The movie Yentl has a special place in many of our hearts. Barbra Streisand‘s Yentl, who pretends to be a man (Anshel) in order to pursue her dreams in a male profession, is something most women relate to. And for les/bis, seeing a decidedly un-macho Anshel on a honeymoon with Amy Irving‘s Hadass stirs up feelings that have little to do with the actual plot. Although the film makes clear that Anshel is sexually attracted to Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), the chemistry between Hadass and Anshel is palatable.
In Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story that provides the basis for the film, the exploration of gender identity is more overt. Yentl believes that she was born into the wrong gender and assuming the identity of Anshel is a complex journey that takes a much different direction than Streisand chose for her film. In fact, the original story has Anshel choosing to continue presenting as a man after the marriage fails rather than returning to a female identity and sailing to the U.S. to pursue her dreams. Singer himself hated the movie and wrote a scathing review in the New York Times. (Well worth a read.)
Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule (best known for the original, not-Katy-Perry “I Kissed a Girl”) took on the project of composing original music for a new staging of Yentl that explores gender identity issues head-on. Unlike the 1974 movie, this version is the story of a transgender person’s coming-of-age.
All Things Considered talked to Sobule this week about the play, which runs through April 26 at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida.
“If you read the book, and there was no word for it back then, but I think Yentl was transgender,” Sobule says. “I mean, it’s several times in the book where the father says to her, ‘You have the soul of a man and the body of a woman.’”
In this version, characters don’t sing onstage. The songs serve as sort of a Greek chorus to comment on what’s happening.
“I think [Singer] would approve of my music, I really do, because it keeps the spirit of the play and the sense of humor. I think he would really like it because it doesn’t feel intrusive.”
The play itself is not new — it opened on Broadway in 1975 and earned a Tony nomination for actor Tovah Feldshuh. But since the Streisand movie, the play rarely is performed. Adding Sobule’s music brings something new to the play while keeping the Old World feel. The songs also boost the humor and sexual energy that were more evident in the play than the movie. You can hear soundbites in the audio version of the NPR interview.
I have to say that the idea of Yentl as transgender is fascinating. Without actually seeing the production, I can’t comment on whether that aspect comes through. But at least lead Hillary Clemens is a bit more believable as a boy.
Here’s hoping that the play is successful so we can all experience Yentl as Singer envisioned it.
What do you think of a transgender Yentl? Did that cross your mind when you first heard the story? Would you be able to see Yentl as anyone but Barbra? Also, if you’ve seen the Asolo production of Yentl, please let us know your thoughts.