemotherapy treatments that Beechman endured repeatedly, and which failed to break her spirit or dampen the quality of her extraordinary voice.

I first saw and heard Laurie in 1982.  The diminutive contralto with the large presence lyrically performed as the pivotal "Narrator" in Broadway's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."  Donning a fez, with good spirits, liquid eyes and a grandiloquent voice, she sang the biblical tale with the range of a rainbow.  Returning home, I wrote the actress a note, thanking her for her performance.

To my surprise and delight, a handwritten response came not too long afterwards.  Beechman expressed her appreciation, and encouraged me to follow her career.  Within a few weeks, my wife Cathy and I were in the audience, joining a theater full of admirers who had also come to hear the newly acclaimed Tony nominee.  We all became friends, sharing a subsequent 16 years of happy and bitter milestones, and extending our mutual care into the larger circles of our respective families.

It was not five years after her initial success in "Cats" at the Winter Garden that life changed for the gifted chanteuse.  The fateful diagnosis came in late 1988.  For Beechman, however, it was not going to be the question of her death; it was going to be the answer of her life.  She surely passed through bouts of physical and spiritual distress.  A burgeoning career unquestionably was diverted; it would, fittingly, be lifted by her acquired wisdom and her plain bravery.

Her fourth album, a poignant and wise collection of hopeful ballads called "No One Is Alone," caught the ear of someone preparing the program for President Bill Clinton's second Inaugural festivities.  Beechman was selected to sing the climactic number on a nationally televised gala the night before the swearing-in ceremonies in Washington.  Her voice rang out like honey from a rock; hard-boiled officials and sundry celebrities, knowing that this woman was singing for her life, wiped their eyes.  My friend concluded her song, and announced, trembling:  "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

It never was easy, but it always was meaningful.  Inspired by her family, especially her mother, Laurie Beechman did not permit her illness to distract from her inner commitment to creativity.  "What I want is normal," Laurie once told me about her view of living and loving.  And what was normal for her was to make music.  Whenever Laurie sang, she was spiritually protected against the encroachment of her mortal predicament.  She taught her friends to value life.

I remember in the spring of 1991, when Laurie sang at The Temple, she just had endured her first recurrence of the disease.  She was incandescent and thankful to be singing again.  After her performance, she gleefully ran into my study, grabbing both my arms in exaltation.  "I can do this," she cried, "I can do this even with chemotherapy."

We can all do more with the time we have, dear Laurie.


Kamin, rabbi and author, is spiritual leader of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland.


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