Entertainment Theater

Joanna Merlin, Recognized for Her Work Each Onstage and Off, Dies at 92

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Joanna Merlin, who, after originating the function of Tzeitel, the eldest daughter, within the hit Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” grew to become a famend casting director, notably for Stephen Sondheim musicals together with “Into the Woods” and “Follies,” died on Oct. 15 at her youthful daughter’s residence in Los Angeles. She was 92.

Her older daughter, Rachel Dretzin, mentioned the trigger was issues of myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow illness.

The thought of turning into a casting director got here from Hal Prince, the highly effective producer of “Fiddler,” after she had left “Fiddler” to lift her two younger daughters. He had interviewed a number of candidates and advised Ms. Merlin that almost all of them “simply didn’t like actors,” she told Backstage magazine.

“He felt that since I used to be an actor and a mom, that I may be a sensible choice,” she added. “He understood that I used to be elevating kids and advised me that he didn’t care what hours I put in, simply so long as I acquired the work carried out.”

She set to work in 1970, casting substitute actors in “Fiddler” throughout its final two years on Broadway. For the subsequent 20 years, she solid six musicals that had been composed by Sondheim and produced (and normally directed) by Mr. Prince on Broadway: “Firm,” “Follies,” “A Little Evening Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Aspect by Aspect by Sondheim” and “Merrily We Roll Alongside.”

Her casting credit additionally embody two different Sondheim musicals, “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods”; Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita”; and “On the Twentieth Century,” by Betty Comden, Adolph Inexperienced and Cy Coleman. All these exhibits besides “Into the Woods” had been directed by Mr. Prince.

“What I discovered so attention-grabbing with Joanna,” James Lapine, who directed “Into the Woods” and wrote its guide, primarily based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, mentioned in a cellphone interview, “was her willpower to pursue nontraditional casting within the theater, which for me, at a younger age, was one thing I hadn’t thought a lot about.”

Ms. Merlin’s pursuit of numerous casting led Mr. Lapine to decide on a Black actress, Terry Burrell, to interchange the white one who had performed one in all Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, and Phylicia Rashad, who’s Black, as a substitute for Bernadette Peters within the main function of the Witch.

In 1986, Ms. Merlin was a founding father of the Non-Conventional Casting Challenge (now the Alliance for Inclusion within the Arts), which seeks extra alternatives for actors of coloration and actors with disabilities.

Ms. Merlin, noting that there have been many gifted, nonwhite actors, advised The Report of Hackensack, N.J., in 1990. “The explanation they need to be solid is as a result of they’re good,”

Ms. Merlin additionally solid six movies, together with Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Final Emperor” (1987), for which she gained the Casting Society of America’s Artios Award. She additionally gained an Artios for “Into the Woods.”

Jo Ann Dolores Ratner was born on July 15, 1931, in Chicago. Her dad and mom had been Russian immigrants: Her father, Harry, owned a grocery retailer, and her mom, Toni (Merlin) Ratner, helped within the retailer and have become a sculptor in her 60s.

She moved to Los Angeles together with her dad and mom and her sister when she was 15.

She attended the College of California, Los Angeles, for a 12 months within the early Fifties and, after performing in performs within the Los Angeles space within the early and mid-Fifties, appeared in her first film function, a small half in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956).

After some extra display screen work and roles in Off and Off Off Broadway performs, Ms. Merlin made her Broadway debut in 1961 in Jean Anouilh’s “Becket,” as Gwendolen, the mistress of Thomas Becket, one in all Britain’s strongest figures within the twelfth century, who was performed by Laurence Olivier. Later that 12 months, she returned to Broadway to painting Sigmund Freud’s spouse in Henry Denker’s “A Far Nation.”

After 4 unsuccessful auditions for a task in Bertolt Brecht’s “Mom Braveness and Her Youngsters,” which was staged by Jerome Robbins, she auditioned eight instances for Mr. Robbins when he was casting “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opened in 1964. Though she lacked a powerful singing voice, she was solid as Tzeitel, the oldest daughter of Tevye the milkman, the present’s principal character.

The syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons wrote that when Ms. Merlin was pregnant in 1965 together with her daughter Rachel, Zero Mostel, who performed Tevye, advised the stage supervisor: “Joanna’s child simply kicked. Ship child a observe — to not kick.”

She left the present in 1965 after Rachel was born, returned as Tzeitel a 12 months later, and departed once more in 1967 when she was changed by her understudy, Bette Midler (who was additionally Rachel’s babysitter). After Julie’s delivery in 1968, Mr. Prince made his provide.

She continued to behave, largely in movies and on tv. Her roles included the dance instructor in “Fame” (1980), Julia Roberts’s mom in “Mystic Pizza” (1988) and an previous Jewish lady in a brief movie, “Lovely Hills of Brooklyn” (2008), which she and Ragnar Freidank tailored from a one-woman play by Ellen Cassedy.

TV viewers may be most accustomed to Ms. Merlin’s recurring function in “Regulation & Order: Particular Victims Unit.” She performed Decide Lena Petrovsky 43 instances from 2000 to 2011. No different actor has performed a jurist extra typically within the “Regulation & Order” franchise. She additionally appeared, as two completely different protection attorneys, in 5 episodes of “Regulation & Order.”

Her profession as an performing instructor started in 1998 at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a 12 months later she started holding workshops devoted to the performing strategy of her instructor, Michael Chekhov.

Within the foreword to her guide, “Auditioning: An Actor-Pleasant Information” (2001), Mr. Prince wrote: “Her style is impeccable. In no occasion can I bear in mind her recommending anybody lower than attention-grabbing for a task.”

Along with her daughter Rachel, a documentary filmmaker, and her daughter Julie Dretzin, an actress, Ms. Merlin is survived by 5 grandchildren. Her first marriage, to Marty Lubner, resulted in divorce. Her marriage to David Dretzin ended along with his loss of life in 2006 after a automotive accident by which he suffered a traumatic mind harm. Her sister, Harriet Glickman, died in 2020.

For “Pacific Overtures,” which takes place in Japan after Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s go to in 1853 and which had an all-Asian solid, Ms. Merlin engaged in “what could also be one of the poignant expertise searches undertaken for a Broadway present,” in response to a 1976 article in The New York Instances.

Racism and economics typically compelled Asian actors out of the career on the time. So when she had no luck discovering actors in New York, she labored with Asian neighborhood and theater teams, Asian newspapers and the State Division to fill the roles. A 3rd of these finally signed for the manufacturing had been nonprofessionals.

Amongst them was the actor Gedde Watanabe, who was a younger avenue singer in San Francisco when she approached him and invited him to audition.

“I didn’t consider her,” Mr. Watanabe mentioned.