Speaker Well, I auditioned eight times for Fiddler, which is pretty extraordinary. I met Jerry first when he was doing Mother Courage and I auditioned four times and didn't get the part. But he remembered me and he called me in to meet with me and said, I really want you to be in this show in Fiddler. And I said, Well, you know, I'm not a singer. And he said, I know, don't worry about it. You know, you don't have to have a trained voice and so on. And he had this idea that I should play Huddle, which is a soprano part. And I went in and I sang and it was terrible. And he kept calling me back time after time. And after the sixth audition, he said, I'd like you to work with Sheldon and Jerry on Far from the Home I Love, which is Huddled song. And I did. And I went in again and it was terrible. And that was the seventh audition. And then he said, I want to come to your singing lesson and hear everything that you sing, which was kind of amazing. So we met on a rainy November morning at my singing teacher's house and I sang all these songs and finally I sang Irma Ledoux's, which is that. All right? And he said, That's it. That's it. Sing that at the audition. And I went to the audition, was on a Broadway stage, which is they don't do that much anymore. And Sheldon and Jerry were there in the audience.

Speaker And I sang the song and they looked up and they said, she's got a chest voice. She can sing slightly.

Speaker So that was it. But eight auditions and and only because of his persistence, I mean, nobody else would have brought me back. So he was very supportive. He was he was very supportive during rehearsals.

Speaker Before we get in this. Oh, OK. You do it all again. And I was just she's wonderful. So we're OK with that, right? Yeah. Yeah, it's fine.

Speaker It's just want to Joanna, before we move on, I'm going to ask you when we start again, um, if you know, how did equity you feel about that. Well between now. OK, I'm going to ask you. Yeah. That's something you know about. Right. Yeah. OK, I thought you would it take for it.

Speaker Is that better. I think I wanted to get where you were before you stop saying that, BroadVision.

Speaker A little definition is.

Speaker You want to try and maybe. Well, OK, so how do you feel about this?

Speaker Well, in those days, there was no regulation about it and you could audition as many times as you wanted. Now there is a regulation and you have to pay an actor if they come in more than, I think three or four times so.

Speaker That would not have happened today.

Speaker Just so that we have it on tape. Can you just explain to me who makes these regulations? I mean, put it in a sentence, including that entity?

Speaker Well, Actors Equity makes these regulations sort of determining how many times an actor can come in to audition so that they're not exploited by by the directors.

Speaker OK, let's. I'm sorry, it's still.

Speaker What is your impression of Jerry, you know, when you first met him?

Speaker He was always very warm and friendly to me.

Speaker And.

Speaker Jerry had. Had scapegoats. There were a couple of people in the cast that he was not warm and friendly to he. Yelled at them no matter what they did, and they couldn't do anything right. And I thought. That perhaps it was sort of displaced anger at zero because they had that was a very abusive relationship. But it was embarrassing. It was really it was embarrassing to the whole cast. And it just he just became very mean and he never he never behave that way to me and to a lot of the other people in the cast, but he sort of picked out these these two people and somehow or another, they survived it.

Speaker But it was tough. It was very tough. Can you sort of tell me what kind of thing that he would do so he would just keep criticizing them, correcting them, and they couldn't they could move in the right place. They could sing the right way. They couldn't act the right way. It was just all wrong. And and I mean, there was just no reason for it except that he was sort of venting for some reason.

Speaker OK, now tell me what part you played with relation to HIV and the other daughters.

Speaker I played the role of title who's the eldest daughter who marries Model? The tailor and my sisters are huddle at Halva and Spencer and Bilker with the two younger ones.

Speaker I think I don't know if this included you, but I heard that Jerry invited at the beginning some of the actors to his house to audition there. Were you one of them?

Speaker No, no, not at all.

Speaker When move beyond that. Now, I know the first two weeks of rehearsal included just the girls and their suitors to remember that.

Speaker Mm hmm. OK. Can you sort of.

Speaker Well, let me go back, Richard Aultman, you remember? Yes, I do. Right.

Speaker He wrote that that Jerry conducted a little trial and error sort of method with you in Austin during those that two week period.

Speaker You remember that? I don't. Well, tell me what those two weeks were like for you.

Speaker Well, it's sort of bonded us because we weren't working with the entire company, and I think that he did that intentionally to sort of create a little ensemble within the ensemble because of the because of the nature of the story and how important it was to sort of create a family.

Speaker OK, that's fine, I read that he gave the cast sort of improvisational kinds of exercises, do you remember what those were and can you describe them? Do you want me to remind you? Remind me. I know that there were exercises about it was basically about making you feel like you were the victims of prejudice. So there were exercises about like blacks trying to buy books in a Southern bookstore or Jews in a concentration camp or do you remember those?

Speaker I don't. I'm sorry. I don't. I do remember that he took us to this wonderful Hasidic wedding in Brooklyn when we were working on the whole wedding scene. And, you know, it was an incredible atmosphere and really informed us about what those weddings were like. And probably they haven't changed that much because the you know, the kids were still doing the old traditional dances and music and.

Speaker It was quite wonderful.

Speaker Was there anything that he saw there or that he discussed with you that then ended up in the show?

Speaker I don't know. I don't know. Sorry. Um.

Speaker How did he work with the actors so that they didn't think of themselves as kind of singing the same chorus in the dancing chorus, so they thought of themselves as characters? Do you remember that?

Speaker Answer the question. Tell me how he worked with you on Sidel.

Speaker You know, he didn't really he didn't really give me a lot of acting direction. He sometimes gave me line readings and Jerry felt a little bit inadequate, actually, in terms of giving actors direction, especially actors who were not musical actors. And we had a very interesting conversation a couple of years later when I was auditioning for the office, which he was directing. And after the audition, I didn't get cast. We had coffee together. And he said, I would like to talk to you some time about how to talk to actors, which I thought was really, you know, such an incredible thing for him to do, to ask me for advice. And I said, sure, I'd be happy to. Of course, he never called me about it, but I think he felt, you know, there was something humble about him in terms of his relationship to the acting process. And so, you know, a lot of it was really about movement and and.

Speaker And the whole world of the play, I mean, he was so involved in the world of the play and wanting it to be absolutely organic and true and simple and innocent, and it was difficult working with zero because zero really didn't take direction from Jerry.

Speaker But and there was a certain uneasiness because of that in the rehearsal process.

Speaker Once he gave me a direction that really upset me because it was just before the curtain went up on a preview in New York City and it was like five minutes before the curtain went up. And it's not a time when you give an actor direction, you can incorporate it and you can't question it. And he said to me, I have a scene where I'm complaining to PAFA about wanting not wanting to marry Lazar Wolf. And he said in that scene, he said, you're whining, don't whine. And it just it really threw me because I thought, where did I win? What what should I do about it? Exactly what you know? And and it was it was not a good thing to do. And I think that he just, you know, did it impulsively and probably didn't realize how upsetting it was. But it's not the sort of thing that a director ordinarily would do to an actor.

Speaker I think he was a little bit spoiled also by dancers who I'm sorry, say again, he was probably a little bit spoiled also by dancers who are very accustomed to getting directions and get out.

Speaker It's completely different. Different animal. I think he said about the cars that he and you addressed this a little bit, but maybe there's a little more in there. He said, I want to make a shtetl out of them, meaning the company. How did he do that?

Speaker Well, I think by continually talking about the the world of the play, about the characters and show in the show and welcome stories by bringing in photographs, by bringing in paintings of Chagall, by sort of giving us as much information about that world, about the Bagram's, my own family actually came from a shtetl. So my my mother was actually born on a shtetl and my father was also born in Russia. So I had I had some background, but a large portion of the cast was not Jewish. And and so he just made sure that everybody felt as though they understood what that what the life was like.

Speaker And initially, right at the beginning, he sort of brought in all this material and. So that I think we there was a feeling in the ensemble that we lived in the shtetl, it was it didn't feel like Broadway.

Speaker Joanne, what do you remember about Jerry staging the Sabbath meal?

Speaker Oh, my God, Jerry was a perfectionist, as you know, and he was never satisfied. He always wanted to keep tinkering and Austin and I, Austin played model, I played Sitel, and we had a scene table setting scene where I am asking him to talk to you about asking asking to have you for my hand. And Austin and I started counting the number of versions of the table that existed and there were 22 versions. And he would have gone on, I think, if there had been time. But, you know, it's a scene that lasts about two minutes or so. But he really he he was never really satisfied with his own work and he just kept working and working and working and, you know, until he could realize his vision. Yeah, and what was the difference between all of these twenty two very minor, very minor blocking, mostly about the blocking and and I think somewhat about the how angry I was and how insistent I was and what model's response was and so on. But I think it was mostly about setting the table, you know, how do you set the table? Where do you move the table? When do you move the table?

Speaker Shall we interviewed Sheldon and he said that the chair was like the world's greatest district attorney because he was always asking what the show was about. And I think, did he talk to the cast about that as well, what the show was about and relating everything to that? Do you remember that? And if so, what impact did that have on the company?

Speaker You know, I don't I really don't I mean, making something up, OK, you know, so you had to remember about how much rehearsal you had.

Speaker Now, you have had eight weeks of rehearsal. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. This is going to sound crazy, but go with it, OK? What did you do when your days off?

Speaker Well, I spent a little time with my husband. We were just married or off.

Speaker That's why I. Oh, there were there were no days off.

Speaker See, I forgot that.

Speaker I forgot how you really you're really upset over the good stuff. There were no days when it wasn't legislated yet by equity.

Speaker Really. Wow.

Speaker Could you talk about how this is how Jerry staged the show so that you could sort of see the dissolution of the both of the tradition?

Speaker Do you know what I mean by that, how the opening number was staged in a particular kind of circular way that that kind of disintegrated through the shot? I want to put words in your mouth. You know what I'm doing?

Speaker I do. I mean, all I can tell you about the opening number is that I wanted to be in it, but he wouldn't let the daughters be at it. So the first time we appeared was in was in the next the next book scene.

Speaker But I really thought seeing that opening number come together was extraordinary. And that was all Jerry's vision tradition.

Speaker And yeah, I mean, the whole circle of the town and and each character was really introduced themselves, but through action, not through exposition. And so you got a sense of the relationships and and the families and the girls and the boys and their own attitudes and and the tradition of each film of the whole town. But unfortunately, I wasn't in it. I just loved that. No. And it looks like a lot of fun to me. Oh, yeah, I know. And it really just sort of it sort of it began. It began. The story is such a wonderful way. I mean, you got an overview of the town and and what it was about.

Speaker Um.

Speaker There were actually no conventional dance numbers in the show, but there was a lot of dancing. Could you talk about these dancers to me?

Speaker Well, I'll tell you a little bit about about the dance that I had to do. I didn't think I was going to have to really dance at all. And then he decided to bring gold and huddle and I into the Hovell a ballet. And I had to lead Hoddle in and I had to count a certain number of notes before I made my entrance. And I had never worked with an orchestra before. I was a nonmusical performer. And so he said, don't worry about it. And he took my hand and he counted it out for me several times and sort of led me on to the stage, did the dance with me, and sort of made me feel really more comfortable.

Speaker I wouldn't say comfortable because I was never comfortable. I was always afraid it was going to come in at the wrong time.

Speaker But again, I mean that he was just very supportive of me and I and I appreciated that enormously because musicals were not my major. Napa Valley, very cut. No, no, this was not this was the one that replaced the one that he cut off.

Speaker OK. All right. I'm going to read you another Sheldon statement and ask you about it. Sheldon said he drove everybody crazy because he had a vision that extended down to the littlest brushstroke in the scenery and the triangle part in the orchestra. So did you find that to be true? And can you think of an example of that?

Speaker Well, the example of that really is this table set, sorry, OK, you know what? Yeah, yeah. I mean, his his concern for detail was really the reason that he kept tinkering and changing, because even though the the the the scene might be exactly what it should be, there was something that didn't please him or something that was wrong. And he wouldn't stop until he had found out what it was or at least worked with it enough so that he was convinced that it was OK. It was possible.

Speaker Do you remember Jerry coming to you one night and giving you new lyrics to say, Oh, you know what story I'm thinking?

Speaker Yeah, that's Sheldon Sheldon Storey. You know, Sheldon remembers that. I don't remember it. I have to tell you, I don't remember it. You don't.

Speaker I mean, I really don't really know because you were smack in the middle of the two of them.

Speaker I was. But and and I remembered. But I really can't let you let Sheldon tell that story.

Speaker He did. What did you observe? You talked about this a little bit before, but if you could sort of start from the beginning and flesh it out, what did you observe about the working relationship between Jerry and Zero?

Speaker They really Jerry in zero were sort of always trying to avoid each other and still somehow create this show and zero was quite impossible.

Speaker There was a scene in a restaurant in between when we had a rehearsal break and Zero was sitting with a group of actors at one table near the front. And Jerry was sitting with another person toward the back. And Zero stood up, raised his glass and said, death to Jerry Robbins. And I mean, it was just everyone was stunned to know. It was just was really an unspeakable thing to do. And that was that that was the the atmosphere of the relationship. I mean, Jerry was haunted by the blacklist and not comfortable working with zero, but those were the givens. He was the director. Zero was the star and zero was as abusive as he possibly could be.

Speaker This to.

Speaker Tell me about how Jerry related to looks and or what. Well, it was and what their relationship was.

Speaker Jerry loved Oleksander, everybody loved Gloc centor. He was just he was he was just this delicious kind of character. He was a bit of a caricature. He really he really, I think, overacted the rabbi, but nobody minded because it was so wonderful for him to be in the show.

Speaker I don't think he ever expected to go back on the stage at his age. I don't know quite how old he was, but he was he was fairly old. But Jerry loved him. And and really, I mean, just he was his mentor in a way. And so he was he was very happy to have him around.

Speaker OK, how wrote that jury was indispensable to Fiddler. Do you agree with that? And if you do, can you explain why?

Speaker Jerry had a vision. And I think the vision was also a very personal vision because of his own family and and he I think he felt an incredible commitment to portraying that vision on the stage and so that it went beyond just doing another show that it really related to him and his life and his parents and his background and his history and his traditions and. So I think in that way, he was an indispensable part of creating Fiddler.

Speaker OK, what did you learn from Jerry?

Speaker I'm.

Speaker I think I learned a kind of discipline from Jerry. Jerry was a workaholic and, you know, there is something wonderful about continuing to work on something until you feel that that's as far as you can go, not stopping just because it's good or OK, but just going the extra mile to achieve something that feels right in in in a in a deeper way. And that was a very that was a very valuable lesson.

Speaker Um, what do you remember about opening night?

Speaker Oh.

Speaker Opening night was incredibly exciting. We always thought that this show would play for a little while once the Jews in New York had seen it, it would close and. Opening night was just incredible. I mean, the audience was so excited and we all kind of marched over to Sardi's and my parents flew in from California and I remember walking into Sardi's and having everybody clap. And it was just very exciting and moving.

Speaker And and the reviews, as you know, were mixed. They weren't all wonderful, but the word of mouth was terrific and.

Speaker And the interesting thing was that, you know, after I left fielder, because I was pregnant and I couldn't let the wedding dress out anymore, it's four and a half months pregnant.

Speaker I then became house casting director and I became the casting director for Fiddler for all the replacements down the road. So I guess many, many titles.

Speaker Sure. You did that with the with a lot of heart. Well, I hope so. So on opening night, by any chance, did you see Jerry with his father?

Speaker I don't remember. OK.

Speaker Um, would you I just remember my father completely understandable, would you say that Jerry was a decisive worker or an indecisive worker?

Speaker I think he was. I think Jerry was indecisive only because he was never satisfied. Um.

Speaker That's all I have to say. I you know, I think that's pretty much it, but is there anything that you would like to say about your experience working with Joe or with Austin that I haven't asked you about?

Speaker Well, Austin kind of made made Fittler just a wonderful experience for me. I mean, there were many members in the cast that I really loved, but I worked so closely with Austin and and Austin was unflappable.

Speaker I mean, zero was very good. Would make fun of Austin of Austin Stutter. And Austin just went right along with it and he would imitate his stutter. And that became part of the production so that every company that did Fiddler after that had had the character of Motl stuttering and then Tavia imitating his stutter. Austin thought it was great. And so, I mean, that was that was the kind of spirit that he had.

Speaker And and he kind of made things all right, even though, you know, there was this kind of uneasy atmosphere frequently because of the relationship between Zero and Jerry and and Jerry, you know, not being totally reliable as a cheerful person who appeared at rehearsal every morning in good spirits.

Speaker But Austin was there and that was wonderful for me.

Speaker Is there anything else you'd like to tell me about Jerry and I saw Jerry after his bicycle accident, after one of his ballets at New York City Ballet, and and he told me about it and he seemed he seemed somewhat weak and diminished.

Speaker And it was sad. It was very sad because he had had boundless energy and. And in it was just hard to see him like that, and that was the last time I saw him.

Joanna Merlin
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-tx3513vq93, cpb-aacip-504-gf0ms3kn6n
"Joanna Merlin, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 12 Dec. 2006,
(2006, December 12). Joanna Merlin, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Joanna Merlin, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). December 12, 2006. Accessed May 17, 2022


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