Marilyn Bergman/Barbra Streisand: Melding Hearts, Minds & Voices

Today, January 8, 2022 – on the second anniversary of her death at age 93 – we remember songwriter Marilyn Bergman.

Marilyn (almost always in collaboration with her husband Alan) is responsible for some of the greatest song lyrics in film history. Throughout their long career, Alan & Marilyn also collaborated with powerhouse composers such as Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand, and, most significantly, with songstress Barbra Streisand.

Marilyn Bergman was born on November 10, 1928 in Brooklyn (NY). Musically inclined from childhood, Marilyn attended New York’s High School of Music & Art. Though she pursued her interests in English and Psychology at NYU, Marilyn moved to Los Angeles after graduation to work in the entertainment industry. Originally starting out as a pianist, Marilyn fell into songwriting quite randomly after a broken bone left her unable to do much except write lyrics to tunes. While in LA, Marilyn Ruth Katz met Alan Bergman (who, though also born in Brooklyn, had earned a master’s degree in music at UCLA). The songwriting duo we know today had found its rhythm and rhyme, and they tied the knot in 1958.

In the beginning, Marilyn & Alan found themselves writing songs for the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. But then the Bergmans – already LA residents –  seamlessly transitioned into writing for film soundtracks. In 1967, they wrote the theme song for In the Heat of the Night for director Norman Jewison. After In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar for Best Picture, Jewison asked them to write a song for his next film The Thomas Crown Affair, and this brought them their first Oscar nomination – and their first Oscar! – for “The Windmills of Your Mind.” They set their lyrics to music by composer Michel Legrand, and the three of them shared the Best Original Song Oscar in 1969. 

Today, we will take a deep dive into Marilyn’s crowning achievement: The lyrics for Barbra Streisand’s film Yentl.

Marilyn & Alan met Barbra Streisand for the first time in 1960, when they happened to be present at her legendary debut at Manhattan’s Bon Soir nightclub, but their first song for her was “The Way We Were.” This song – which appears on the soundtrack of the hit film of the same name – became an instant classic for both Barbra and the Bergmans, and in 1973, they won a second Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe, and a Grammy (all shared with composer Marvin Hamlisch).

In 1983, Marilyn & Alan worked with Barbra on all the songs for her film Yentl. Based on a story by Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yentl follows a young Ashkenazi woman who must disguise herself as a man in order to study the Jewish Talmud. Although beloved today for its soundtrack, Yentl was not always set to be a musical. In fact, the Bergmans themselves gave the idea to Barbra. In an interview with FF2 editor-in-chief Jan Lisa Huttner (conducted in 2007), the Bergmans revealed: “We told Barbra that we had long felt that [the music] was kind of an inner monologue. Then she went to the studio, the studio that had been rejecting the idea of Yentl as a film, and when they heard she was going to sing, it was a whole different story.”

Yentl would not have been made at all if not for the Bergmans.

Most likely, Yentl would not have been made at all if not for the Bergmans, and it definitely would not be the same work we know and love today without the Bergmans’ lyrics. The songs in Yentl make up much of the storytelling, and the lyrics define the evolution of Yentl’s character. The genius idea of music as inner monologue is integral to the audience’s connection with the film’s protagonist. Yentl is lost and struggling to find herself, yet the secret thoughts and desires she shares through song connect her with her audience. 

The music also serves to differentiate between Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl character (on the page) and Barbra Streisand’s Yentl character (on the screen). Isaac Bashevis Singer may have created the Yentl character for his novella Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, but – like many men in Yentl’s life – he did not fully understand her. In an interview that I recently conducted with Jan about her conversation with the Bergmans (as well as her thoughts on the Yentl character more broadly), I asked her specifically about Singer’s relationship to Yentl. He famously disavowed Barbra’s version of “his” story, most notably in a snide attack in the New York Times. According to Jan, Marilyn Bergman told her that Singer actually sneered: “My Yentl doesn’t sing.”

The idea of Yentl – a character so driven by a desire to break out of the patriarchal mold placed around her – belonging to any man (even her creator) is interesting. Even though Yentl surely does belong in some way to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jan pointed to the lack of compassion this author had for the character he had created: “He has no empathy for her at all; at the end of his story, Singer casts her off, and sends her away as a freak – destination unknown.”

In our conversation, Jan often returned to the word empathy.

In our conversation, Jan often returned to the word of empathy. For Jan, the entire story – certainly on screen – revolves around the theme of understanding, understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world. For Singer to write such a story, and yet have no empathy his own protagonist, speaks decisively about Yentl’s struggle to be herself in a world dominated by men.

In contrast to the novella, the on screen story created by Barbra Streisand (in deep collaboration with the Bergmans) celebrates Yentl’s courage. The story of Yentl on screen is not only told from Yentl’s perspective, but, thanks to the brilliance of the Bergmans, it often takes place inside the emotional space of the Yentl character’s own conflicted mind. Perhaps Singer could not find it within himself to understand his creation, but Marilyn Bergman certainly could. Jan said it perfectly when she told me: “The Bergmans wrote the words. They wrote the inner monologue. Again, that whole issue of empathy.”

Marilyn’s deep understanding of the Yentl character, along with the Bergmans’ great admiration for Barbra’s genius – not to mention their by now time-tested songwriting skills – made Yentl possible. Their dedication won them their third Oscar – the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score – shared, once again with composer Michel Legrand. Yentl went on to win many additional honors, including two Golden Globes; one was for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and the other was for Best Director (making Barbra the first woman to receive this great honor).

Yes, Yentl was originally created by a man, but she needed the empathy and confidence of  women to truly come to life.

Acknowledged by all as a powerful woman herself, Marilyn was instrumental in bringing Yentl – another powerful woman – to life. It takes strength to see, understand, and appreciate strength. Yes, Yentl was originally created by a man, but she needed the empathy and confidence of women (in this case, Barbra Streisand and Marilyn Bergman, both at the peak of their own individual and collaborative powers) to truly come to life.

Marilyn Katz Bergman died on January 8, 2022. The ninety-three years of her life – including her sixty-four years of married life as Mrs Alan Bergman – were filled with overwhelming professional and personal success, as well as deep strength and a steadfast commitment to herself, her family, her friends (especially Barbra), and her art. Their artistic collaboration brought Marilyn & Alan four Emmys, three Oscars, and two Grammys. Both she and Alan were also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters. Marilyn herself took on the role of president of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). She and Alan also served on the committee for the AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) Music Branch.

Marilyn’s lasting legacy in the songwriting world is profound. I would encourage everyone reading this article to look into her fantastic life further. Also, I would ask everyone to take a moment today and listen to just one of the many songs she helped to create over her life. I must admit that, while writing this post, I had “The Way We Were” on repeat in the background.

Marilyn’s words continue to inspire. Her music lives within us still. Thank you, Marilyn Bergman.

© Reese Alexander (1/8/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read Jan’s deep-dive interview with Marilyn & Alan Bergman way back in 2007.

Read my recent post honoring the 40th anniversary of Yentl‘s first public screening.

Read The New York Times’ eulogy for Marilyn in 2022 here.

Watch Barbra Streisand’s tribute to Marilyn here.

Watch Barbra Streisand discuss the Bergmans’ lyrics with them here.

Visit Marilyn & Alan’s website here.

Visit Marilyn & Alan’s Wikipedia page here.

Last but not least, click HERE to read what Isaac Bashevis Singer chose to say in the New York Times in 1984, beginning with these damning words: “I did not find artistic merit neither in the adaptation, nor in the directing…”

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Barbra Streisand with Marilyn Bergman in 1986. Photo Credit: Ralph Dominguez / MediaPunch / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2HE3X8Y

Middle Photo: Alan & Marilyn Bergman at the 2007 Chicago Humanities Festival (with pianist Andrew Ezrin on left). Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (10/30/07) Authorized for responsible use by FF2 Media LLC as long as link to this post appears in the user’s credits.

Bottom Photo: Image of Marilyn Bergman with composer Michel Legrand provided by the Alan & Marilyn Bergman Official Website. All Rights Reserved. (Note photo of Marilyn & Alan in the bottom right corner.)

Unfortunately, we were not able to obtain photo credits, so we don’t know the name of the photographer, nor do we know the year this photo was taken (although it was clearly taken in the Bergmans’ home).

Tags: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers, AMPAS, ASCAP, Barbra Streisand, In the Heat of the Night, Jan Lisa Huttner, Marilyn Bergman, The Way We Were, The Windmills of Your Mind, Yentl

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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