This Week in Sarasota had a chance to catch up with singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, who is best known for her 1995 hit, “I Kissed a Girl.” That’s right, folks—Sobule was kissing girls and liking it while Katy Perry was still navigating the hormone-infested waters of pre-pubescence.
Most recently, Sobule teamed up with Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theatre to write the soundtrack for the Asolo’s production of Yentl, a musical play based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1962 short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. The story is about a young woman named Yentl, the daughter of a rabbi who disguises herself as a boy so that she may attend a boy’s school to study religion.
Sobule spent time in Sarasota working with the cast and crew to help them prepare for the production. She returns to town today for an exclusive one-night only concert at the Asolo’s Mertz Theatre.
She caught up with This Week in Sarasota on Friday for a phone interview, during which she discussed all things Yentl, from I.B. Singer to Barbara Streisand, and weighed in on Katy Perry and kissing girls.
TWIS: Hi, Jill! This is Jessi Smith from This Week in Sarasota. How are you?
Jill Sobule: Hello, Jessi! I’m doing well, thanks! How are you?
TWIS: I’m great! If it’s okay with you, I’m going to try out this app I just downloaded that records our conversation. Can you hear me okay?
JS: That’s fine by me—and I can hear you just fine. Can you hear me okay on my nearly-dead iPhone?
TWIS: Yup! What a coincidence, I’m actually sitting in bed, too!
JS: Uh … okay?
(This was one of my finer moments as a journalist. It wasn’t until I listened to the recorded version of the interview that I realized Jill did not say, “Can you hear me okay on my bed on my iPhone?”—which, I will admit, I found to be a slightly odd statement at the time. It should be noted that I pride myself on my excellence in the art of making uncomfortable conversational blunders. Luckily, Jill is way cooler than I am, and thus makes up for my awkwardness.)
TWIS: So, you’re in New York right now. When are you going to be in Sarasota?
JS: I get in on Sunday.
TWIS: Cool, have you been here before?
JS: Yes, but only for Yentl. The drag of it is that I’ve mostly just seen the inside of the theatre. I haven’t really had a chance to go out and see the world other than the museum, and I won’t get to this time, either—but I love the theatre, so it doesn’t matter … I’m on tour until the end of March, but I’m going to come back before Yentl closes—and during that trip, I’m going to be a slacker and take a few days to see the sights. The little I’ve seen is pretty great—Sarasota very charming.
TWIS: It really is. So, how did you get involved with the Asolo and this project?
JS: The director, Gordon Greenberg, approached Lisa Loeb and asked if she would be interested in working on it. Lisa said, “You know, I don’t know if I’m the right person for this right now, but I think it would be a good project for Jill.” And so then Gordon approached me and it sounded too interesting and too intriguing to pass up. Gordon sounded great and the theatre sounded wonderful—so I said yes.
TWIS: Okay, to be honest, I’ve never read the original short story, Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, nor have I seen the 1983 Barbara Streisand film, Yentl—but from what I understand, the film version differs significantly from the original. What about the Asolo’s interpretation?
JS: Well, I think for a lot of people, the film version is really sacred ground. People either loved or hated the movie, and I think the real challenge [for the Asolo] is to make people realize that this is a very different piece altogether.
TWIS: Right. As far as the haters go, I.B. Singer himself really hated the movie, didn’t he?
J.S: (Laughing) I.B. Singer was appalled! There’s a great New York Times interview where he talks about how he didn’t like the music and thought that it had nothing to do with the period. And, of course, Streisand changed the ending—where she comes to America. He didn’t like that. [Singer’s interview] is pretty scathing, but for me, I actually have a soft spot for the movie—in a kind of kitschy way.
TWIS: So how did you change around the soundtrack to make it your own?
JS: Well, first of all I do have a soft spot for the kind of syrupy musical soundtrack, but I knew I had to do something completely different. It’s not my style. Since we were using the students from the conservatory who aren’t necessarily professional musicians, but kind of more casual, I kept thinking, “How am I going to do this?” So I thought we would just make it kind of garage band sytle, like a combination of folk and singer-songwriter. It’s kind of raw and it’s not even really a musical—it’s more like a play with songs in between scenes. I think it works really well.
TWIS: Now in the New York Times interview, I.B. Singer said “My story, Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, was in no way material for a musical.” What do you think he would think of your version of his story?
JS: He worked on the [original] play, so it’s pretty much his work—nothing’s been changed. I think he would get a kick out of the songs because it’s basically playing off his work and his humor in it—so I would hope he would like it.
TWIS: And what do you think Barbara Streisand would think?
JS: I don’t know. You know, actually, (laughing), Babs could probably give a s***. She’s got bigger fish to fry. Being Barbara Streisand is a full-time job!
TWIS: Ha! Okay, on a more serious note, it’s my understanding that Yentl deals quite a bit with gender identity. Do you consider this production to be timely, in light of social and political issues surrounding the LGBT community?
JS: Yes, I think that one of the issues I.B. Singer had with Barbara’s version is that she made it into more of a feminist tract—which, at the time, I loved. She took it from the angle of “Women can’t do this, so in the end, I go to America where I can.” But I think for I.B. Singer—at the time, they didn’t have the word, and I can’t say whether he would agree or disagree—but in a way, you get the feeling that Yentl is transgendered. It comes up all the time: “The body of a woman but the soul of a man,” and so you get the feeling that there’s more to it than the movie dealt with. In my songs I tried to get into the head of Yentl and deal with gender issues. It’s also kind of a coming-of-age story—as opposed to the movie, where Barbara was in her forties—so there’s a lot of sexual tension. But I think that as a coming-of-age story, it’s completely universal with the tension and confusion.
TWIS: I think it’s really interesting that Singer was writing about transgendered issues back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as it’s something that didn’t really hit our political consciousness until more recent decades.
JS: Exactly. I think it’s really interesting considering when it was written. It deals with issues that are so in the forefront now. I somehow got in contact with quite a few people from the Jewish orthodox community who are transgendered. When you delve deep into the orthodox, it’s really not all that different from the late 1800s, which is when Yentl takes place. Some of the people I talked to really hated how Yentl was portrayed in the movie because they related to the character from the original short story, and they wanted to reclaim that. I think this production accomplishes that.
TWIS: Great. Jill, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. I’m going to switch gears here briefly and then I’ll let you go. In addition to all your work on Yentl, you’re actually working on your next album and you’re on tour right now. You’re playing a show in Sarasota on Monday, right?
JS: Yes! I’m going to do some songs from Yentl. I’m also working on a musical called Times Square, which takes place in New York in the 1970s—so for about a month, all I did was listen to music from the New York punk scene like the New York Dolls and early Patti Smith. I’d like to do a couple songs from that. And, of course, I wrote “I Kissed a Girl” before Katy Perry did and I always have to play that one.
TWIS: Right! I’ve been waiting for a chance to bring that up …
JS: (Laughing) Mine was during a time when it was pretty taboo. I wrote a song that I wished would have been written when I was a kid—as opposed to “I hope my boyfriend thinks it’s cool” and this “Girls Gone Wild“ kind of thing.
TWIS: Oh, jeez. That song—Katy Perry’s version, I mean—feels like the bane of my existence sometimes. If one more drunk straight girl asks me to get up and sing that song with her on karaoke night …
JS: You think it’s been the bane of your existence? Oh, you have no f****** clue. (Laughing) … The only thing good about that song is that a bunch of 14-year-old girls accidentally bought mine. But yeah, it was really irritating because, I mean, if you’re going to take my title, all I ask if that you at least keep the spirit of it. My song is a celebration of that first same-sex kiss and it was kind of empowering to the [LGBT] community… But I don’t want to denigrate another artist—another way of looking at it is that it’s actually kind of great because now there doesn’t need to be an “I Kissed a Girl” like my version. It’s not so taboo like it used to be.
TWIS: I never really thought of it that way—that is a good way to look at it. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, and break a leg on Monday!
JS: Thanks, Jessi! Bye!
Tickets for tonight’s concert, A Night with Jill Sobule, can still be purchased by calling the Asolo Rep box office at 351-8000 or online at www.asolorep.org. Tickets for Yentl, which runs through April 26, may also be purchased online or at the box office.