Barbra Streisand, her hair cropped boyishly close, singing “Papa, can you hear me?” It’s a memory that takes people back to the early 1980s. As we watch her character now, disguising as a man in order to avail herself of religious studies from which women were precluded, it provokes thoughts about gender that resonate differently today than they would have 30 years ago. And as she makes that appeal to a towering, powerful patriarchal figure, it also provokes thoughts about how much, and how little, things have changed for an ambitious woman as compared to 30, let alone 130, years ago.
Let’s be clear at the outset: Yentl, which opens tonight (September 2) at Theater J (hereafter “the J”), is not a stage version of Streisand’s 1983 film, although the movie and the play were based on the same material. I guess it wouldn’t be surprising if it were a stage version of the movie. After all, it seems as if every 1980s film that had any music in it is being turned into a stage musical: Dirty Dancing, Footloose, Flashdance. No, you won’t be listening to a breathy Yentl singing, “Papa, do you hear me?”What you will encounter is something that sounds a lot more intriguing.
I sat down recently with Shirley Serotsky, who is directing Yentl at the J, and she gave me some backstory about how the production came to be.
As often happens in town, it came on the radar here thanks to someone at a fellow theatre company. Michael J. Bobbitt, Producing Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre MTC, forwarded a Playbill.com article about a production at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, which had revisited the material by adding new music to it. Originally a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yentl was adapted for the stage by Singer and Leah Napolin. The adaptation had a successful Broadway run in 1975, a few years before the film version was done.
Serotsky told me that the existence of this new version “stuck in our heads since then.” It was in the mix for the season just ended, but didn’t make the cut. It was considered “too big for that season,”during which they weren’t sure they wanted to tackle a musical. In the upcoming season, however, which she described as “a smaller season of bigger plays —it fit. It fits very well.”
In yet another example of fruitful collaboration between DC institutions, Yentl was included by The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts as part of its class “Acting in a Professional Production,” which pairs local theatre professionals with students to present staged readings. “It was a great opportunity to hear the play out loud,” Serotsky said, and it encouraged the J team to take the next step, which was to re-engage the authors about the possibility of a DC production.
Singer, who died in 1991, had been involved in the original stage adaptation and is credited as its co-author, but Serotsky told me that “Leah basically did the adaptation. She then spent a couple of days with him, to vet it, to discuss various aspects, to make sure it aligned with his original vision.” Napolin has been available to Serotsky and was “there for first rehearsal and she had wonderful things to say, about her work with Singer, her journey with the character, her connection to the story, and her more recent journey —what it’s like to revisit it.”
The original stage version was written when “the women’s movement’s second wave was coming into being. A lot of important Jewish feminists influenced her doing the first adaptation. Now we are in the third wave of feminism, and we are having new conversations, about where we stand now, what we have arrived at. Now it’s about having choices. Yentl applies to what women still face in different ways in terms of what we’re told we are supposed to do or not supposed to do.”
Serotsky continued by saying that there is “a parallel within the Orthodox Jewish world regarding what women can do,” and she noted that there has been progress even in that realm, however incomplete, in terms of involving women more in spiritual leadership. But the play “on a broader basis speaks to anyone who feels trapped in an identity, who is told to be one thing and desires to do something else. It speaks to everyone in some way.”
At the same time, Serotsky said, “we are watching with a modern eye as the play is raising questions of fluidity of sexuality and gender.” Pointing out that attitudes involving those issues are quite different than they were 40 or 60 years ago, she continued, “We understand more about the concept of gender and sexuality and why a woman might feel more comfortable in the guise of a man.”
“I had not seen the movie all the way through, although I had memories of seeing scenes from it on TV as an adolescent,” Serotsky responded to my inevitable question. “I didn’t know much about that world at the time. I watched it recently. Sometimes [when directing something that’s been filmed] I’ve totally stayed away from the movie. But this is a different enough take on it that I didn’t feel it would be a problem to see it. I think it’s a good movie,” and she mentioned in particular how wonderful it is to watch Mandy Patinkin when he was that young. She feels that the film was able to “capture something very true about the stakes the characters are facing. It’s not corny, but serious about their wants and needs.”
That said, Serotsky pointed out that Singer hated the film and wrote an article about how Streisand and Co. had done everything wrong with the story, that it was an ego project, and that he hated the changes, including having Yentl head to America at the end, which is not in the story at all. Napolin also is “not a big fan” of the film. Of course, the interesting thing to note is that, whatever you think about Streisand, the fact is that she was a woman who was able to break a major barrier. (Before Streisand, there were a ridiculously small number of Hollywood films that had been directed by women, and most were directed by Ida Lupino.) For her to have gotten control of the camera and become a filmmaker in what remains today a ridiculously male-dominated profession—well, that resonates with the story of Yentl, in a way, don’t you think?
But Streisand’s film “is so touchy about the idea that there would be real attraction between [the same sex characters] that the women barely kiss. The story and the play don’t shy away from the sexuality. There are moments when the physical attraction is very clear.” (Yentl, in her pose as a man, becomes involved with a woman.)
The resonance of the story of Yentl continued when I asked Serotsky about an issue with which I associate her, which is gender parity (the under-representation of women) in non-performance capacities in theatre: as directors, writers, managers, administrators. Countering my impression, she said, “I feel like I haven’t been vocal enough. I can’t find the hours in the day to be as involved as I’d like, but there are other people taking up the torch. I feel I’m not doing as much as I should.” At the J, she said, the balance is good. “Ari [Ari Roth, Artistic Director] is very progressive. Our office is all women and him! But there’s always room for progress.”
Serotsky continued, “I’m not in any way shy about looking at things from a feminist perspective, through a feminist lens. It’s the hook into most of the work I do. My feelings about feminism and the rights of women inform my interest in this story. As a woman, I stop and think, ‘What if I had been born a hundred years ago, in a time when limits were so restrictive?’ It’s a very compelling thing for me to examine, how hard that would be —people feeling like they were living in the wrong time, people like Virginia Woolf ending their lives because of it. The only option was to be very depressed; there were so few choices they can make.”
Closes October 5, 2014
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2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
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“The big experiment is the music,” Serotsky told me as she stressed that the music used in this current iteration has been layered onto the existing, pre-Streisand play and that the result is very much a play with music and not a musical that rewrites portions of the source material (“Eliza, where are my slippers?”) as it morphs it from straight play to musical. Most, if not all, of the music will not involve characters singing about their feelings, but rather will involve the ensemble acting as a sort of Greek Chorus and “coming from outside rather than inside” the various scenes.
Said Serotsky: “The music —that’s something that I’m very excited about. My introduction to theatre, my love of theatre, came from loving musicals, and I don’t get the opportunity to do them very often. I love the fact that there are more collaborators —the musical director, the choreographer —the more the better! The chance to do a musical is great for me. It’s exciting and fun.”
For someone like Serotsky who “came of age in the late 80s and the 90s, it’s really cool to be looking at this music.” The composer for Yentl is Jill Sobule, “a name that resonates with me, that resonates with my generation.”Sobule is probably best-known for the song “Supermodel,”from the soundtrack of the film Clueless, and for the indy hit single, “I Kissed a Girl.” (Not the Katy Perry song of the same name.) Serotsky points out that, as a singer-songwriter who doesn’t come from a theatre tradition, Sobule “is finding pieces to musicalize in a fun, irreverent way.” Sobule’s score (performed by an ensemble of actor-musicians, rather than an off-to-one-side band) involves instruments such as the Klezmer, associated with Jewish tradition, but also has a modern sensibility. “It’s a big challenge. Fortunately, there’s been Spring Awakening and other pieces that were set in the late 19th century but have modern-sounding music. We are exploring in the design a way to do both worlds justice, to do both the 1870s and 2014. We are having a lot of discussion and hopefully making decisions that will support both of those worlds.”
One final, fun echo of Yentl at Theater J: earlier this year, Golda’s Balcony played the same stage as Yentl has now , and it featured Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir. It was Feldshuh who was Broadway’s Yentl back in 1975, bringing her the first of four Tony nominations (including one for Golda’s Balcony). Serotsky reports that Feldshuh told them at the J that she credits Yentl with being her big break.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, Shirley Serotsky was hired by me to direct Juno and the Paycock while I was running WSC Avant Bard, and I acted in that production. I have also participated several times in the Theatre Lab class “Acting in a Professional Production.”)
Yentl adapter Leah Napolin with Ari Roth at Theater J