DIVA TALK: A Memorial for Laurie; Come to the Cabaret

DIVA TALK: A Memorial for Laurie; Come to the Cabaret Andrew Gans' weekly column of the latest news about the great ladies of musical theatre.

Andrew Gans' weekly column of the latest news about the great ladies of musical theatre.

LAURIE BEECHMAN
On April 6, approximately 1,000 friends and fans of Laurie Hope Beechman piled into New York's Winter Garden Theatre to pay tribute to the star whose untimely passing on March 8 touched all those who had ever come in contact with Beechman, either as a person or a performer. The afternoon memorial, which was organized by Beechman's long-time friend and director Richard Jay-Alexander, was a beautiful tribute to the late star of Annie, The Pirates of Penzance, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats and Les Miserables.

As the lights of the Winter Garden dimmed, the voice of Academy Award winner Michael Douglas was heard over the speakers--a tape of the speech that he had delivered at President Clinton's second inaugural gala when introducing the evening's final performer, Laurie Beechman. The next voice heard was that of Beechman, also from the inaugural gala, who spoke about living with cancer and the optimism and hope that she never let falter. Beechman's beautifully moving rendition of "Shiver Me Timbers, " a track from her Listen To My Heart solo album was then played over the sound system, and the majesty of her voice was once again heard in the Winter Garden Theatre, the same theatre where she thrilled audiences for years as Grizabella, the faded Glamour Cat in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

The first onstage speaker was a visibly moved Mark Linn-Baker, a friend of Beechman who he said was "blessed with talent" and had "a voice that reached out and grabbed me at the heart." Joking that many in the audience had majored in theatre while minoring in "complaining," Linn-Baker explained that Beechman possessed a "triple major in theatre, courage and love" and had graduated with honors. Wardrobe supervisor Adelaide Laurino, who met Beechman 23 years ago while both were working on Annie, compared Laurie to a dose of fine brandy at an elegant party. Rich Affannatto, who performed the role of Marius in Les Miz when Beechman portrayed Fantine, read a letter from lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote, "I count myself lucky to have known Laurie." Richard Jay-Alexander read another poignant note, this one from a teacher in the South Bronx who explained how touched she was by Laurie's ongoing concern for her students.

Andrea McArdle, who appeared in both Annie and Les Miz with Beechman, spoke about hearing Beechman's wondrous voice for the first time. McArdle, who was 12 at the time, remembered, "After that, I would say, 'Barbra who?'" McArdle delivered a slowed-down, elegant version of "N.Y.C."--the song that first brought Beechman to the attention of Broadway audiences--and it was utterly moving. Laurie's friend and agent, Jim Wilhelm, spoke about his special relationship with Beechman, a relationship that grew in passion and depth through the years. Wilhelm discussed Beechman's courage and optimism during the decade she lived with cancer and explained that her performance at Clinton's inaugural gala was a special highlight for both him and Laurie. Even President Clinton whispered to Laurie after her powerful delivery of "You'll Never Walk Alone": "I am so proud of you for so many reasons tonight." Wilhelm ended his thoughtful words by adding, "Laurie's memory doesn't live again, it lives on." Despite his fear of public speaking, Ken Prymus, whose seven-year stint as Old Deuteronomy in Cats ended this week, spoke lovingly about Laurie. He reminisced about their first meeting many years ago and the friendship and love that grew between the two performers. He concluded his tribute by reading a letter from Laurie's grade-school art teacher who said that Laurie, even as a child, was able to touch her life dramatically. Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld spoke briefly but insisted it was "simply irresistible not to be her friend, her employer and her advisor."

Fellow performer Sam Harris spoke from the deepest part of his heart about his "friend, teacher and musical soul mate." Harris explained that not too long ago he received a brand-new song from a young writer, a song that Laurie had asked him to sing over the phone to her one afternoon while both were in their respective dressing rooms. Laurie loved the song, especially its lyric, and asked if it would be alright if she also sang the song because she wanted to sing it to her husband Neil. Unfortunately, Laurie did not live long enough to sing the song to her husband, and Harris explained that he wanted to now sing that very song in order to honor Laurie's wish. Harris's soaring voice and heartfelt emotion brought tears not only to his own eyes but to most every member of the audience as well.

A letter from composer Henry Krieger was then read, and Joanna Ball, one of the founders of Gilda's Club--a free support community for people with cancer and their families and friends--spoke about the courage and wonderful spirit that was a huge part of Laurie Beechman. Beechman's mother, Dolly Schnall, explained how she was blessed to have such a talented and beautiful daughter and spoke of Laurie's legacy of generosity to other people.

Composer Alan Menken apologized to the many singers he had worked with but had to admit that Beechman was his favorite singer. Menken reminisced about the wonderful times he, Beechman and their friends spent together when they were all just beginning to achieve some recognition and fame. He delivered two songs in her honor, "These Are the Good Times," from his musical with Tom Eyen, Kicks, and "If I Never Knew You," which he dedicated to both Laurie and her husband.

Flo Rothaker read a letter from President Clinton, and then Neil Mazzella, Beechman's husband--who received a spontaneous standing ovation--spoke about his wife, explaining that she was his hero. Catherine Hickland read a letter from Gene Wilder (who also lost his wife, Gilda Radner, to cancer) that he had written to Neil. Brenda Pressley led the audience in prayer, and Loni Ackerman Kennedy discussed her glorious friendship with Beechman.

The memorial concluded with Ackerman leading a chorus of singers (including Karen Mason, Jamie DeRoy, Sam Harris and others) performing one of Beechman and her husband's favorite songs, "I'll Be Seeing You," which Jimmy Durante had recorded on one of the couple's favorite albums. The chorus stopped just before the last few lines, and at this point, Laurie's image appeared in the moon that is part of the Cats set, and Jimmy Durante's voice was heard over the speakers singing, "I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you." It was truly a beautiful ceremony for a beautiful soul who will be greatly missed.

(Donations may be made in memory of Laurie to Gilda's Club: 195 West Houston Street, New York, N.Y. 10013. Donations may also be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and The Actors' Fund of America.)


CHESS
Exciting news for the legion of Chess fans out there. The musical that boasted one of the best scores of the 1980s but never quite worked onstage will be performed in concert next month on May 10 and 17. The two Sunday performances will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and will be held at the John Houseman Theatre at 450 West 42nd Street. Tickets are priced at $50, and there will also be a limited number of $100 seat tickets that will include a post-reception party. Currently on sale, tickets may be purchased by credit card by calling 212-354-2220 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Included in the cast will be an array of some of Broadway's finest talents including Side Show's Alice Ripley, Titanic's Brian d'Arcy James and Michael Cerveris, Jekyll and Hyde's Christiane Noll plus Miller McLeod, Carl Anderson, Danny Zolli, Raymond Jaramillo, David Clemmons and Robert Evan. The concerts will have musical direction by Neil Berg, who is the author of the upcoming musical based on The Prince and the Pauper.


JUDY KUHN
Speaking of Chess, the beautiful-voiced star of the Broadway production, Judy Kuhn, is just one of the many talented performers who will star in the upcoming production of As Thousands Cheer for the Drama Dept. At this point, others in the Irving Berlin/Moss Hart musical comedy revue include Howard McGillin, Mary Beth Peil and B.D. Wong. The revue was one of the first shows to take a satiric look at fame and celebrity and featured such songs as "Suppertime," "Heatwave" and "Through a Keyhole." Performances are scheduled to begin on May 27, and the production will be directed by Christopher Ashley and will feature choreography by Kathleen Marshall.


A SWELL PARTY
A plethora of performers will unite this June for a three-evening extravaganza that celebrates the art form that is called cabaret. Titled "A Swell Party," the celebration will take place on June 8, 9 and 10 to benefit The Mabel Mercer Foundation. On the first evening, June 8 at 6 p.m., a host of newcomers will be welcomed onto the stage of NY's Town Hall, including singers from New York as well as performers from Montreal, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and Pennsylvania.

The second evening, which is subtitled "A Cabaret for Cole Revisited," will pay tribute to the legendary Cole Porter, and those who will warble the songs of the late composer/lyricist include Ann Hampton Callaway, Claiborne Cary, Paula Laurence, Marcia Lewis, Marin Mazzie, Liliane Montevecchi, Patricia Morrison, Sidney Meyer, Abe Reybold, Steve Ross, Jon Soleather, David Staller, Elaine Stritch, Margaret Whiting, Julie Wilson and Gretchen Wyler.

The final evening, "A Tribute to Gertrude Lawrence," commemorates what would have been the theatre star's 100th birthday. Lawrence introduced such standards as "I've Got a Crush On You," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Body and Soul," and Donna Murphy, who recently starred as Anna in The King and I-- a role that Lawrence created on Broadway--will be joined by Jeff Harnar, Celeste Holm, Alix Korey, Andrea Marcovicci, Patricia Morison, Christian Nova, Phillip Officer, KT Sullivan and many others.

Ticket orders are accepted only by mail ($10 per performance; send checks made out to "The Mabel Mercer Foundation" to Finell Enterprises, 301 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10021), and further information is available by calling (212) 980-3026 or (212) 980-3109 during regular office hours.


CABARET COMES TO RIZZOLI
To celebrate the upcoming MAC Awards on April 19, Maryann Lopinto has organized a "Cabaret Comes to Rizzoli" week in which several of this city's best cabaret performers will entertain during lunch time all next week. Beginning on Monday, April 13 from 1 to 2 p.m. you can hear the song stylings of Ann Hampton Callaway, Mark Nadler, Martha Lorin, Tom Andersen, Christian Nova, Eric Michael Gillett, Baby Jane Dexter, Jeff Harnar and Nancy Dussault. There is no cover, and the Rizzoli Bookstore is located on 57th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in NY. So, go and enjoy!


FOLLIES
What may be the diva event of the year is currently in rehearsals at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. A host of stellar ladies will star in a production of the 1971 Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman classic Follies. Boasting a score that includes such classics as "Losing My Mind," "Could I Leave You?," "Broadway Baby," "In Buddy's Eyes" and many others, the cast will include Kaye Ballard, Dee Hoty, Donna McKechnie, Liliane Montevecchi, Phyllis Newman and the legendary Ann Miller, who will sing "I'm Still Here." Performances begin on April 15 with an official opening on April 24 and will run through May 31. Directed by Robert Johanson, this production will feature the original Broadway script and score, although a few changes to the book have been made by James Goldman for this run. The one major change in the Sondheim score will be the inclusion of "Ah, But Underneath," which was written for the 1987 London production. That song will replace the tune, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie."

Tickets to Follies range from $32-$55 and may be purchased by calling 973-376-4343 or check out the Paper Mill Playhouse website at www.papermill.org. The complete cast list follows:

Eddie Bracken as Dimitri Weismann
Donna McKechnie as Sally Durant Plummer
Danette Holden as Young Sally
Dee Hoty as Phyllis Rogers Stone
Meredith Patterson as Young Phyllis
Ann Miller as Carlotta Campion
Jillana Urbina as Young Carlotta
Kaye Ballard as Hattie Walker
Krista Lepore as Young Hattie
Phyllis Newman as Stella Deems
Pamela Jordan as Young Stella/ "Margie"
Liliane Montevecchi as Solange La Fitte
Jean Marie as Young Solange
Carol Skarimbas as Heidi Schiller
Ingrid Ladendorf as Heidi Schiller
Natalie Mosco as Emily Whitman
Pascale Faye as Young Emily
Jo Ann Cunnigham as Christine Donovan
Temple Kane as Young Kristine
Laura Kenyon as Sandra Crane
Julie Connors as Young Sandra
Billie Thrash as Dee Dee West
Karen Lifshey as Young Dee Dee
Laurence Guittard as Benjamin Stone
Michael Gruber as Young Ben
Tony Roberts as Buddy Plummer
Billy Hartung as Young Buddy
Vahan Khanzadian as Roscoe
Peter Davenport as Young Roscoe
Donald Saddler as Theodore Whitman
Arte Phillips as Young Theodore
Robert Stoeckle as Major Domo
David Weck as Kevin, a Waiter
John William Mulcahy as Piano Player


REMINDERS:
BETTY BUCKLEY
Betty Buckley has been nominated for two MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards, one for Major Female Vocalist of the Year and the other for Major Artist Recording of the Year (for Much More on Sterling Records). The MAC Awards will be held on Sunday, April 19 at the Manhattan Center's Hammerstein Ballroom on West 34th Street. Call (212) 465-2662 for more information.

BARBARA COOK
For those of you who have yet to see the legendary Barbara Cook live, you can get another chance during her current run at the chic cabaret room of the Cafe Carlyle (Madison Avenue at 76th Street). Call 212-744-1600 for reservations.

PATTI LuPONE

You can catch La LuPone nightly at the Booth Theatre in David Mamet's newest play The Old Neighborhood. Stay tuned for more concert dates.

DONNA MURPHY
Murphy, who was last on Broadway in the King and I revival, will portray Mary Todd Lincoln in a TNT production of The Day Lincoln Was Shot, which will air on that network this Sunday, April 12.

ELAINE PAIGE
Tickets are available to The Misanthrope by calling 011-44-171-287 0464. . .On June 7 and 8 EP will take part in the charity concert Hey Mr. Producer, which will celebrate the work of another legendary Brit, producer Cameron Mackintosh. . . .And, Paige will appear in concert at the Hampton Court Palace Festival on June 19. Tickets may be purchased by calling 011-171-344-4444

JULIE WILSON
Julie Wilson is currently performing at Michael's Pub at 57 East 54th Street (between Madison and Park Avenues). Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. There is a $20 music charge Tuesday-Saturday, $25 Friday and Saturday and a $15 food or drink minimum for all performances. Call 212-758-2272 or 212-355-0243 for reservations.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

-- By Andrew Gans
e-mail me at Robert Viagas