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Singing is like learning about life. You're given the gift of life and you learn to get through it. When you sing it's like having a gift ... you learn what to do with it, how to make it honest and how to make it do what you want it to do.

-Laurie Beechman, as quoted in United Press International,March 15, 1984


A Collision of her roles in life, onstage

Laurie Beechman takes what she sings to heart, so it isn't surprising that she finds particular meaning in the songs of Les Miserables and Cats, the shows that frame her eight-year battle with cancer.

When the Philadelphia native learned in 1989 that she had ovarian cancer, she was rehearsing to play the tragic Fantine in the Philadelphia engagement of the national tour of Les Miserables.  Fantine's big song is "I Dreamed a Dream" and Beechman said, "It was spooky singing 'Life has killed the dream I dreamed. . . I had a dream my life would be so different from the hell I'm living" at exactly the time she received such life-affecting news.

Now Beechman has returned to the Broadway production of Cats- which tonight becomes the longest running show in Broadway history- and to the featured role of Grizabella, an outcast cat ill-used by life but redeemed at show's end.

"I don't think there is any role in a Broadway musical that could fulfill me at this time like Grizabella can," Beechman said. "It says everything- it's the way she looks, it's who she is, it's what she wants.  She's finally understood and accepted for what she is."

Grizabella's song is the Cats show-stopper, the affecting, can't-get-it-out-of-your-head tune, "Memory/" It pretty much expresses how she feels, Beechman said, "to be intact at this point in my life and to be singing 'If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is./ Look a new day has begun."

If Beechman's first association with Les Miserables has unpleasant connotations, her most recent appearance in the show proved to her and to others that she is capable of taking on a demanding musical role.  She was asked to reprise Fantine in Les Miserables at the end of last year along with another Philadelphia native, Andrea McArdle, and McArdle's 8-year-old daughter.  The aim of the hometown casting may be to boost the show's appeal to Philadelphia audiences, but to Beechman the invitation was a god-send.  Since a second cancer operation in 1994, she had not appeared in a musical.

"For me personally it was a triumph," she said of doing the Philadelphia Les Miz.  "I never felt I'd be in a show again.  I thought people wouldn't hire me."

Beechman, 43, was born in Philadelphia and raised in Westmont.  Her mother- Dolly Beechman Schnall, who now lives in Wyndmoor- was active in community theater, and as a child Beechman performed at Haddonfield Plays & Players and Philadelphia Music Crafters.  

She and her two sisters also sang at home with their father, Eugene Beechman.  A trained singer, Beechman was for years the proprietor of Gino's Restaurant on Walnut Street and was famous for serenading the customers with show tunes and arias.

She majored in performing arts at New York University, spent a while singing with rock bands, then auditioned and got a part- actually several small parts- in the original production of Annie.  The show previewed at the Good Speed Opera House in Connecticut, and it was there she met McArdle, the musical's 11-year-old star.  Both made their Broadway debuts when the show moved to New York.

Beechman performed in the Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance, then became the first woman to be cast as the Narrator in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a role that won her a Tony nomination. That engagement also brought her to the attention of Webber's producing organization, and in 1982 Beechman was cast as Grizabella in the first touring company of Cats.  After four months, she was put into the Broadway production where she stayed until 1988.

Beechman sang Fantine in Les Miz for six months in 1990, after she was diagnosed with cancer.  In 1991 she came to Philadelphia to play her first nonsinging stage role in a Walnut Street Theatre production of The Show-Off.  She had to drop out when her cancer reappeared; she had major surgery and underwent a year of chemotherapy.  

During that period she began dating Neil Mazzella, a theatrical-scene builder, with whom she had been acquainted for several years, and they wed in October 1992.  "My marriage to Neil has prolonged my life," Beechman said.  "Things are much, much easier with him. . .  He's not afraid, and that gives me courage."

After nearly four cancer-free years, Beechman suffered a relapse in 1994.  She had additional surgery and is now taking chemotherapy pills every month.

Professionally, the last year has been a good one.  Her fifth album, No One Is Alone, was released in October and is selling well.  Beechman said she recorded the album- a selection of songs from musicals with an inspirational tone ("Climb Every Mountain," "If You Believe," "You'll Never Walk Alone")- "as much to make myself feel optimistic, to keep myself moving forward, as to say to other people, 'You know, this is a really important way to look at life.'"

In December, she appeared here in Les Miz.  So when the Grizabella in the Broadway production wanted time off, Beechman felt ready to fill in for several months.  According to Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization (a producer of Cats), the show was glad to have her.  "We're very fond of Laurie," says Schoenfeld.  He pointed out that Beechman has played Grizabella longer on Broadway than any other performer.

In January, Beechman closed President Clinton's Second Inaugural Gala singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."  She then introduced the President to the audience.  He came onstage, hugged her and whispered, "I'm proud of you for so many reasons."

She has also found satisfaction this year helping to boost the spirits and finances of other cancer patients.  At the end of march she came to Philadelphia to put on a benefit show, composed primarily of inspirational songs from No One Is Alone, for local actor Doug Wing, who had cancer surgery in January. Last month she spoke at a gathering of cancer patients in Charlotte, N.C., where she gave a humorous talk about the various reactions people have had to her illness.  It was so well-received that she is thinking about turning it into a one-person show. "This was the first time," she said, "I got a standing ovation not singing."

But Beechman acknowledged that her eight-year fight with cancer sometimes leaves her dispirited.  "Just this past week it's been heavily on my mind," she admitted, during an interview in her Cats dressing room.  "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."

Beechman said she was expressing these feelings to her stepfather, Dr. Nathan Schnall. "He said to me, 'Laurie, I think you should kiss those pills. . . It's not fair that you got cancer, but that you're able to live with cancer is more than fair.'"

At her next treatment, Beechman said, "I did kiss those pills."

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