Somehow it seems absolutely right that the woman who wrote and sang the MTV hit “I Kissed a Girl” and “Supermodel” is penning the slightly subversive, excellently wry and humorous music and lyrics for “Yentl.” No, not the “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” “Yentl” that Barbra Streisand boldly made in homage to herself; the upcoming production of “Yentl” being staged in Washington, D.C.’s Goldman Theater, in the Jewish Community Center, by Theater J, hews far more closely to the original story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. And Jill Sobule, known for her barrier-breaking and socially conscious songs that question the status quo and deal unequivocally with issues as diverse as the death penalty, anorexia, reproduction, the French Resistance and the Christian right, appears to be an excellent choice.
“Yentl,” of course, is based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” about a young woman in 19th-century Eastern Europe who would rather study Talmud than follow the unbending path she is expected to take: marriage, homemaking, mothering a brood of children. This marks 40 years since the play — then without music — ran on Broadway. Adapted by then fledgling playwright Leah Napolin with the blessing and cooperation of Singer, the work is often seen as a feminist proof text, positing that women, too, have the brains and drive to tackle the male-driven world of talmudic study.
The stage play, as both Napolin and Sobule pointed out, differs tremendously from the Streisand-conceived movie musical. Streisand had even changed Singer’s ending by sending Yentl off to America, and Singer told The New York Times that he was unhappy with what she did to his story. At Theater J, rather than a dolled- and tarted-up vision of a cross-dressing shtetl woman, this “Yentl” features an updated script by Napolin, who in the early 1970s saw parallels in Singer’s short story that coincided with the burgeoning second wave of feminism. It’s unfortunate, both Napolin and Sobule said, that most people familiar with the story, know it only from the Streisand film.
“I still remember going to see the movie,” Sobule said in July from her home base in Los Angeles. “I remember watching the movie and… I remember loving it, but then I remember watching it again in later years, and I’m not sure it ages so well. Especially after you read the story.” Sobule says she simply couldn’t get over the fact that Streisand still looked the same after she cropped her hair and transformed herself from a orphaned teenage girl into a young yeshiva bokher: “When she turns into the boy, she looks like Barbra with a hat on,” Sobule said, giggling. “She still has gorgeous Beverly Hills nails and skin. They didn’t have that in the shtetl.”
This updated vision of “Yentl” won’t be called a musical, because of complications with the original contracts when Streisand and her production company acquired rights to the play. Instead, it is being called “a play with music.” Which, for Sobule, makes far more sense anyway. None of the central characters, she explained, bursts into song onstage. Instead, the townspeople serve as what Napolin lovingly calls “a Greek Yiddish chorus.”
For the Denver-raised singer/songwriter, best known for her piquant lyrics and narrative-based songs that tweak political and social mores, writing for the theater has been a joy. The limitations of the commission worked in her favor at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, where an earlier version was staged in 2013. “They didn’t have a budget for a big band or a traditional musical theater orchestra. And we couldn’t call it a musical, because of contractual things with Barbra Streisand, so… since we didn’t have the budget, I wrote for street musicians,” she said, adding that she imagined the music being played by a small traveling street band, which would not have been unusual in the late 19th- and early 20th-century shtetls of Europe.
“It’s not musical theater-y,” she claimed. “I don’t come from a musical theater background. It is more of a pop/folk/rock thing.”
Sobule grew up in Denver, and her early music experiences included playing on the child-sized drum kit her parents bought her when she was about 5. Eventually her parents convinced her that the guitar would be a much nicer instrument; maybe it was the noise factor. She acquired her elder brother’s musical tastes — classic rock — and aspired to become a rock star guitarist. “When I was little — and it’s different now — there were no women role models, but I just wanted to be a rock star guitar player like Hendrix. George Harrison was my favorite Beatle. But the boys in junior high thought it was kind of weird: Girls were supposed to play [guitar] like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.”
No matter. Her parents supported her interests and her dad, a veterinarian, took her to her first rock concert, Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare.” “My mind was blown!” Sobule exclaimed. “Music was everything for me.” These days, Sobule has a steady recording contract and has released a half-dozen albums. She still tours, and continues to write what she calls “grown-up music for an adolescent age.”
On writing the “Yentl” lyrics, she admitted cribbing from the Bible, as well as, of course, Singer’s original short story. “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Sobule said. “A couple of the songs I completely stole from the Book of Samuel, Song of Songs. I like to write story songs about historical things, so this [project] was so good for me. I just sat and read books; it was actually like reliving Sunday school.” One song, “David and Jonathan,” is taken from the biblical tale, and Sobule plays with the unmistakable attraction that Avigdor has for Yentl, who is disguised as Anshel. Sobule’s gloss on the Jonathan and David story is that there was perhaps a sexual attraction to their close friendship, and she plays freely with that idea in her lyrics, perhaps even suggesting a transgender quality.
Sobule hopes that this remounting of “Yentl” will introduce a new generation to Singer’s beloved and still relevant tale. In the Florida production, Napolin the playwright reported that particularly younger audiences of teens identified with Yentl as an outsider seeking to find her own voice within a very proscribed world.
“I identify with Yentl completely,” Sobule said. “I was such a tomboy and still am a tomboy. I wanted the guy things, whether it was to be like James Bond or Hendrix or whatever; they’re so much cooler, way more fun. No, I don’t want to stay home and make drapes.”
Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts from Rockville, Maryland.
“Yentl” runs from August 28 to October 5 at Theater J, 1529, 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C.