From Grandma Tzeitel to Golde
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From Grandma Tzeitel to Golde

Jill Abramovitz comes home to Jersey to star in Paper Mill’s ‘Fiddler’

Jill Abramovitz as Grandma Tzeitel on Broadway.
Jill Abramovitz as Grandma Tzeitel on Broadway.

Jill Abramovitz’s stage debut came in a first-grade production of “Cinderella.” She wanted the title role, but that didn’t happen.

“They had us audition reading the script,” Ms. Abramovitz said in a Zoom interview. The difficulty was the script. The word “script.” Young Jill confused the idea of a theatrical script with cursive writing. “I couldn’t read script,” she said. “So I was too afraid to audition.”

Fortunately, there was a happy ending. Ms. Abramovitz landed the role of one segment in a five-segment stage worm. Hey, everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

It’s been a few years — she prefers not to say how many — and many more substantial roles since then. Her latest brings her back to her home state to star as Golde in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

It’s a New Jersey reunion in other ways, as well. Not only has she appeared at the Playhouse in Millburn before (in a production of “Damn Yankees”), but when she was a child, her mother, Helen, took her to Paper Mill productions — Helen Abramovitz was a regular attendee at the theater even before Jill was born.

It’s also a reunion with the play. Ms. Abramovitz played Grandma Tzeitel in the Danny Burstein-Jessica Hecht Broadway production.

Jill grew up in Morristown, where the family belonged to Temple B’nai Or. While the Abramovitzes were secular, the family was well aware of its heritage. “My (maternal) grandparents were Holocaust survivors,” she told me. “My mother, Helen, was born in a DP camp. So our identity culturally was very, very strong.

“My mother’s first language was Yiddish. They spoke Yiddish around me, and I learned enough as an adult to play a part in [the Folksbiene production of] ‘Yentl.’”

Ms. Abramovitz always knew she wanted to be an actor. In addition to the Paper Mill, Helen also took Jill to Broadway — “Peter Pan” and “Annie” are among the first musicals she remembers seeing. But it was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Song and Dance,” starring Bernadette Peters, that sealed the deal. “It was the first time I remember crying, being moved to tears by theater,” she said.

“My mother was outrageously supportive. And she still is. She deserves a medal of honor for all the classes she drove me to, and for the waiting outside and for recording all the school plays and holding my hand when I cried when things didn’t work out. It’s really such a commitment to be the parent of a kid who wants to do this. And she wasn’t a stage mom, either.”

Ironically, considering her ambitions, Jill wasn’t a theater major in college. Instead, she earned a liberal arts degree at the University of Pennsylvania, resulting in a self-deprecating joke she tells all the time:

“What kind of an idiot goes to an Ivy League school and then goes to New York to get waitressing jobs?” But that was one of several survival jobs she took to keep herself fed and clothed while she auditioned.

Jill Abramovitz as herself.

She landed roles with touring companies of “Grease” and “South Pacific,” but that still left her plenty of free time while waiting for her Big Break, “I had so much creative energy I didn’t know what to do with it. So I started writing.”

She discovered she was adept at lyrics and began hanging around Theaterworks USA, the nonprofit group that produces children’s theater. There she worked on her own material — she’s written lyrics and the book for several well-received productions — and auditioned for works being developed by others. “It’s where I cut my teeth. I liked being in the room, creating characters. The people I worked with there were the top of the food chain.”

That’s also how she met her husband, composer Brad Alexander, when she auditioned for one of his musicals. “The story goes that I left the audition and he turned to the director and said, ‘I think I just met my wife.’” Ms. Abramovitz and Mr. Alexander now have a son, Leo, who recently became bar mitzvah.

In 2006, Jill landed her first Broadway job, as an understudy for Nicole Parker and Mary Birdsong in “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.”

“I remember the first time I went on,” she said. “We were in Toronto and I went on in the Mary Birdsong role. I came backstage after the first scene with Marty for a quick change, and he said to me, ‘Hey, you hear them laughing? You hear them laughing?’

“And I was like, ‘oh God, how can I preserve this moment in amber?’”

Other roles followed. “9 to 5,” “Cinderella,” “Fiddler” (where she also was understudy for Golde) and “Beetlejuice.” This in addition to roles Off-Broadway, in regional productions, and a decent portfolio of work in television: “Chicago Med,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and “Blue Bloods.” She’s also developed a third career as an acting coach.

“I always tell kids when I teach them, ‘Be great to work with.’ Even more important than your talent is your kindness and your joy and the energy you bring to the room.”

Judging by their names, the preponderance of the actors in Paper Mill’s production of “Fiddler” are Jewish, and Ms. Abramovitz finds that “very meaningful right now.

“Jews are experiencing a lot right now. And there’s a shorthand that no one has to pretend when they walk into the room that they’re not terrified about what’s going on in the world. I know what they’re going through because I’m going through it too. Doing the show now, it resonates.”

The Paper Mill Playhouse’s “Fiddler on the Roof” runs from December 6 to January 7. Tickets range in price from $35 to $125; learn more and buy tickets at Papermill.org.

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