In Memoriam: Joanna Merlin

Joanna Merlin
(July 15, 1931 – October 15, 2023)

Joann Ratner, born on July 15, 1931, in Chicago, opted to change her name as she pursued a career in show business. Her endeavors led her to Broadway, where she notably appeared in three productions, including the original 1960 staging of Becket featuring Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn, and the original 1961 production of A Far Country starring Kim Stanley.

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In 1964, her breakthrough role came when she landed the role of Tzeitel, the eldest daughter of milkman Tevye, in what would become a highly successful musical. In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Merlin portrayed Tzeitel, who, despite her father’s reservations, desires to wed the impoverished tailor Motel (originally portrayed by Austin Pendleton).
Following her role in “Fiddler,” Merlin transitioned, particularly on Broadway, from performing to casting. She played a pivotal role in casting several of Stephen Sondheim’s iconic musicals, such as “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “Into the Woods.” Additionally, she was involved in casting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” and the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Cy Coleman musical “On the Twentieth Century.”

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Onward, she focused on casting and acting in television and film. She was casting director for films such as, Year of the Dragon, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Emperor, Jefferson in Paris and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. She had some film acting roles in The Killing Fields, Mr. Wonderful and The Wackness, and on television in Northern Exposure, New York Undercover, All My Children, The Good Wife and Homeland. Her most recognized role came from the Law & Order franchise. Appearing several times in the original series, however it was her role as the tough Judge Lena Petrovsky in Law & Order: SVU that was particularly known.

Photo by Jessica Burstein/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

In 1998, Merlin instructed graduate acting at New York University. The subsequent year, she established the Michael Chekhov Association, where she conducted acting workshops.

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