Voices from the past I listen to with clarity and reverence. Singing loud and brilliant. Always women, I think.
When writing about someone affecting, I revisit my history, trying to be as accurate as possible. I don’t trust my memory which gets less dependable as I age. There are perceptions that aren’t wrong, they are just how I recall things. Ask siblings who grew up in the same home. They will give you their take on shared events, sometimes with geometrically apposing reactions. No one is lying. It’s how they experienced it.
I spend a good deal of time in New York City’s theater district. I haven’t worked in “the business” for decades but I like being surrounded by talent and personalities and drive and desire for something overpowering called performing. Maybe that’s why I have such an idiotic relationship with the long ago cancelled tv show, Glee. Back in my teens, I was one of those kids, but without the guts and possibly without the talent. I’m still tentative when I say “possibly.”
There are Broadway divas now as there were then and before. I would name examples but the ramifications of leaving someone’s name out keeps me from that risk. And for reasons I still banter, I am inexplicably moved by women’s voices over male singers by a huge margin. If I look through my recordings — I still don’t download music — I estimate more than ninety percent are women.
This seems to have been part of my un-inherited tastebuds from a young age. I am so viscerally moved by music, in particular strong women singers, that it’s seduction.
I have an odd memory of sitting in the tv room of family friends in Basking Ridge, NJ, when I was a little boy, playing that insipid game, “if you had to choose.” The question was, “if you had to choose, would you rather be blind or deaf?” Without any forethought I said I would rather be blind. The idea of not hearing music was unfathomable to me. Realistically, if I HAD to face that Solomonesque challenge, it’s no choice at all. I would settle for being deaf. The primary reason being obvious — having the ability to navigate freely.
Laurie Beechman. I had not heard of her.
I was hired to sell assorted accouterment for a musical that had run Off Broadway downtown, at the Entermedia Theatre on Second Avenue, before moving to a thousand seat Broadway house, the Royale Theatre, in the winter of 1982. Due to the design of the venue, there is no interior lobby. Between the last row of the orchestra (Row R) and the bar against the back wall, there is only enough room to walk past. Between the north edge of the bar and the foyer leading to the stairs that travel down to the bathrooms, is the space where I would set up my stand for selling tee-shirts and recordings. I watched the performance each night. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The show, originally written as a children’s musical for Tim Rice’s kids, was expanded for the theatrical run. The show is cute and the cast was adorable. And when the Narrator opened her mouth to sing, I metaphorically fell flat on my face in the carpeted aisle of the Royale Theatre.
Portrayed by Laurie Beechman in its Broadway origins, the Narrator began the show on stage in front of the proscenium curtain, which parted as she introduced the cast of characters. At the end of the first act, Laurie sang a song titled, “A Pharaoh’s Story.” I must have seen it hundreds of times. For about 3 minutes each night, I watched and listened like a wide-eyed child with goose bumps and water-filled eyes.
Because the musical ran only about an hour and 15 minutes (including the intermission), I would then cross West 45th Street to sell souvenirs after the curtain came down at “Dreamgirls,” which was playing in the Imperial Theater. Can you imagine the audience-heaven I was in? Believe me, I was well aware of how fantastic this was. Hearing Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine on one stage and Laurie Beechman on another, singing 6 nights a week. Earning only enough salary to barely pay my rent, it was the best job I ever had.
I spent a good deal of time back stage at the Royale Theatre, due to an on-again, off-again relationship I was having with the show’s dance captain. I had also become good friends with the “star dresser”. For some gossip that has nothing to do with this story — David Cassidy, who played Joseph for a while, was not only one of the kindest celebrities I’d met, he had the largest penis I’ve ever seen.
I worked with and for some famous persons after this stint, but I was star struck by Laurie, purely due to her incalculable talent. I behaved stupidly and tongue-tied around her. It wasn’t until a company party commemorating some milestone for the show that she and I actually conversed like human beings: like friends.
Beechman was invited to sing on the now archived Mike Douglas chat show, filmed at a Broadway location (the theater where Stephen Colbert hosts his show). I asked Laurie if I could be a guest. When I got to the theater on the afternoon of the taping, the doorman didn’t have my name on his sheet. So I peeked at the VIP list, and used someone else’s name to get inside. Sitting in the front row, I hoped I didn’t distract or annoy Laurie. She later told me (true or not) that it was calming to see a familiar face.
Her earlier Broadway gig, though I didn’t see it, was singing “NYC” in the original run of “Annie”. After “Joseph and…” she would go on to perform as Grizabella in Cats (singing “Memory”) as well as Fantine in Les Miserables (singing “I Dreamed a Dream”), becoming a Broadway staple, respected and always working. But for me, the most outstanding performances were her club acts.
The more intimate social encounters mostly took place at Charlies’, a restaurant/bar where the cast for “Joseph and…” often spent time after the show came down. Discussions, private or shared I’ll keep to myself. After I left my “front of house” job to work for Broadway producers and general managers, I would still hang out at Charlies’, until I left the business for other pursuits.
At 35, Laurie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The first counter-attack was excruciating and exhausting. She went back to her family home in the Philadelphia area to fight and recover. And she beat it, only to have it return and spread, eventually ending her life two days before her 44th birthday. It had been an 8 year war.
Some time in the middle of Laurie’s health battle, on a night she performed at the Ballroom on West 28th Street in Manhattan, a few friends stayed late in the dimly lit room. Among other things, without fright or tears, she talked about her trauma and determination to survive.
In March of 1998, Rosie O’Donnell, who had an afternoon television talk show, played a previously aired segment of Beechman performing “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” It was astounding. Her smile, her energy. The hope, the voice. I hadn’t known Laurie died until a death notice appeared on screen, soundless and cold.
On West 42nd Street, there is an Off-Broadway dinner-theater now named for Laurie Beechman. It’s lovely to have a performance space iconizing her name. But for me, her intangible vocals and interpretation bring me closer to what we’ve lost. Laurie’s rendition of the song “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” from her Andrew Lloyd Webber cd, is as near to a perfect illustration as I can name. She brings it home. I’m grateful for the permanent record.
On a spring day outside of Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, where Laurie was performing in “Cats,” I saw her exit the stage door at the back of the building, and walk down Seventh Avenue. She was talking to someone as we passed each other. She turned and yelled back to me, “I see you Andrew — I wasn’t ignoring you.” “I know,” I said. “Talk to you soon, I’m sure.”
Andrew Sarewitz has written several short stories (links to published work at www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as scripts for various media. Mr. Sarewitz is a recipient of the 2021 City Artists Corp Grant for Writing, helping to fund the completion and a reading for a new play based on Andrew’s previously published Creative Nonfiction story of the same title, The Other Side of the Coin. His play, Madame Andrèe, (based on the life of Nancy Wake, the “White Mouse”), garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights series in San Jose, CA, winning the honor of opening the festival in August of 2019. The script for his play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the Austin Film Festival Competition and Andrew’s spec script for his sitcom, The White House is a Finalist in the Pitch Now Screenplay Competition. Andrew is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.