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
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
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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