Laurie Beechman, actress
Laurie Beechman- the diminutive yet dynamic musical theatre star whose
gallant nine-year struggle with ovarian cancer earned her the respect
of family, friends and the president of the United States- died March
8 at her home in White Plains, NY. She was 44.
In 1989, just as the Philadelphia native was about to assume the role
of Fantine in Les Miserables then housed at the Forrest Theatre,
she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. The short-term
prognosis, let alone the long-term prospects, for people with this disease
is grim. But Laurie Beechman refused to give up.
"I didn't analyze things too much," she told the Local in 1990
when in town to finally take on Fantine at the Forrest. "when
they're happening to you, you can't. You just do it. If
God gives you the strength to get out of bed, you get out of bed."
Ms. Beechman did a lot more than get out of bed. Less than a
year after her initial bout with the disease she was back on stage as
the Narrator in the Walnut Street Theatre's production of Joseph
and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a role she had originated
in the 1981 off-Broadway production that moved several months later
to Broadway's Royale Theatre. That original performance earned
her a Theatre World Award and Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations.
The remainder of her life was devoted to pursuing her multifaceted
career and giving as much encouragement as she was able to others lviing
with life-threatening illnesses.
The product of a theatrical family, Ms. Beechman grew up in Westmont,
NJ. Both her parents were performers. Her late father, Eugene,
was a singer who ran a restaurant in Philadelphia. Her mother,
Wyndmoor resident Dolly Beechman Schnall, is a playwright, teacher,
actress and director.
Laurie Beechman's first role was as Miss Adelaide in the Haddon Township
(NJ) High School production of Guys and Dolls. This past
fall, Haddon Township made her the first inductee in its Cultural Hall
Her career really took off when she was cast in a musical about a
cartoon character and her dog that tried out at the Goodspeed Opera
House in Hamden, CT. When Annie moved to Broadway, Ms.
Beechman moved with it, the first of many roles she'd play there.
After Annie she toured with a rock band, Lauire and the Sighs,
ultimately returning to New York where she sang commercials, was an
understudy in the broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance,
and was tapped by Lloyd Webber for Joseph.
After joseph, Lloyd Webber asked her to join the touring company of
Cats as Grizabella (the "Memory" cat), with the understanding
that she would take over on Broadway when Betty Buckley left.
She joined the Broadway company in 1983 and stayed for four and one-half
years. She was asked to reprise that role last summer when, on
July 19, Cats passed A Chorus Line as the longest running
show in Broadway history.
Ms. Beechman's connection with Philadelphia remained strong throughout
her career. Not only has she been seen in Joseph at the
Walnut and Les Miz at the Forrest, but she also did her only
non-singing role here in the Walnut's production of The Show Off.
During the '90s her career expanded to include her own cabaret show.
Her performances included a mix of original songs and show tunes from
many eras. Her singing was characterized by a passion and style
that, while uniquely hers, reflected the influence of those other great
emotive belters, Judy Garland and Barbra Striesand.
Throughout the last years of her life she was constantly undergoing
chemotherapy. She credited her husband, Neil Anthony Mazzella
whom she married in October, 1992, with helping her survive as long
as she did. His support, and her work, was what she always said
kept her going, what allowed her to "get out of bed."
In addition to her shows and concert performances, Laurie Beechman
was also quite busy on the talk-show circuit and at special events.
She sang the National Anthem at New York Mayor Ed Koch's third inaugural
in 1986 and on the New York Mets' opening day in 1988. That year
she was a guest of President Bush at the White House's annual Easter
egg hunt. In 1995 she was the sole entertainer at the Washington
celebration of Lady Margaret Thatcher's 70th birthday.
In 1997 she made several appearances in Philadelphia: her second tour
with Les Miz; with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops; in a benefit
for her The Show Off co-star Doug Wing who was also fighting cancer;
and as presenter of the Barrymore Award for Outstanding Overall Production
to the Wilma Theater's Avenue X.
Recognizing that so much of her professional life in Philadelphia
had involved the Walnut, that organization awarded her its Edward Forrest
Award last spring for her contributions to the American theatre.
Some of those contributions are still accessible on three CDs she
recorded over the past few years: Time Between the Time on DRG
records and The Andrew Lloyd Webber Album and No One is Alone
for Varese Sarabande.
Performance of the title song of her last album was her contribution
to President Clinton's Inaugural Gala in Washington in Janaury, 1997.
Her number was last on the program and she then- in what she described
as the most nerve-wracking moment of her life- had to introduce the
When he reached the stage, he hugged her and told her, "I'm proud
of you." So is everyone else who knew her.
In addition to her husband and her mother, she is survived by her
stepfather, Nathan Schnall, MD; by two sisters, Claudia B. Cohen and
Jane B. Segal; by two stepsisters, Ilene Schnall-Vogelback and Rona
Schnall; and by a niece and five nephews.
Funeral services were held March 11 at Joseph Levine & Sons on
N. Broad St. A memorial service will be held at the Winter Garden
Theatre in New York on Monday, April 6 at a time still to be determined.
Contributions in her memory may be sent to the Actors' Fund of America,
1501 Broadway, Suite 518, New York, NY 10036.
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