Jessica Vosk on bringing new (after)life to Fruma Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof, leading man Danny Burstein, and finding confidence within

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by Samantha Stephens and Nicole Nadler 

Jessica Vosk flies onto the stage each night in the hit revival of Fiddler on the Roof as Lazar Wolf’s first wife, the delightfully terrifying Fruma Sarah. Characterized as being a bitter woman and vindictive to the point of murder, Fruma Sarah is a larger-than-life character that only someone as talented as Vosk could pull off.

Off-stage, Vosk couldn’t be any different from her character. Though her social media accounts, Vosk is well-known to her fans for her infectious personality, love for mermaids and constant encouragement for self-respect and pride. While this practice has helped Vosk find success in this career, this was not always her experience. Before her time on Broadway, Vosk had a finance career working on Wall Street. During this time, while closed off from the world that she loved, Vosk found herself in that bitter place, shrouded in a life that wasn’t meant to be and avoiding the world to which she truly belonged.

It was only when she started creating her own mantra and deciding to love herself first that the life the wanted to lead, and the roles along with it soon followed.

In her dressing room full of mermaids and bright colors and inspiring quotes, Vosk spoke with Stage Door Dish about her journey to Broadway, her experience with her amazing cast, and of course, her infamous Fruma Sarah makeup.

I’m going to start with your history with various members of this cast: Alexandra Silber, Melanie Moore. What it’s like to know these people going into such a dramatic experience?

It’s kind of great. It’s really cool knowing people beforehand. I’ve been friends with Danny [Burstein] for awhile. Al and I did West Side Story out in San Francisco together. We played Maria and Anita. We got pretty close. Mel and I got really close in Finding Neverland. We knew that this would be a much different and more dramatic circumstance than Neverland, which wasn’t at all dramatic. Not like this. That’s been really fun. It’s been lovely to work with everybody. Various people in this cast, we’ve all kind of known each other through different workshops and readings of other stuff. It’s nice to be able to work with everybody on one piece.

Do you have a Fiddler on the Roof story? Do you have any connection to the show prior to this?

No. Not even one.

Did you see the movie before?

Vaguely. I’ve never seen it as a show. They did it at my high school; I never saw it. They did it the year before I was a freshman, so I never saw it. I loved the story though. I knew the story. I knew some of the songs from the show. I had no idea who Fruma Sarah was when my agent called and said, ‘They want to know if you’d consider doing Fruma Sarah.’ I was like, ‘Who is that?’ They asked me to YouTube ‘The Dream’. I was like, ‘Alright.’ But then I did it, and I was like, ‘Okay, yes.’

What made you so excited about the role?

Sheldon Harnick gave me creative license with it. This is the first time that it gets to be belted versus every other show where it’s screamed like a ghost witch. It was really nice to be able to go in and sing and belt. It hasn’t really been before, so that’s cool.

How was this Fruma developed because she’s so different from any Fruma I’ve ever seen?

Our director, Bart Sher, he’s amazing. In the rehearsal room, we started where I came out of the wardrobe. Then, we thought it would be better if I was lifted. Then, we thought it would be good if I was on somebody’s shoulders. Then, we tried flying. Lastly, here I am on a 20-foot structure. The costume has changed. It used to be purple and chiffon. Bart thought it was too glamorous for a ghost-person. I was like, ‘No, please don’t take this away from me!’ I felt like a dead princess. There was a corset. It was the way to live, and they took it away from me. It’s okay because the new costume is great. It’s larger-than-life in every single way, right to the boobs that are soccer balls. They really actually are children’s soccer balls.

Is there something that goes through your mind every night? How do you brace yourself for the moment of being 20 feet high and then doing this iconic number?

If you really want to know what my jam is: I get up on the thing, and then I wait stage right. Then our Fiddler, who’s on top of the big wardrobe, he has to come down off the wardrobe. As he does that, I do a different dance move every night to him to get myself ready. Today, it was a little vogue-ing. Easter, it was a good bunny ear because of the long fingers that I have. But it’s always a different dance move.

This costume and this makeup is so elaborate. Do you have one part that makes you feel like Fruma?

My lips. I don’t know why. I always do a different kind of lip every night. Sometimes the right side of my mouth is angry. Or sometimes I decide to go with a smaller lip. Once I put the lips on, I’m Fruma-ed. And the cheeks. The pink cheeks.

What do you imagine Fruma, who is only presented as a dead character, would be like in life?

Manipulative. Loud. But also passive-aggressive. She probably gets what she wants. She’s probably the type of woman who will hint to her husband that she wants pearls, but doesn’t outwardly ask for them. Then, gets the most expensive thing and is surprised when it happens even though she planned it the whole time. She would say, ‘Oh, so Christmas is coming up. I don’t want anything but those are such pretty pearls. Do NOT get me them.’ That would be Fruma Sarah.

I like that you and Adam Dannheisser, who plays Lazar, do little videos online together. You guys are scene partners without having a scene together, which is so interesting. Have you guys discussed when Fruma was alive? How do you guys play off each other without physically playing off of each other?

We’re both very comedic human beings. We thought that we fought like crazy people when we were together, but we also were very passionate. We make each other laugh onstage. Even when the two of us are just onstage, we will randomly make each other laugh, which is absolutely inappropriate. Don’t tell anybody. I love making the Dubsmashes with him. It’s the best.

You understudy Jessica Hecht’s role of Golde too. Can you talk about the time you went on for the second act?

Yes, I’d love to. So, at the end of Act 1 is the wedding. There’s a pogrom at the wedding, and there’s a big fight that happens. All of the Russians come in, and they knock shit around. In this one circumstance where Perchik gets up and tries to fight them, the Russians hit him. They hit a little too far, and Jessica got hit. She’s totally okay, 100% fine, but needed to get checked out. I saw that something wasn’t right in the wedding, that she wasn’t in the right spot. So, I came up and and somebody said, ‘Oh, she’s laying on the side of the stage. I think she got hit.’ I was like, ‘Oh God, no no no.’ Then, I came up here. Nobody came to talk to me, so I sat down and thought, ‘Okay, we’re good.’ They called, ‘This is five minutes until Act 2.’ Then the stage manager ran up here, opened my door and said, ‘you’re on for Act 2.’ I said, ‘That’s funny. Haha.’ She’s was like, ‘No, you’re on for Act 2.’

The audience was amazing. They clapped when I walked on, which was lovely because the announcement was made right before I came on. It went so well, I don’t know how it went that well. Adrenaline takes you through these types of things when you’re thrown on in the circumstance. It could not have gone better for never having done it. It’s nuts. I do love going on. I knew I would enjoy going on, but I’m in love with that role.

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You’re so recognizable as Fruma now. What’s your relationship with the character Golde like?

Next to Tevye, she’s the hardest role in the show. She’s emotionally an incredible arc to play. The acting of it is so complex. It’s like a master class every single time I do it. I love doing it. Every time it gets more and more in depth. I’m completely enamored by her. It’s such a hard role. It really is.

Does the preparation for playing Fruma differ from playing Golde when you come to the theatre?

Yeah. Fruma is like Rockstar Express. It’s fun. I don’t have to think that much about what it is that I’m doing. I play one emotion which is sheer anger. She’s pissed. Golde is busy, happy, sad, angry. It’s a much different show. It’s much different prep. I prep a lot more mentally for Golde.

How does playing both of these roles enhance your performance?

I’m a broader actor for having done it. To go on and pretend that I have five daughters. It’s hard because I’m a little younger, so they age me up a little bit. It’s a class. When I come back to Fruma, I feel ten times stronger as an actor.

If you could play any other character in Fiddler, gender-bent or not, which would you want to tackle? Which one do you identify most with as Jessica?

I’d be down with Perchik.

As the character you’d play or the one you feel like you’re most connected to?

I’m most like Perchik. I like to question things. I don’t like to go with the flow. I’ll speak up. We all know this. On things like social media, I’m not a quiet human, but I like to be really educated in what I’m saying. In that regard, I’m like Perchik. If I could play somebody in the show, I’d want to play the Fiddler. I would. I’d also like to be that good of a dancer. Put me in ‘L’Chaim,’ I will do one of those weird headstands, and then also fake play the violin.

You are very confident and very true to yourself. You really exude that. Have you always been that way or was this a journey to be that sort of person?

No, I have not. It’s so funny. I think that I probably come off more confident than I really am. Right now, having done three Broadway shows, understanding what it is to be in this business, wanting to keep moving forward and do bigger things, there is a sort of confidence that you have to have. You have to have a feeling like, ‘I know what it is that I do. I know that I do it really well. I know that I’m an asset to what it is that I’m doing.’ I think whatever you do, whether it’s musical theater, TV/Film, scientist, or engineer, know you’re worth. Know what you’re capable of. Do your best 100 percent of the time. Everyone will see it.

When I went on as Golde, our head producer came to see it. That’s a huge thing for us who are going on in understudy roles. At the end of the day, they could tell us that they don’t want us to go on. They have the power to do that. The confidence stuff, it’s really hard. I’m in a business where I’m up against the five same people over and over again for the same roles. The business gets smaller and smaller the more you tackle it.

For young kids who are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s such a huge business,’ when you start out, it is. Going to open calls, EPAs, Equity chorus calls: huge, horrible, crazy. You have to do it. At the point where you get a manager, you get agents, and you’re going in for specific stuff, you will see the same people over and over again. Half of them will probably be your friends. The mindset that I think is important to take on – and I don’t follow it all of the time because I’m not a perfect human – is ‘I’m going to into this audition. I’m going to nail it to capability that I can. If somebody else there gets it, good for them, it was meant to be.’ Do I actually do that all the time? No. I’ll get home and be like, ‘AHHH’ because I’m a human being and I wanted the role. It happens much more frequently than not that you’ll go in and audition over and over again and not book it.

The way I got called in for Bridges of Madison County was because years ago, when I had just gotten out finance, I went in and auditioned for Elphaba, no audition skills outside of being in finance. I walked in, did not nail Elphaba, did not get it, but they kept my headshot and resume. For Bridges, they thought that I would be really good. At the time I went in for Bridges, which was a few years later, with some acting classes under my belt, I booked it. The confidence thing is hard. A few years ago if you’d asked me, ‘Do you know what mantras are?’ or ‘When you wake up in the morning, do you meditate?’ I would have said, ‘Ew.’ But, I do. I have a thing on my wall that’s like, ‘What is it that you want?’ A vision thing of what you want. I do believe that if you look at it every day and say, ‘I have this vision. I can completely attain it. Stay in your lane. I don’t want to be in somebody else’s lane or it would drive me nuts.’

I want to know more about your pre-Broadway life. That’s such a leap. How did you go from finance? How did that happen?

My parents were like, ‘You’re graduating college. Get a job.’ That’s what I happened. I got a career in finance. I worked in midtown with tons of Wall Street people. Two and half-ish years in, I was climbing the corporate ladder, I was doing a great job. I was really good at what I was doing. I started to get really stressed and have terrible anxiety. I had a lot of clients all over the world. I was like, ‘I can’t!’ I was skillfully able to leave that job. I was networking and going to open mic nights while I was trying to figure out how to leave. So, a few people who knew other people heard me sing, and passed my name on to those other people. If there’s a secret of this business for me, it’s networking. It’s not where you went to school. That doesn’t matter. That’s my opinion. I’m saying it doesn’t matter but ask someone who went to Michigan. My point is my networking is different from somebody else’s which is different from another person’s. I just happen to be very good in big crowd situations where I’ll sit and work the room for the rest of the night. That’s how I did it. Then, I got a really big gig at Carnegie Hall, and it just kind of happened.

What would you say to those in their sensible jobs whose parents want them to get a job but feel like there’s another thing they love?

I think it’s really hard because I was able to support myself when I was in a finance job. My parents hated that I left. They’re very happy now, but they hated that I left. If I didn’t leave, I would have regretted that for the rest of my life. Part of it for me is that if it’s something that you love – and I teach all the time and do Q&A’s with kids for Broadway classroom – if it’s something that you love and you don’t feel like you can do anything else, you have to pursue it. You have to pursue it. There are ways to live. There are so many different side jobs. You could babysit. I did all of these things myself when I was transitioning. But it’s something that I love to do so much. I love to sing and act and work with these people. This is what I get to do every single night. Am I tired? Yes, I’m tired. The houses people that show up to this show and every other Broadway show for that matter, if there’s only one person that’s there that you’re changing their life or that you’re taking their day and making it from the most craptastic day to the most fantastic day because there’s 3 hours of a story that you’re able to convey to them onstage. That is, in my opinion, what it’s about. The minute that you get a kid at the stage door who says, ‘This is my first Broadway show. I’ve never seen it before.’ That is why I do what I do. Now that could kid could be like, ‘Wow. I think I could do that someday.’ The whole is that it’s actually possible to do. It’s the hardest thing ever to do but it’s absolutely possible to do it.

You’re very active on social media and people know it. They love it. You give a lot of advice for dealing with negativity and the haters. How do you handle that in such a difficult industry?

If people are talking about you, be it negative or positive, it is so much better than them not talking about you. Of course people have negative things to say. I have negative things to say about people. If you have negative things to say about me, say it. My name is in your mouth for some reason. Keep it there. Even if you want to hate on me, it doesn’t matter. Whatever. I’m still a happy human. I have a job. I know what being bitter is like. I get it.

When I did a career that I didn’t love, I didn’t go to any Broadway shows. I didn’t want to talk to anybody who was a singer. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. When I was in finance for three years, I didn’t see one show. The whole time I was like, ‘Whatever. I don’t care. Whatever, she’s not that good.’ Yeah, they are that good. All of us who are active on social media in the Broadway world, we really do know each other. We’re not all going to like each other because, let’s face it, actors have large personalities. We are not shy people. We have opinions. We’re not going to all agree. I think there’s a level of respect that you need to have, even if you don’t like people who you work with. We work together. We are all here because we worked very hard to get here. Any of that negative stuff that exists outside of theatre doesn’t need to come into it. It’s easier said than done. If people are talking, let them talk. I think it’s great. Then five more people know who I am based on the fact that somebody can’t stand me. Bad press is still press. 

I want to talk about Fiddler‘s leading man, Danny Burstein. As a scene partner and as a friend, what have you taken away from his performance? What has he said to you that has left an impact on you either personally as Jessica or as an actress within this production?

First of all, and everybody is going to tell you this, he’s actually the best person in the world. Nicest guy, most talented guy. You can learn everything from him as an actor. I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve worked with his wife [Rebecca Luker] who’s also an amazing lady crush of mine.

Danny is an insanely wonderful, caring scene partner. If there’s something I’ve learned from him, it’s just to listen. He’s really good at it. He’s very playful. That’s kind of how I am. I’m an improv lover. If you throw something at me, I will do something with it. I love it. I don’t like things that get boring. If you were to hand me this the same way eight shows a week, I’d be like, ‘Girl bye. No, let’s do something different.’ That’s how Danny is. He makes things silly onstage but he’s a consummate performer at the same time. Super professional onstage and offstage and a very good friend. Any questions that I have for him about career stuff, anything from ‘What do I do with my agent with this’ or ‘What do you think I should be doing with that?’ He always a wonderful answer because he has been around the block. He has passed go 8000 times and collected $200. He’s very knowledgeable.

I’ve been in shows where the leading man or lady have been difficult to work with because we’re in a Broadway show and they are billed above the title. It’s kind of their right to be a little bit of a diva. That doesn’t exist here. That’s why it’s so refreshing. Danny acts like everybody’s the same: the janitor to the person who stuffs Playbills to the actors. There’s no difference, and that’s how it should be. He’s an incredible human being and somebody who I think you should emulate if you are a performer. I’ve seen him in quite a few shows, and he brings something charming to every one of these roles. I think he was born to play this one specifically. I really do. There’s nobody like him that can do it. I love him.

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About Nicole N.

"Say yes. Show up afraid, show up prepared, but say yes." - Renee Elise Goldsberry

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