Jan Chats with Oscar-Winning ‘Yentl’ Lyricists Alan & Marilyn Bergman

Jan Chats with Oscar-Winning ‘Yentl’ Lyricists Alan & Marilyn Bergman

(First Posted in 2009)

Alan & Marilyn Bergman at the Chicago Humanities Festival (with Andrew Ezrin on left).
Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (10/30/07)

From “Tzivi’s March ’09 Spotlight” in Chicago’s JUF News:

Barbra Streisand’s YENTL has just been rereleased in a brand new 25th anniversary DVD box set. Although much maligned over the years, YENTL is a great and heartfelt work of cinematic art, and I urge you all to watch it again with fresh eyes in celebration of Women’s History Month.

The narrative is based on a novella by Isaac Bashevis Singer, but while Singer tells his tale from the outside (as a man reflecting on a troubled sister whose emotional life was always a mystery to him), Barbra Streisand uses her renown voice as a vehicle for self-exploration, taking us deep into the heart and soul of a Jewish woman on the edge of modernity.

In November 2007, I had the honor of interviewing Alan and Marilyn Bergman when they came to town as guests of the Chicago Humanities Festival. The Bergmans won an Oscar for their YENTL lyrics in 1984 (which they shared with composer Michel Legrand), and we spent our entire hour together talking about YENTL.

“Alan and I had read the story when it first came out,” Marilyn told me. “And we had remarked to each other that it would be wonderful material to musicalize because of the inner life of this character YENTL.”

“Barbra Streisand called us one night. She said, ‘I’m never going to get the screenplay I want. I’m tired of trying.’ At the end of that conversation, we said to her, ‘Have you ever thought of it as a musical?’ She said, ‘No, of course not.’ So that was the end of the conversation. Five minutes later she called back and said, ‘How would you do this as a musical?’ So we told her that we had long felt that it was kind of an inner monologue. Then she went to the studio, the studio that had been rejecting the idea ofYENTL as a film, and when they heard she was going to sing, it was a whole different story.”

Alan told me, “She understood it exactly…” and Marilyn finished his sentence, “Oh instantly, of course she did. YENTL has nobody else to tell of this whole life that she’s living once she puts on a man’s clothing. She is disguising the most essential part of herself, her sexuality! So anyway, then the studio gave it the green light.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (March 1, 2009)

Jan: So, YENTL

Alan: So?

Jan: So, here’s what I remember. My sister was living in Japan when YENTL came out, & I was just so overwhelmed the first time I saw it. I remember sitting at a tape recorder reading my sister the whole NEWSWEEK review, with tears streaming down my cheeks as I read it to her.

And I can honestly say that many of the things I’m doing today have directly to do with what happened later—specifically the fact that Barbra Streisand wasn’t nominated for a “Best Director” Oscar!!! Not even nominated??? That was the birth of “me” as a Feminist film person; I’m serious. 

Marilyn: Believe me, I understand. 

Alan: Great piece of work.

Jan: Yes, & then, of course, reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s nasty piece in THE NEW YORK TIMES. 

Marilyn: Oh, he was mean.

Alan: It’s not publicized, but he wrote the first screenplay, & because he was turned down on that, he had a lot of bitterness.

Marilyn: I think there were other things feeding his bitterness though.

Jan: Have you ever read the novel DEBORAH? Singer’s sister Esther Kreitman wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called DEBORAH, but it’s so painful that it’s almost impossible to read now. I frankly don’t think he understood her. Esther Kreitman had a very painful life…

Marilyn: Yes, I remember hearing about that book.

Jan: But there’s no bitterness at all in your version. Your version is so joyful! So now I’m going to shut up & let you talk about your process, OK?

“Where Is It Written?”

Marilyn: Why don’t we talk about how it began? It began, well, Alan & I had read Singer’s story when it first came out, & we had remarked to each other that it would be wonderful material to musicalize, because of the inner life of this character, Yentl–that she can’t express any of this journey to anybody. We kind of tucked it away.

Barbra had always wanted to make a film out of this story, a film like THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET. That was the template for what she wanted to do, & she had screenplay after screenplay written. Finally after many years…

Alan: At least five, six…

Marilyn: She called us one night, I don’t know if that was the purpose of the call or not, but she said, “I’m never going to get the screenplay I want. I’m tired of trying.” That was that. At the end of that conversation, we said to her, “Have you ever thought of it as a musical?” We’d never mentioned it before. We wouldn’t.

Jan: So you were just talking as friends at that point, about the process in general? She’d never come to you & said, “Will you write music for this movie?” 

Alan: No, no, no…

Marilyn: She’d never visualized it as a musical, no. As a matter of fact, she said, “No, of course not,” or something like that, so that was the end of the conversation. Five minutes later, she called back & said, “How would you do this as a musical?” So we told her that we had long felt that it was kind of an inner monologue.

Jan: Excuse me, but I’m starting to cry. I’m really amazed. I’d always thought she had YENTL in her mind that way from the beginning. 

Marilyn: No, she literally saw it as a little European-type film. But the minute she heard that, she said, “Oh, oh.” Then she went back to the studio, & the studio (who’d been rejecting the idea of it as a film), the studio, they said yes. When they heard she was going to sing, it was a whole different story.

Alan: She understood it exactly…

Marilyn: Oh, instantly, of course she did! Yentl has nobody else to tell of this whole life that she’s living once she puts on a man’s clothing. She is disguising the most essential part of herself: her sexuality! So anyway, then the studio gave the green light.

When we talked about a composer, which was probably the next conversation, the three of us, we knew that we didn’t want “Yiddishy” music. It happens to take place in a Yeshiva. It happens that we’re talking about a Jewish woman who was prohibited from studying, but this is something which is, as we know so well today, this is something that’s common to many, many religions & many cultures. So we didn’t want to limit it, but the music had to be 19th Century…

Alan: And “Middle European.” We didn’t want it to be thought of as a Broadway score like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Now FIDDLER is a great score, but we didn’t want to be in that arena musically. And then because Michel Legrand writes wonderful melodies for Barbra’s instrument…

Marilyn: Michel writes beautifully for Barbra’s voice!

Alan: He did a wonderful job.

Marilyn: Oh, did he ever!!! So then we set to work.

Jan: Can you remember which song you wrote first?

Marilyn: WHERE IS IT WRITTEN was the first song we wrote because…

Alan: To “buy the license,” so to speak, so your audience knows that you’re going to sing in this movie. We were very careful about how this opening number was written & staged.

We start out with a prayer. A prayer is somewhere between speaking & singing, so it was kind of like we wanted to sneak it in that we were going to sing. Every technique of musicality is used in that first song: Yentl sings in her head (in voice over); Yentl sings where you see her sing out; & that goes back & forth. When she’s with her father, the singing is in her head. And then she comes out of his room, & she turns, & she’s facing us. Her back is to the books, to his library, so then you see her sing “live,” so to speak. So all that technique (which we’re going to use later on in the movie), we introduce it here.

Marilyn: And also the signing is interspersed with a little bit of dialogue; there are women in the Temple, they’re upstairs, talking.

Alan: So the role of this opening number is to prepare you for the rest of the movie. We had to find a way, in the content of the song, to explain what Yentl’s journey is going to be. She says, “Where is it written that I can’t…” All these things, these are the questions that hopefully she will answer along the way. 

Marilyn: We had to do this song first, because of all these reasons. It was the essential character building block, that’s all.

“No Wonder”

(Click here for lyrics for Yentl’s song NO WONDER)

Jan: So, my husband & I have a website called FILMS FOR TWO: THE ONLINE GUIDE FOR BUSY COUPLES, & we’ve observed something very interesting over the years. We sit side-by-side & watch something together, we hold hands & share one bag of popcorn, but somehow, when we walk out, we can still have totally different points of view. Even when we both like something, I might see some things while he’ll see other things.

So, with YENTL, my husband sees the father/daughter relationship, of course, & he sees the romantic relationship growing as Yentl realizes she’s in love with Avigdor. But what I don’t think my husband has ever truly appreciated is the relationship Yentl has with Hadass, & to me that’s the core of the film.

This is very clear on the soundtrack, because the song NO WONDER occurs three times on the CD, & each time there’s a transformation. The first time Yentl sings NO WONDER, she’s making fun of Hadass. The second time, she’s marveling at the femininity of this woman. Hadass can bake & serve perfect cookies, but it’s not a joke anymore. Then the third time, Yentl sings: “She’s woman. So am I.” And for the first time–even as I say this I’m getting the chills–Yentl doesn’t want to be a man anymore, she wants…

Marilyn: The integration!

Jan: Right! So please talk about how you constructed Yentl’s transformation through the lyrics that you wrote for NO WONDER.

Alan: What the songs do is further heighten what the story is, & in those three cases, that’s exactly what we attempted to do.

Marilyn: It’s a parallel track; the soundtrack is on a parallel track. Hopefully the songs never repeat the visual or spoken information but enrich it in some way.

Jan: So how did you find those specific words? 

Marilyn: Barbra once said somebody once said that about a particular wife & her less-than-sterling husband, “No wonder he loves her!” Barbra remembered that nugget, & that was the nugget. Somewhere along the way she had told us that, maybe in a meeting she reiterated it, I don’t know. But that certainly…

Alan: Kicked it off!

Jan: Isaac Bashevis Singer didn’t have much interest in Yentl’s mother, but again, reading DEBORAH provides insights into his own home life. In Streisand’s YENTL it’s very clear that part of Yentl’s issues with femininity come from the fact that she was never really mothered, so when Hadass dotes her, it’s the first time in her life she’s really experiencing mothering.

Marilyn: That’s right. And in the Temple, the women are very critical of her. You see the disdain for her by the other women in the town. So not only did she not have a mother, or any other female relative that we know of, but she undoubtedly never had a relationship with any other women.

Jan: So why don’t men see this? I really don’t think they appreciate how much Yentl learns from Hadass, but, then, the most beautiful part is how reciprocal it is! Hadass has no consciousness of her own actions until someone else notices her efforts. So when Hadass says: “Anshel, you notice everything!,” she’s moved because Yentl (clothed as Anshel) sees, whereas Avigdor is never going to notice that the cookies are the same size, right?

Marilyn: That’s right. That’s right. The relationship with Hadass is, I think you’re right, the key relationship in the movie. Many people misunderstood it, & saw a lesbian thing happening there, but it’s far from that, far from that.

Jan: So now we have to take a “Jerry Seinfeld moment” here & say “Not that there’s anything wrong with that….”

Marilyn: Yes, of course, but by thinking that that’s what’s operating, you’re missing the whole point. Yentl is embracing her femininity, while Hadass is coming to realize that she’s more than just a pretty little object. 

Alan: Yes, & in the letter Yentl sends at the very end [to Avigdor & Hadass], Yentl says she recognizes what Hadass should be & will be. That’s very important to Yentl’s journey, finally, to where she’s been, & wherever she’s going, & to where Hadass is going to go too.

Jan: Right, because the woman that Avigdor ends up marrying at the end is not the woman that…

Alan: That he fell in love with. Absolutely, that’s right. But he knows it…

Marilyn: But he knows it, so it’s a degree of enlightenment on both their parts.

Jan: So all three people are transformed? They’re all better people at the end? 

Marilyn: No question!

Jan: And we don’t give a damn what Isaac Bashevis Singer thought about any of this, do we?

Marilyn: Not at all. He said, “My Yentl…”

Alan:“My Yentl doesn’t sing.”

Marilyn: “My Yentl doesn’t sing.” He said that in his THE NEW YORK TIMES piece. He came to Los Angeles at some point, & there was kind of tea for him, & Barbra wanted to talk to him, & she was so respectful. I don’t remember what the question was, but he stopped her. He put his hand up, & he said, “First, you do the murder, then we do the autopsy.” That was that. In a way Barbra’s movie is antithetical to the spirit of Singer’s story.

Jan: Singer wants Yentl to choose between being a man & a woman! In his story, she’ll go on with her life camouflaged as a man. Singer will never allow her to be integrated….

Marilyn: Never, never! Singer never viewed her as anything but a monster, a demon. I think he even uses that word.

“Tomorrow Night”

(Click here for lyrics for Yentl’s song TOMORROW NIGHT)

Jan: So if I ruled the world & I had the power to hand out Oscars, I would zero in on the brilliant editing in the wedding sequence when Yentl is singing TOMORROW NIGHT.

Marilyn: Can you imagine! Barbra had that whole thing in her head!

Alan: We were rehearsing in our house, & Marilyn & I were the tailors, & our daughter played Hadass!

Marilyn: There’s a videotape of this somewhere. Barbra has it. It’s funny.

These rehearsal videos are included in the new 25th anniversary DVD.

Alan: I’ll never forget that day. A woman came to the house. She wanted to be the choreographer. And we were in the middle of shooting this in the living room. The woman came in & Barbra said, “Here.”

Marilyn: Barbra stuck a hat on her head, & she handed her a candle, & she said, “Just get in line for it!”

Jan: The way she films this whole sequence is brilliant, but also the lyrics here are very critical to the whole narrative. In fact, you have Yentl say, “I can never be what she [Hadass] wants me to be,” so right here you’re addressing the issue of homosexuality & telling people to put it to the side. 

So let’s forget how all of this was visualized for a minute & just focus on the words. Here, I’ve printed them all out for you. So let’s look at them together, OK? What do you remember about writing these words?

Alan: Well, we definitely wanted to do the pre-wedding & the wedding all together in “one scene,” so to speak. When you do that with a song–how can I say it? It “accordionizes” what you’re looking at… The song tells a lot of the story both visually & lyrically, so it’s very economical. 

Jan: Why are you laughing, Marilyn?

Marilyn: I’m laughing because I don’t remember it. It’s very good. It’s the very first time that Yentl pulls herself up short: “What am I getting into now? Maybe I’ve gone too far???” See, Yentl actually asks, “Am I woman or a man? Am I devil or a demon?” 

Yentl says: “I can’t believe what I’ll presume to be tomorrow night. I’m not the bride but I’m the groom-to-be tomorrow night. And that’s a monumental trick, I’d better think of something quick. Oh, my God, I’m feeling sick!” So this is also the first time where we really had the opportunity to use Barbra’s humor.

Musically it’s spectacular. When I look at this: “I could run away. I could leave without a trace.” That section is so beautiful, musically. “Am I woman or a man?” 

Jan: That’s the point where you have her remember why she’s doing all of this. She wants to keep Avigdor in town.

Alan: Exactly, to keep Avigdor in her life.

Jan: But then you make her realize what the effect will be on Hadass, that she might abuse Hadass in the process. It’s brilliant; the words are brilliant. 

Marilyn: Well, obviously, there was a lot of information that was necessary here. If there was a question in anybody’s mind about this misrepresentation, that she was being cruel to Hadass, well, I think we had to give Yentl some recognition of the fact that maybe this was not a good idea… So if she could get out of it at this point she would, but it’s too far gone; she can’t. 

Jan: Right, right. So looking at the sex roles again, what you see here is Yentl’s transformation. Avigdor treats Hadass like an object, & so Yentl is used to thinking of Hadass as an object too. She hasn’t really considered Hadass’s feelings, or what will happen to Hadass until mid-song, right?

Marilyn: Exactly, that begins from here. And then Yentl says herself, “Who’d have ever predicted the moment would come when I’d find myself grateful they’ve kept women dumb!”

Jan: “Dumb!” Yes, now I’m getting the shivers again.

Marilyn: “For I feel like a train on a perilous track, with no way to stop & no way to go back.” That’s why they gave us an Oscar for the whole score. It was a special Oscar. They wanted to recognize the whole soundtrack.

“Papa, Can You Hear Me?” & “A Piece of Sky”

Alan: Yes, but they did pick two YENTL songs in the individual song category too.

Jan: They did, yes: PAPA CAN YOU HEAR ME & THE WAY HE MAKES ME FEEL. So, I have to say it, they picked the two most traditional songs & the very ones my husband most relates to: the father/daughter love song & the woman/man love song.

Marilyn: In our experience, the song that most people remember & relate to very emotionally is PAPA, CAN YOU HEAR ME? That touches anybody who’s lost a parent, & that was easy to write too, since it’s so universal.

Alan: Also, we know how Barbra feels about her father. 

Marilyn: On this big cold, black soundstage in London, she came off the floor telling everybody what to do: put the camera here, not enough stars, put an owl up in the tree. Then she sits down, & the camera starts, & she starts to sing like an angel, and a tear rolled down her cheek at exactly the right time. It was not artifice. I mean, it was deeply felt, but she is able to compartmentalize in such a way that she was also aware of everything else that was happening technically during that moment. I think it was in the second half of the song somewhere. 

Jan: “The trees are so much taller & I feel so much smaller. The moon is twice as lonely & the stars are half as bright.”

Okay, so some people complain about the ending (putting Yentl on a boat at the end was too much of a reference to FUNNY GIRL). What were you thinking as you wrote the last song?

Marilyn: Well, A PIECE OF SKY, it’s kind of a recap, isn’t it?

Alan: It’s an answer to WHERE IS IT WRITTEN? Like a bookend…

Marilyn: It’s the other bookend piece…

Alan: On the journey that Yentl is going to take. 

Marilyn: Of course, when she says to her father, “I have a voice now. I have a choice now,” the word “choice” was not an accident. Choice is one of the most important things to any woman & in any woman’s movement: choice not only in terms of reproductive choice, but choice in terms of how she wants to live, & what she wants to be.

Alan: Also, from a musical standpoint numerically, there were three things in A PIECE OF SKY: not only is it echoing WHERE IS IT WRITTEN, but you hear again PAPA, CAN YOU HEAR ME interspersed with that, so that she’s made her half of the journey. She’s reminding herself of her Papa & that he will be with her on this, the rest of her journey.

Marilyn: She’s grown up.

Alan: Yes.

Marilyn: She’s now grown up in that song.

Interview conducted by Jan Lisa Huttner on October 20, 2007.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (3/1/09) – Special for Films for Two. Reposted with Permission.

Related Posts

As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
Previous Post Next Post