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If you've been in extreme circumstances- it doesn't have to be cancer, it can be the death of a spouse, AIDS, anything- and you've been lucky enough to survive, it's incumbent on you to live the best possible life. What's the point otherwise?

-Laurie Beechman, as quoted in The Washington Post, 1996

 
Laurie Beechman; 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 Plains, N.Y.

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 Miserables.

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 then.

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 20s.

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 voice."

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 me courage."

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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