Yentl: Chronology & “From the Director”

Yentl Chronology

The text on this page originally appeared on Mark Iskowitz's site The Barbra Streisand Music Guide. It is reproduced here with his permission.

Yentl the Yeshiva Boy book

January 1968
Holding the Yentl film option, producer Valentine Sherry sends Barbra Streisand an English translation of a 1962 short story, Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, by noted Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. After reading it, Barbra decides to portray Yentl on film in her next movie.

Late 1968
Barbra options film rights to Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.

Singer writes first Yentl screenplay, a 200-page "long short story," according to Barbra, which was not sufficiently cinematic.

Yentl Broadway Playbill

Barbra's First Artists announces that the film Masquerade will be based on Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, with Streisand starring, Sherry producing, Ivan Passer directing, and Singer and Passer screenwriting. A screenplay was also drafted by Jerome Kass. Passer soon leaves the project and directs another film. In succeeding years screenplays are also drafted by others, including playwright Leah Napolin, whose play, Yentl, starring Tovah Feldshuh runs on Broadway in 1975. Director Milos Forman's collaboration on the film is invited, but he declines. Major studios show no interest, and the project is shelved.

During The Main Event filming Barbra decides to revive Yentl.

Barbra writes 42-page film treatment, detailing Yentl as a voice-over musical. She immerses herself in Jewish studies. Rusty Lemorande joins film development.

Fall '79
Barbra has brother Sheldon photograph her standing next to their father Emanuel's gravestone at Mount Hebron cemetery in Queens, NY. When viewing the photo, Barbra notices a man named Anchel buried next to father and interprets this as sign that she should proceed with Yentl. Also, that evening, a medium transmits message from her father to Barbra — "Sing proud."

Anschel tombstone

November 1979
Orion Pictures green lights Yentl film development for one year, with Jon Peters co-producing; Barbra to star in and direct the musical.

Super 8 footage from Prague

Barbra begins drafting screenplays, consulting rabbis, and blocking scenes with Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman. Legrand and the Bergmans write film's musical score.

Streisand in Amsterdam

Fall 1980
Barbra and Lemorande first visit Prague, Czechoslovakia to shoot Super-8 film of Barbra in costume as Anshel. She stops in Amsterdam to study Rembrandt's paintings, which would serve to influence Yentl's cinematography and art direction.

November 19, 1980
Barwood Films submits production budget to Orion. The big-budget film Heaven's Gate bombs the same month. Orion concludes Yentl development, and Peters moves development to PolyGram Pictures briefly.

Early 1981
Peters leaves project but remains at PolyGram.

Barbra records audition tape of film songs with the Bergmans and Michel Legrand (piano) at the Bergmans' home. "Several Sins A Day" and "The Moon and I" are subsequently not used in the film. Incorporating the tape, Barbra pitches the film to Columbia, Paramount, and Warner Brothers, but they pass.

March 1981
Serious negotiations commence with United Artists.

June 22, 1981
United Artists production contract announced, with Yentl receiving $14.5 million guaranteed budget and UA final cut approval. Pre-production begins, with Stanley O'Toole as executive producer.

June - December 1981

Streisand in recording studio

Early 1982
Pre-production completed with principals in London. Soundtrack recorded at Olympic Recording Studios.

April 1, 1982
Rehearsals commence outside London at Lee International Film Studios, Wembley, Middlesex, England.

April 14, 1982
Principal photography commences. Interior shooting begins at Lee International, scheduled to last at least four weeks. Streisand typically lives and works 6 a.m. - 2 a.m. (10-7 actual filming).

June 8, 1982
Responding to continual tabloid attacks on Barbra, Yentl First Stagehand Bill Keenan writes letter defending his director, which is signed by cast members and 100-person production team. He sends letter to every London newspaper and some U.S. publications. Despite sole publication in Screen International, a British trade magazine, the letter becomes one of Streisand's most cherished possessions.

Letter from YENTL crew

July - August 1982

September 1982
Production returns to Lee International, England. "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" is filmed on soundstage. "A Piece of Sky" is shot on ship near Liverpool.

October 1982
Near the end of the month, production wraps, only 11% over budget.

November 1982 - July 1983

Yentl single cover art

April 7, 1983
MGM/UA's Vice Chairman and CEO Frank Yablans issues a press release, which states in part, "I want to make it clear that Ms. Streisand is, has been, and will always be the credited producer and director of the film, retaining full artistic control. We at MGM/UA who have seen the rough cut are tremendously elated and proud to be associated with Yentl."

October 12, 1983
Yentl's music premieres—"The Way He Makes Me Feel" single released on Columbia, with film and pop studio versions, plus a promo-only 12-inch picture disc single.

November 8, 1983
Yentl - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack released on Columbia in the U.S.

November 16, 1983
Yentl world premieres at the Village Theatre n Westwood to benefit Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Barbra attends) and in New York to benefit Ms. Foundation and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (Patinkin and Amy Irving attend).

November 18, 1983
Limited release to 13 theaters in New York, L.A., and Toronto.

December 9, 1983
Wide national release in North America. Domestic Box Office (1983-84): $39.3 million
Foreign Box Office (1984): $22.8 million.

February 3, 2009
Yentl is finally released as a 2-DVD Director's Cut.

deco line


The text on this page originally appeared on Mark Iskowitz's site The Barbra Streisand Music Guide. It is reproduced here with his permission.

This section focuses on Barbra Streisand's own words regarding her film, Yentl. As lead actress, co-writer, producer, and especially director, Barbra invested considerable time meeting with international journalists in 1983 and 1984 to bring attention to the film. In the weeks prior to and following its release, Barbra did numerous television, magazine, and newspaper interviews (major ones listed below), perhaps the most noteworthy being Geraldo Rivera's unprecedented hour-long report on the making of Yentl for ABC's 20/20, which aired on the eve of the film's limited release. Also, Westwood One presented a nationwide two-hour words and music radio special, The Legend Of Barbra Streisand, in November. In January 1984 Barbra discussed the film with Charles Champlin for a largely overlooked and unseen interview feature, which was televised on Awards Time with Charles Champlin, a local L.A. cable TV program. Only a portion of their conversation actually aired to the limited cable audience, but the complete interview is one of the director's most detailed dialogues about the film. The following are Barbra's comments from this interview.

Streisand as Yentl

I read it [I.B. Singer's short story] in 1968, and I just fell in love with it instantly. It had been sent to my agent, who turned it down, because I just had done Funny Girl. He thought I shouldn't do two ethnic pieces — playing one Jewish girl, and now one Jewish boy — in a row. I never even knew about it, but the producer at the time, Valentine Sherry, who has since died, sent the short story to my house. I just read it in one day, because it was only 20 pages long. We did hire him [Singer] to write the first script — it was about a 200-page script — like a long, short story. It wasn't quite cinematic enough.

(Photo below: Streisand, on location, gets a bird to play in the stream she wants to film.)

Streisand on location with stream

Remember, 15 years ago, there hadn't been a movie, except for maybe Sylvia Scarlet in 1936 with Katharine Hepburn, made where a woman dressed as a man, so already the whole sexual thing, or an actress playing in a disguise was odd. It wasn't a musical at the time either. I wasn't going to direct it, or produce it, or write, or anything. I was just going to be an actress. Ivan Passer was the director. I had seen a little film that he made called I Lightning, a 78-minute film, I remember, a wonderful Czech film. They were going to film this picture in Yugoslavia, and a script was written then by Jerome Kass — very interesting script. Ivan thought that I was too old at the time and too famous, but the producer wanted me, so it was like I was being shoved down his throat. I felt terrible about it, because I thought I could play the part. He backed out of the project to do another movie, I think, called Born To Lose. He asked me if he could leave, and I said, "Well, if you'd rather be somewhere else..."

I bought it for my own company in 1973, I think. Still couldn't get it made when I was with First Artists, but I didn't intend to write, or produce, or even direct, of course. In 1979 I decided to direct it, but I wasn't going to write or produce. I wrote in my first film outline of Yentl in 1979, when I really bit the bullet and decided with all the terror that I felt (I was approaching 40) that life is short, and one must take risks and chances and risk failure (because there's a lesson in that too) and put some real meaning into my life again, real motivation. It was also very exciting — the struggle is very exciting, even though it's difficult. It's warming; it just gives you a goal, a purpose to every day. I felt like I was 18 again, knocking on doors for a couple of days, saying, "I'm going to be an actress," and it was a wonderful feeling. It was very humbling, trying to get something on and not treated as if I were a famous person or a bankable star at all. I was looked at like, "What is this project, and who is going to go see it?" And, "You're going to direct it?" And, "You're a woman..."

(Photo, right: Warren Beatty visits the Yentl set while Streisand and Irving are in costume.)

Warren Beatty visits set

Rusty and I would go to Czechoslovakia. We went many times for that period of 2 or 3 years of pre-production, and I always dressed as Yentl. I put on a costume, took my Super-8 camera, and Rusty would film me doing shots here and there with natural light. The Super-8 film was so beautiful that I showed it to my cinematographer to try and capture that look. Because it was a realistic fairy tale, we had to find places that were real but that looked like a fairy tale. The second city we're in called Bechev might look like something out of an illustrated book — the buildings are pink and yellow and green — but this is reality. We did not paint them; they're there from the turn of the century. These buildings were built in the late 1800s with art nouveau doors.

I love the art nouveau period and the incongruity of this magnificent period of architecture in a Polish shtetl. When you read a book like Polish Jews, you see these wonderful black and white pictures of women by a stucco stove, but behind them is a piece of art nouveau wallpaper (where did they get it?), an art nouveau piece of embroidery on a chair. So, I was able to try to combine these elements, but it was not meant to be a documentary on a shtetl, although everything in the film is authentic, everything was researched, everything was checked through the YIVO Institute of Research, because some of the criticism we got was that it looked like it was out of House and Garden [magazine]. It's a fable; it has music in it. It's allowable, but also it's all real. There were very wealthy Jews like Hadass's family. Every piece of silver could have been in one of those homes. The things that we use, like the artwork on the walls, were things that we found from what women did during the period. Women would make paper cut-outs that looked like lace — fabulous. We found them, and those were on the walls, very authentic things, because I'm interested in design, I'm interested in architecture. All the years of decorating houses just paid off, being a director.

I've been working on Yentl every day for almost five years in March. When it opens in Europe, it will be five years. During pre-production, I never thought I had enough time, never thought I was prepared enough, knew enough about Polish life, about the shtetls, about the Talmud, about human relationships...always feeling I never knew enough. That was the most frightening, but I had a wonderful cast and crew, very supportive, and I elicited their help. I said, "I need all of you; I need you to be a part of this dream with me." I only wanted people working on the movie who liked the movie, who liked the script. In Europe (I don't know how it would be working here), they were very supportive. I never felt like they were looking at me like, "You're a woman," or a "star." I just didn't feel that way, maybe because from that first day I said, "Look, are you frightened? I'm frightened too, and this is embarrassing for me to stage these numbers and sing for the first time in front of you." I just told them my feelings, and they responded.

In England Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister, so they're more ahead than we are, in a way. I did not find that I was discriminated against in Europe. Even in Czechoslovakia where we filmed, the government was wonderful, very supportive. They seem to have a respect for talent, whether it's male or female; it doesn't seem to matter. They were very respectful towards me.

[About the film score] It was an absolute choice. It's a stream of consciousness dialogue in song. We intended the music to be timeless and romantic. It was not meant to be ethnic. Only the real source music at the wedding or whatever was authentic. That's ethnic music, but otherwise, it wasn't meant to be a Jewish movie, a Jewish musical. Fiddler On The Roof used more ethnic themes, but this [Yentl] is a story about sexual identity, role playing, and pursuing a dream. It started out as a poem to my father actually, and I think it's very much a love story. It's a story about the love between parent and child, the love of learning, the love between men and women, the love between two men, two women, friends — it's about a lot of things.

Streisand directs Patinkin and Irving

[On casting Mandy Patinkin] I saw him in Evita and then in Ragtime. He's a very alive, very passionate actor, and that's what I felt this quality of Avigdor needed.

[On casting Amy Irving] She's wonderful. She's to me the epitome of what all men would like in a woman, from her beautiful green eyes to her gorgeous hair and her, sweet, lovely personality. She was a gift. She was like my sister and like my very own little doll that I could dress up and make up, pick her clothes. I made her hair red, because I wanted her to be the epitome of femininity, and I let my hair go brown. Then, when she had her monthly cramps, I could give her the right pill. It was a fun relationship. She always got deceived by my outfit. She would come on the set and hold my hand. "Amy, don't do that. I'm a girl, remember, I'm a girl." If she saw me later with my hair down, she was absolutely thrown. She liked me better as a guy, as the director being a guy. It was an experience that was filled with enormous growth, and that's what I think that life's about.

[On making Yentl's marriage to Hadass believable] Those were the hardest moments. Why would she marry this girl? So we invented this idea that he [Avigdor] was going to leave. And, just to keep him, again, the womanly feminine instinct and the passion outrules the mind and logic.

[On Hadass's character] It's about her growth. She to me was the new woman that's left in the old world. Yentl goes to America, and she [Hadass] stays as the seed of the new woman in Europe. One realizes that you can, as a woman, be everything. You don't have to not have a career to be a feminine woman. You can nurture a nest and take care of your family and also have a mind and have thoughts and opinions.

Streisand on set

[On directing] I always thought it was a wonderful thing to do. I always had opinions. On my first day on the set with Willie Wyler, I had opinions, but I loved him, and he loved me, I think. We had this wonderfully respectful, exciting exchange of ideas. At the end of filming, he gave me a director's megaphone with the Directors Guild emblem on it. I've always had opinions. I've always visualized pieces in my mind. I see how I like them to look, and I love visualization, of feelings and ideas. Directing is a wonderful job for that, because if you're just an actress and you have opinions, people look at you funny. But, as a director, you'd better have opinions, you'd better have ideas. So, it's the perfect place.

When I was an actress, I always felt that my function was to serve the director. Even though I might have another way of seeing it, my greatest challenge was to help him visualize his dream. Yet, being a director, I felt just the opposite. I felt that my purpose was to serve the actors. It was most important to me that the actors liked themselves, because actors can be at a director's mercy. I just felt that it was my obligation to serve them, to have them do their best work and inspire them in some way, inspire them to reach.

As an actress, I always felt that the director was the "daddy," and we had to please the "daddy." Here, I had to be the "daddy" and myself and the "mommy" though. You go through many feelings, like a psychologist, like a therapist, like a nurse, like a mother, like a father, like a sister, like a brother, like a lover, like a companion, like a friend. I really, really admire directors now. I realize what they all have ever gone through to get performances out of actors, because the actor must trust the director, and that's hard. Trust has to be earned, and in my case, I was a first time director. For me, to work with Wyler, I trusted him, or many of the wonderful directors that I worked for before. You trust them going in by their past work. It was such an obligation for me to have the actors believe in me, to trust me. So, if they've liked themselves...that's my greatest moment, when Mandy first saw himself in the film. How did he like himself? I held my breath till I got his phone call. I was very happy that he was pleased.

I love the feeling now when people call me up or write me letters about Yentl. I'm in my bathtub, or I'm lying in my bed reading a letter. It's such a wonderful feeling. I never thought I'd get to this place where it was actually made and showing in theaters all around the country. What touches me is a story that somebody told me the other day. This father was feeling kind of estranged from his daughter, they lacked communication. He could never understand her career capacities, her career motivations, and they went to see the movie together. At the end of the film, he sat in the chair and couldn't move. My friend told me he was sobbing, and he said to his daughter, "I now understand you." It opened up a whole line of communication for them. That touches me.


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