Phila. to Broadway
Laurie Beechman, 44, a diminutive singer and actress whose immense talent,
energy and heart took her from the stage at Haddon Township High School
all the way to Broadway, died Sunday of ovarian cancer at home in White
Miss Beechman had been living -- and acting -- with the pain and complications
of treatment since 1989, when she learned she had the disease. At the
time, she was rehearsing the role of Fantine, a tragic figure in Les
In the years since, she underwent surgery and several long
periods of chemotherapy, and after each she returned to the stage. In
1996, she again took on the role of Fantine in the Philadelphia production
of Les Miz.
"For me, personally, it was a triumph," she said of the show. "I never
felt I'd be in a show again. I thought people wouldn't hire me."
Then, last July, she was back on Broadway in Cats, as the outcast
cat named Grizabella, a role that was all the more meaningful because
of her cancer. "I don't think there is any role in a Broadway musical
that could fulfill me at this time like Grizabella can," Beechman said
Born in Philadelphia, Miss Beechman grew up in Westmont in a theatrical
family. Her mother, Dolly Beechman Schnall, was an actor and director
in community theater. Her father, Eugene, was a singer who often entertained
his customers with arias and Broadway tunes when he ran Gino's, a restaurant
on Walnut Street. At home, he sang with Laurie and her two sisters.
She took singing lessons, studying classical music, then show tunes,
then rock-and-roll. She polished her acting talent in school plays and
local theater before heading for New York City when she was in her early
She made her Broadway debut in 1977, playing several small roles in
Annie. After that, she had a singing part in Hair, then
made a rock album and spent a short time on the road with the band (Laurie
and the Sighs) to promote it. When she returned to New York, she sang
advertising jingles and auditioned for parts.
In a Broadway performance of the Pirates of Penzance, she was
a "swing," a multiple understudy who stood offstage during the performances
and sang along with the female voices on stage.
Her big success came when she won the role of the Narrator in Andrew
Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,
which opened on Broadway in November 1981. She was the first woman to
play that part and it earned her a Tony nomination.
The critics were impressed. One called her "an imp with an outsized
And Variety said, "The entire cast is excellent, especially Laurie
Beechman, who narrates the piece. She has a belting singing voice whose
range seems to reach infinity."
She became Grizabella in the first touring company of Cats
in 1983. After playing the part in Boston for four months, she was moved
to the Broadway production, where she stayed until 1988.
After playing Fantine in Les Miz for six months in 1990, she
took on her first nonsinging role in the Show-Off at the Walnut
Street Theatre here. When her cancer reappeared, she dropped out and
underwent a year of chemotherapy.
About that time, she began dating and, in October 1992, married Neil
Mazzella, a theatrical-scene builder.
"My marriage to Neil has prolonged my life," Miss Beechman said. "Things
are much, much easier with him. . . . He's not afraid, and that gives
She suffered another relapse -- and more surgery and chemotherapy
-- in 1994, but she continued to work at acting and singing. She also
began to expand into new areas of entertainment.
She often returned to Philadelphia, where she sang with Peter Nero
and the Philly Pops and performed in cabaret settings. In January 1997,
backed by a full orchestra and a 100-voice gospel choir, she sang "You'll
Never Walk Alone" at President Clinton's second Inaugural Gala -- and
then got to introduce the President.
Several months later, she released her fifth album (No One Is Alone),
a collection of inspirational songs such as "Climb Every Mountain" and
"If You Believe." Last year, she sang some of those songs at a benefit
for another cancer patient.
She also worked up a humorous talk about people's reactions to her
cancer that she performed for cancer patients. She got such an overwhelming
response that she considered turning the talk into a one-woman show.
Miss Beechman admitted in an interview last July that her eight-year
fight with cancer sometimes left her depressed.
"Just this past week it's been heavily on my mind," she said. "I was
losing my perspective about it. I was feeling cheated, that it was terribly
unfair, that . . . I had this talent, this God-given thing, and hadn't
been able to fully use it."
Last year, Haddon Township made her the first inductee into the Haddon
Township Cultural Hall of Fame.
There were many other awards: The Boston Critics Circle voted her
the outstanding performer in a musical (for Cats). She won the
Theater World Award for her performance in Joseph, and the Walnut
Street Theater gave her its Edward Forrest Award for her contributions
to the American Theater.
Besides her husband and her mother, she is survived by two sisters;
her stepfather, Nathan Schnall; and two stepsisters.
Services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Joseph Levine & Sons,
7112 N. Broad St. Burial will be at Montefiore Cemetery, Jenkintown.
Contributions in her memory may be sent to the Actors' Fund of America,
1501 Broadway, Suite 518, New York 10036-5797.
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