Thursday, July 07, 2011

Papa, can you hear me now?

I don't know what made me do it, but last night while doing dishes, I got a huge yen to listen to the soundtrack from the 1983 Barbra Streisand film Yentl. When I was a kid, Yentl was the butt of a thousand jokes, none of which really progressed much past "Barbra Streisand is playing a man!!" Whether or not she pulled it off successfully is up for debate, but there's certainly no doubt that Streisand OWNS that movie. I never saw the movie during the 80s but when I started listening to Streisand's music in earnest in the early 90s, I found myself really wanting to see it. I can't remember which came first - buying the soundtrack or watching the movie. It really doesn't matter in the final analysis because I took no end of grief from my brother and sister (mostly my brother) for buying the soundtrack.

The funny thing is, when you think about Streisand's bazillion albums, Yentl is probably one of her finest. Granted, it's not the folky fun of Stoney End or even the cheesy bombast of Guilty. It is, however, what I feel to be Streisand at her vocal peak. Simply put, she sounds great on this album. Heidi always prefers Streisand's 1960s albums, saying that anything much past the early 80s sounds like someone's grandmother singing, albeit someone's exceptionally vocally gifted grandmother. I don't really agree with her assessment - the grandmotherly voice wouldn't arrive until the early 2000s and I would argue it's more of a change in the timbre of her voice but whatever. One listen to Yentl and you can hear just what a gifted vocalist Streisand really is. An actress who sings? Who is she kidding?

So yeah, I puchased the Yentl CD on winter break in 1993 and I listened to it like crazy during January of that year. I think it's pretty safe to say that I was the only straight 20 year-old male college student listening to the Yentl soundtrack in his dorm room at the University of Iowa, although at that point I had not made the connection between Streisand and her legion of gay male fans of a certain age. It was music that spoke to my soul and, much like I do now, whenever I find that, I hang on tight to it. The cool thing about the CD is that listening to it, you almost don't need to watch the film. Why watch the 2+ hour film when you can get the Cliffs Notes version in ~40 minutes on the CD. Thanks to the liner notes, a lot of the gaps are filled in and now, looking back, the CD must have come first because I remember learning the story of Yentl via those liner notes.

The story, for those that don't know it takes place in late 19th century Poland. Yentl is the only daughter of a rabbi who is teaching Yentl the Talmud and other religious teachings, despite the fact that women are not allowed to do so. When her father dies, she disguises herself as a man, takes the name Anshel, and enrolls in a yeshiva to continue her studies. She meets Avigdor at the school, who is engaged to marry Hadass. As Anshel, she gets to know both of them, but falls in love with Avigdor. When the engagement between Avigdor and Hadass falls apart (a silly reason that could only happen in the late 19th century), Hadass's parents conspire to get Anshel and Hadass together. During the time, however, Yentl has fallen in love with Avigdor. Oy vey!

As you might imagine, Hollywood didn't exactly jump on this idea. I remember reading in a Streisand biography that after she finished filming Funny Girl in 1968, she brought the idea for Yentl to her agent or somebody and said "I've found my second film role." Their response was "you just got done playing a Jewish girl, now you want to play a Jewish boy?" The film was in development hell for 25 years, but eventually Streisand got it filmed, starring Streisand, co-produced by Streisand, co-written by Streisand and directed by Streisand. It's starting to sound a little bit like Lindsay Buckingham credits on a Fleetwood Mac album. I'm pretty sure that the movie got turned into a musical at the insistence of studio heads. I can't imagine that they would be willing to take a chance on this kind of material without Streisand music to push.

Thankfully she agreed, because, as I've said, the story is told so well through the songs by Michel LeGrand and Marilyn & Alan Bergman. In many ways, it's like a Broadway libretto, with themes that recur throughout and, most importantly, lyrics that push the plot forward and are not simply musical interludes to endure. The best known of the songs is probably "Papa Can You Hear Me?" which was exposed to a whole new generation when it was used on Glee last season. And like the best music, you can take your own meaning from the lyrics that tell the story of Yentl/Anshel, Avigdor and Hadass. Without that universality, it wouldn't have the appeal to me that it does.

You can take a lot out of this story and its music. I think the most obvious one, listening to the lyrics, is that the entire story could serve as an allegory for a "coming out" experience. When Yentl becomes Anshel and falls in love with Avigdor, her feelings for him (as a female pretending to be a male) that are expressed in the songs are what I could imagine a young gay man (or woman, for that matter) would think. The song "The Way He Makes Me Feel" is a good example of this - with lyrics like "Why is it that every time I close my eyes, he's there/The water shining on his skin/The sunlight in his hair/And all the while I'm thinking things that I can never share with him." "Tomorrow Night," in which Yentl describes her feelings as she's about to wed Hadass screams to me how a man marrying a woman might feel if his heart was not really in it, so-to-speak. And the song "No Matter What Happens" plays like the best song of self-assurance after the eventual coming out occurs. I've always felt like this story of a "repressed love" speaks to that kind of situation. But maybe it's just me because a quick and dirty Google search turned up only a few message board results that agree with my assessment.

For me, the song that always got me in my early 20s was "Will Someone Ever Look At Me That Way." My story of being a lonely early 20-something who felt like he had nothing in common with most men and no qualities that would make members of the opposite sex want to date me is well documented in this space. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, I had many friends and actually, there were more than a few women that liked me and were probably waiting for me to make the first move - some of whom I actually had crushes on or whatever. The fact that my self-image was in the ashcan and I struggled with undiagnosed depression is probably why I saw my life through the lens that I did. When you don't even like yourself, it's really easy to concoct a narrative in your head that no one else does either. Even now, at nearly 40 years of age, on my worst days I can see vestiges of that. In any event, the line in "Will Someone Ever Look At Me That Way" that always resonated to dateless Dan was "Even though it's crazy, still I can't help wondering if I'll ever live to see the day/When by some miracle of miracles/You'll turn around and look at me that way." As I saw everyone pairing up, especially late in my college years, I felt like that would never happen and wondered what I was missing that everyone else had. As it turned out, I just hadn't met the right person yet. Fortunately, in November of 1995, I did just that.

Anyway, I will always view the Yentl soundtrack with a little bit more fondness than most guys at my age and station in life might. Maybe this post helps explain that. Maybe it just confirms your suspicion that I was REALLY weird. Whatever. This is who I am. Like it or not. Never gonna stop.

And honestly, every time I hear the Lady Gaga song "Paparazzi" I wait for her to sing "I'm your biggest fan/I'll follow you until you love me/Papa-papa-papa can you hear me?"


Keith said...

An entire blog post about the joys of 'Yentl' and no mention of 'A Piece of Sky'!?! Madness!!

Apart from that though, a wonderful read, the album is by far one of my Babs faves. Everything else she recorded in the 80's after this was poor in comparison. To be honest it wasn't until 'Higher Ground' that she recovered.

Gypsy Lee said...

Last week I couldn't stop playing the song, literally. I sang my heart out with her. I wondered what was going on that I felt the need for it. Your writing answers it. "Coming out". I'm coming out of the version I once was. Thank you for taking the time to write this!