On That Note! explores the musical theatre’s collaborative process by focusing on the individual members of the creative team. This week, we look at the work of composer-lyricist Jill Sobule whose score for Yentl can be heard at Theatre J through October 5.
The story of Yentl, set in the 19th century, follows the adventures of a young Jewish woman who disguises herself as a boy in order to have access to an education. It began as a novella by Isaac Bashevis Singer, was adapted for the Broadway stage by Singer and playwright Leah Napolin, and hit the big screen in a movie musical directed by its star Barbra Streisand. In recent years, it’s taken on a new life, with the original stage adaptation now augmented by a score from singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. Running at Theatre J through October 5, this Yentl is newly illuminated by that juxtaposition of contemporary score and historic setting.
Familiar to music lovers for hit songs like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Supermodel,” Sobule was drawn to the project by the power of Singer’s work. “What a wonderful, wonderful kind of magical little book,” she said in a recent interview. “I read it first, then the play, and of course we all know ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me?’” The reference is to a song from the Oscar-winning score by composer Michel Legrand and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Sobule was quick to both honor their work and to distance herself from it. “I don’t come from a musical theatre background,” she said, “so I can’t even do what they do. And, I knew that this would have to be completely different. I was asked to do it, because I’m from a different world.”
Sobule’s score captures both the time and place of Yentl’s story but adds a significant – and often playful – modern touch. “A lot of it’s guitar-based,” she explained. “We added elements of klezmer, like a clarinet and a violin. I always say that it should be a little folky and a little punky with a touch of klezmer and a touch of that best friend who plays guitar.” She names folk singer Theodore Bikel as a particular inspiration, but the score is very much her own. “I just used what I do,” she said.
Because Yentl’s dream is to study sacred texts, Sobule also drew on scripture. “There are a couple of songs I definitely just plagiarized from the Bible,” she says with a laugh. “You know, you can do that, because it’s public domain.” Included are pieces of The Song of Songs, and the story of David and Jonathan’s friendship in The Book of Samuel. “There were a couple of months,” she said of her research, “that were just so great. I felt like I was putting myself through Sunday school or Hebrew school.”
Sobule also ventured into contemporary studies that she felt connected with Yentl’s experience. “I read a couple of books that were about feminists and told the stories of queer orthodox women,” she explained. “It was interesting to hear from women who had a queer identity or a trans identity or women that just wanted to be like Yentl, who wanted to learn, wanted to do something that didn’t seem realistic for them in their community, so they split.”
In an interview for The Washington Post, Sobule described her score as having “a lot of A-minor in it.” Building on that idea, she explained, “When I was writing, I was just thinking in that kind of music, as opposed to a happy kind of major 7th. This story is more in a minor key. Even when you play a song that’s really high energy, there’s a touch of somberness in it.” It’s a fitting choice for a tale that examines the limitations placed on men and women in a particular time and culture, and that reflects similar limitations in our own experience.
Sobule, like Yentl herself, has embraced the opportunity to try new things, though she’s hesitant to take the next step and write a full musical. “It scares me to do one where the narrative is all singing,” she said. “That feels like a lot of work.” There’s no question, though, that this has been a healthy step in the right direction. “I spend most of my time recording and touring,” she explained. “It’s kind of wonderful to sit back and hear someone else interpreting your songs.”