A Winning Actress Plays a Spirited Role
After a fight for her life, Laurie Beechman
is ready to make her overdue debut in Philadelphia
Laurie Beechman, who stars as the singing narrator in Joseph and the
Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, stands spotlighted at midstage, her
head bent over a fat paperback- Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar.
The scene is last Tuesday's technical run-through of the musical, which
opens tomorrow at the Walnut Street Theater for a five-week run. the
run-through involves coordinating the cues for the production- light
cues, sound cues, curtain cues, scene changes.
Beechman wears jeans, a black leather jacket and high-heeled lace-up
boots that make her look taller than her 5 feet, 31/2 inches. Her black
hair is short, accentuating her gamin air. She makes her entrance for
the third- or is it the fourth?- time.
Director Charles Abbott stops the piano music yet again. He asks someone
to please bring down the curtain quicker, then worksout some other stage
business. Beechman has nothing to do but stand there. So she reads.
Laurie Beechman doesn't like to waste time. She wasted enough of it
this year- but of that, more later.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the Andrew Lloyd
Webber/ Tim Rice pop-opera version of the Old Testament story of Joseph,
son of Jacob. Sal Viviano plays Joseph, who managed to survive and triumph
after his envious brothers sold him into servitude.
The show had its beginnings in London, in 1968, as a short musical for
children. Beechman played the narrator's role in the expanded Off-Broadway
and Broadway versions in the early 80's, and received a Theater World
Award, along with nominations for Tony and Drama Desk awards, for her
The show at the Walnut is yet another version, says Abbott, who's directing
his fifth musical at the Walnut. It's infulenced by MTV and rock videos,
he explains: "I wanted to do a Joseph for the 90's. It's very
different from the original [Broadway version], which was more Godspell-ian.
There's less innocence and more specificity, more detail- we've added
five dance sequences.
When Beechman makes her entrance tomorrow night, she'll chalk up a couple
of firsts. One is her Philadelphia debut, which might be considered
overdue. She was born and brought up in Westmont. Her father, Gene,
was the owner of the old Gino's restaurant on Walnut Street; her mother,
Dolly beechman Schnall, still lives here. (Beechman's parents divorced
when she was 11 and her mother married Natahn Schnall, a gynecologist
and obstetrition.) So do her two sisters, Claudia and Jane, and their
But Beechman, although she came close a couple of times, has never performed
here- at least not in a show. Back in 1980, she made a rock-and-roll
album, Laurie and the Sighs, and promoted it in a one-night stand
at the Bijou. the record, she admits cheerfully, was a flop.
After that came a job as an offstage voice in the Broadway chorus of
The Pirates of Penzance- somehting of a comedown from her first
big Broadway role (or, rather, five roles, including the prophetic "Star
to Be") in the original Annie in 1977. but then things picked
Way up. First there was Joseph, and all kinds of critical acclaim-
composer Lloyd Webber called her the show's "great discovery." Then
there was a 4 1/2- year run on Broadway in Lloyd Webber's Cats
as the faded glamour-cat, Grizabella, singing "Memory." She appeared
a half dozen times on TV's Merv Griffin Show. She sang on TV and radio,
in concerts and cabarets.
Last year, she played the leading lady in the Tom Eyen/ Henry Krieger
musical. Dangerous Music, at Burt Reynolds' Jupiter Theater in
Jupiter, Fla. After that, she was tabbed to replace Ann Crumb in the
role of Fantine with the national touring company of Les Miserables
that was then playing at the Forrest Theater here.
That would have been her Philadelphia debut. She began rehearsing for
it but fell ill, although a regular checkup in September had found nothing
"I thought maybe I had a stomach problem," she recalls during a break.
"So I had a CAT scan, and it showed something that was not a good thing."
It showed cancer.
For the next seven months, she went through chemotherapy. Having cancer
at any age- she's 35- is no fun. "You're thrust into a whole different
kind of reality." Beechman says. "You have to fight for your life and
you hope you can beat the thing, and it becomes a part of your life."
She did a lot of reading- among other things, Kirk Douglas' memoirs,
The Ragman's Son; two novels by Edith Wharton, The Age of
Innocence and The House of Mirth; F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender
Is the Night, and Elia Kazan's autobiography, A Life. She
was still going through chemotherapy when the Walnut offered her the
chance to reprise her role on Joseph.
She wasn't sure she was ready for it, and she and her mother talked
things over. Her mother- an actress (she appeared a few years ago in
the detective romp Shear Madness) and playwright (Sojourner,
with Pat Sternberg)- encouraged her to take the role.
"The theater is her life and I thought a return to work would be a healthy
and wonderful thing," Dolly Schnall says. In addition, this first appearance
in a show since her illness would be a chance for Beechman to finally
play Philadelphia, a chance for her four nephews to see her perform
and-not least- a chance for the family to be together for the Thanksgiving
holidays for the first time in maybe a dozen years.
Her family is very important to Laurie Beechman. "I couldn't express
to you adequately how unbelievably supportive and caring they are,"
she says. "I'm very lucky."
The prognosis for her health is good. She seems to have beaten "the
thing," although she says she's reluctant to talk about it "because
it hasn't even been a year and I don't want to press my luck."
And she loves the show. "It's about the triumph of the human spirit,
right?" she says.
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