“Papa, can you hear me?” Barbra Streisand crooned in her intensely sentimental 1983 movie “Yentl.”
“Oh, s---!” goes a bluesy lyric in a newly musicalized stage version of “Yentl” getting its area premiere at Theater J beginning Aug. 28.
“Yentl” was never meant to have songs or to be a movie or a play. But 50 years after its English translation from the 1963 Yiddish short story “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the identity of “Yentl” is proving to be almost as fluid as that of the title character, an 1870s Polish shtetl girl who effectively masquerades as a young man so she can study the Talmud.
In Streisand’s determined hands — she co-wrote the screenplay, played the title character and directed the picture — Yentl was a simple crusader for women’s rights, and firmly heterosexual. Singer’s original was less straightforward: Cornered by circumstances but intrigued by masculine privilege, Yentl carries her charade so far that, as a lad named Anshel, she marries a woman.
The production at Theater J revives Leah Napolin’s 1975 Broadway play along with folky songs by Jill Sobule, the singer-songwriter of “Supermodel” (from the movie “Clueless”) and “I Kissed a Girl.” Sobule’s music was written for a “Yentl” two years ago at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla. Here, many of the 13 actors will play instruments to create Sobule’s rock-klezmer hybrid.
“The addition of Jill’s music, which speaks with a very contemporary voice, kind of lifted the whole project into the 21st century,” Napolin says from Long Island.
New tunes and a fresh aesthetic are just part of the perpetual “Yentl” shape-shifting, which includes evolving cultural perspectives on the main character’s gender bending and what Napolin diplomatically calls the tale’s “twisted literary provenance” – the many hands that keep adapting and re-crafting Singer’s story.
In the mid-1970s, Napolin was recruited to adapt the tale by Brooklyn’s Chelsea Theater Center. She wrote a script and took a three-day trip to Florida – “A priceless three days,” she says – to consult with Singer, who is listed as the play’s co-author.
But it was Streisand who already held the rights.
“I discovered I didn’t own what I wrote,” Napolin says.
A deal was painstakingly hammered out, one that cost Napolin a chunk of her modest royalties. (Certain gritty details are in Davi Napoleon’s 1991 book “Chelsea on the Edge.”) Still, the production made it to Broadway for nine months, with Tovah Feldshuh winning acclaim in the title role.
When the movie finally hit the cineplexes, cresting with Streisand belting an uplifting anthem of empowerment while sailing toward America, Singer went out of his way to trash it. He wrote a self-interview for the New York Times, slamming Streisand’s interpretation as a vanity project.
“No matter how good you are, you don’t take everything for yourself,” Singer wrote. “Miss Streisand is always present, while poor Yentl is absent. . . . Her songs drowned out the action. . . . The whole splashy production has nothing but a commercial value.”
The new version with Sobule’s songs isn’t a “musical”: “You can’t call it a musical, because Barbra Streisand owns the rights to that,” Sobule explains from Los Angeles. “It’s a play with music. Yentl doesn’t come out and break into song. It’s like a Greek chorus.”
During the run at Asolo Rep, Napolin saw young audiences responding to Yentl’s daring as she flouts the rules to pursue her noble calling. “I realized it was time to revise it,” Napolin says. “She’s more streamlined, more nimble than she used to be.”
Second-wave feminism was riding high when Napolin came to “Yentl.” She recalls the movement’s heavyweights — Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and more — flocking to this show about an intellectual young woman breaking through patriarchal boundaries.
“Everybody’s lives were being changed,” Napolin says. “It was as if women had permission to question the condition of their lives.”
Women’s liberation was on Streisand’s mind, too – to the point of erasing the sexual ambiguity that is bred in the bone of Singer’s story.
“Being near him is what it’s all about,” goes a thunderingly obvious movie lyric – “him” being Mandy Patinkin’s strapping Avigdor, whose ex-fiance (a glowing Amy Irving) will soon be Yentl’s easily deceived wife. But that heterosexuality is so subverted in the original that Warren Hoffman made a serious study of Singer’s “queer” stories, “Yentl” chief among them, in a chapter of his 2009 “The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture,” 2009.
Not that Singer was at all direct about Yentl’s sexuality. Napolin was particularly troubled by a description of Yentl as a potentially good-looking man: “If it’s hormonal, rather than suffocation in a world where women weren’t valued, that’s not what I was interested in,” Napolin says. “Singer was interested in character, not causes. And I was caught up in both character and causes.”
She adds, “The sexual ambiguity of it isn’t something we wanted to be clear about. But in my mind it [the marriage] is the only tangible human warmth that Yentl, who has chosen to be an outsider, is ever going to experience. She’s not a man, and she’s not a woman anymore.”
Sobule used the term “transgender” in a 2012 interview about the show, something that rankled Napolin, who hadn’t yet met the singer-songwriter. “When I wrote this, Yentl was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Napolin explains. “She wasn’t in the wrong body.”
Sobule responded to the tomboy aspect of Yentl: “As a kid, when I’d see Bond movies, I wanted to be Bond, not the dumb girl,” she says. “And then being an electric guitar player, people thought it was weird.” “Yentl” director Shirley Serotsky notes the continuing struggle over women’s roles in some quarters of the Jewish community.
“Gender-fluid” is the term Serotsky likes for the story, and her personal understanding of it comes from having a twin brother. “We both existed for a while in a pretty gender-neutral place,” she says.
At bottom, though, Serotsky sees Yentl’s gender choices as “based on the circumstances you’re in.”
Sobule recalls the movie as “one of those guilty pleasure things.” But she quickly figured she had to go in the opposite direction from the lush Hollywood score by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
“Kind of folky-punky, with a lot of A minor in it,” Sobule says of her approach.
The actor-musicians, as Serotsky calls them, will play guitar, clarinet, violin, accordion, percussion and more. And that thing Sobule said about Yentl not breaking into song? At Theater J, she might.
The tunes may pop up in different scenes here than they did at Asolo Rep, and Sobule is happy to grant Theater J “complete liberty” for that. In Sarasota, the music was tailored to accommodate the students and nonprofessional musicians in the cast.
“I made the arrangements very easy and very open,” Sobule says, suggesting that it’s flexible enough to be “a street musician thing” or something more elaborate. Sobule recently performed the songs at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan’s Public Theatre, accompanied by the New York-based female sextet Isle of Klezbos.
So it goes with the show, as well. “Yentl” can be licensed with the songs, or without. Cleveland Play House staged it last winter without.
Napolin prefers it with Sobule’s tunes.
“I absolutely love her,” Napolin says of the singer, who will appear in concert at Theater J Sept. 22. “We’re ‘Yentl’ buddies.”
Yentl, by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Aug. 28-Oct. 5 at Theater J, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit washingtondcjcc.org.