Yentl turns 40 this year. Not the orphan girl from the shtetl who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a yeshiva boy. And not, of course, Barbra Streisand, who made Yentl a household name as a movie in 1983.
The stage play, written by Leah Napolin with an assist from Yiddish literary great Isaac Bashevis Singer, who penned the original short story, made its Broadway debut in 1975. According to Napolin, the time was ripe for this story about a young woman who wasn’t born in the wrong body, but in the wrong time. “It was an important moment for me in historical terms and in personal historical terms,” Napolin said, “because you go back to 1974-75, the women’s movement was just beginning its Second Wave. I was really quite caught up in that.
Yentl simply made it seem more relevant when it finally did happen.” This month, a refreshed version of Napolin’s original play, with a new score composed by pop/rock/indie singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, opens Theater J’s season at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater.
Sobule might be best known for her 1995 MTV hit “I Kissed a Girl,” which brought a brazen new sensibility to the rock and pop love songs. This Yentl, not surprisingly, is nothing like the kitschy but popular Barbra Streisand movie, with its big, showy vocal pieces like “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” and “Piece of Sky.”
Instead of a traditional musical showcasing Streisand’s over-the-top persona, this new look at Yentl is a lower decibel, “a play with music.” “Yentl doesn’t sing,” Napolin explained. Sobule’s instrumentation is crafted for a small street band of players: a violin, a bass, a guitar, an accordion player. “In the play there’s music and the townspeople sing.
But the three principals don’t sing,” Napolin said. “Then it would be a musical, and we are forbidden contractually from competing with the movie, which was a musical. That’s why this is a play with music rather than a musical.
The townspeople are like a Yiddish Greek chorus, if you will; they sing to great effect commenting on the action, much like a Greek chorus would.” Singer’s original short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” was first published in the 1950s. A colleague brought it to Napolin’s attention in the 1970s. “When I read it, I was knocked out by the story and thought it was appropriate for the time and place, certainly given what was happening in everyone’s lives at that moment,” with regards to the women’s movement, she said. Napolin got to work transforming Singer’s short story for the stage. Only in its second draft did she have an opportunity to meet with the Yiddish literary giant at his Miami home, where he lived part of the year.
“This was a priceless opportunity to soak up some of his Old World magic,” Napolin said of her meeting. “He cooperated because his primary objective turned out to be a vetting of the play’s script in terms of cultural authenticity. He was the one with that Old World magic. [Colleague and director] Bob Kalfin and I were the ones trying to stage it, and the weekend we spent together with Singer changed very little in the script, but it changed a lot in our heads.”
“I remember Singer said to me, ‘There was so much you’re dealing with in this play, which could be shocking or offensive, but the play doesn’t shock, doesn’t offend. And the reason is because the characters have such nobility.’ I think that’s true,” Napolin said.
When Yentl opened in October of 1975, Napolin was 40 and the play, her first ever, premiered on Broadway. It was a heady time for her. Once Streisand and her production company got involved and negotiated rights for a movie musical, Napolin’s (and Singer’s) original vision was usurped by the consuming interests of recreating a Yentl for the outsized persona and vocal chords of Streisand.
Singer went on record, in The New York Times, no less, for his extreme dislike of the movie. In his 1984 article, he interviews himself and here is what he had to say: “I did not find artistic merit neither in the adaptation, nor in the directing. I did not think that Miss Streisand was at her best in the part of Yentl. … She got much, perhaps too much, advice and information from various rabbis, but rabbis cannot replace a director.” He goes on to write: “I must say that Miss Streisand was exceedingly kind to herself. The result is that Miss Streisand is always present, while poor Yentl is absent.” For Napolin, returning to Yentl now has been rewarding in various ways.
She has seen a new generation discover the truth behind the character of Yentl, culled from Singer’s original vision, not the outlandish drama queen of Streisand’s version.
When she wrote the original script, Napolin said, “Women suddenly felt they had permission to question the conditions of their lives. Yentl is a story about a girl who does exactly that, but she does it in the 19th century in an Eastern European small town where the whole Orthodox Jewish culture enforced very strict gender roles.
She’s a human being, she has ambitions and desires … . So in order to fulfill what she feels is her destiny – the need to study and to acquire a yeshiva education – she breaks some rules, she goes out on a limb, she becomes a risk taker.” It’s in risk taking, in discovering one’s own voice and taking a leap of faith, Napolin said, that appeals to Yentl audiences today. Her advice?
“Don’t wait as long as I have to find your voice.”
Yentl is onstage at Theater J at the DCJCC in the District Aug. 28-Oct. 5. Tickets, at $35, are available by calling 800-494-8497 or visiting www.theaterj.org.