Music has been a passion for Ellen Katz since she was a little girl, and nothing makes the 72-year-old Baltimore native’s heart sing like sharing that joy.
So much so that she’s created a one-woman performance/presentation genre she calls a “supermusical” to “enrich, entertain and educate” audiences.
Katz combines photos, videos, quotes, lyrics and historical background into a PowerPoint presentation that educates attendees about a musical and its creators. Then, Katz augments the presentation with entertainment — her live performances of songs from the show.
For years, she’s been presenting “supermusical” versions of “Hello, Dolly!” “Les Miserables,” “Jersey Boys” and “My Fair Lady.” Katz recently presented her rendition of “Chicago” at the Community College of Baltimore County, Owings Mills.
Dressed in a fringy flapper dress, fishnet hose and white hat, Katz opened “Chicago” with a song from the show. Then, she told audience members the story behind the musical, putting it into the context of the Roaring ‘20s.
“People are shocked to find out that the story of Roxy and Delma in ‘Chicago’ is based on true stories of women who got away with murder in Chicago,” Katz says. “Women could get away with killing their husbands, murdering their lovers — that’s what the show is about.”
Katz then filled in details about the work and personal lives of “Chicago” choreographer Bob Fosse, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, including anecdotes about how they all met and collaborated.
Recently, Katz added another Broadway smash to her “edutainment” repertoire. A few months ago, she saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Broadway and says it was a game-changer.
“I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement,” Katz says. “I thought, ‘I have seen a masterpiece.’ … Every aspect was stunning. The story, the ambition, the vision … Then the staging, the costumes, the hip-hop — every aspect, to me was perfect.”
On her ride home to Baltimore, the music played over and over in her mind, and so did the thought that many people would love to see this show but couldn’t secure tickets or make the trip to New York.
Katz knew it would be ambitious, but she plunged into the work to transform “Hamilton” into her next “supermusical.” Over several months, she researched the creative team, secured rights to video performance clips and interviews, and even delved into life of Alexander Hamilton.
“I bought every book I could find about the musical,” Katz says. “I bought history books, I’ve acquired a library of materials about Hamilton and about the show.”
That’s all part of the creative process for Katz. To her, learning what goes into creating a Broadway show is almost as good as the show itself. It makes her appreciate the work onstage even more.
She believes others will feel the same.
Educating and performing seem to have been destiny for Katz, a Pikesville resident.
The acting bug bit her when at age 5, she sang for the “Brach Candy Bar Hour” at a local radio station. Her mother gave her voice and music lessons, and her teacher regularly brought her to nursing homes and hospitals to perform. While attending Forest Park High School, she acted in shows, sang in the choir and played the violin.
Katz feels music is truly in her blood. She insists that her “blood type is B — for Broadway.”
“My father was an extremely talented amateur musician,” she says. “He played by ear, wrote parodies, and I was his muse. I loved my father, I copied everything I could about him.”
Initially a math major at University of Maryland, College Park, Katz veered away from the engineering school — she didn’t like being the only woman in her classes — toward a degree in music and voice, and never looked back.
In 1963, her junior year, she got the lead in “Anything Goes,” and the USO sent the production to entertain U.S. troops in Germany.
After college and graduate school at Towson University, Katz gave New York City a try, but decided it wasn’t for her. “I want to be in Baltimore and with my family and be the best I can be,” she says.
Katz, who has been teaching and performing professionally for more than 50 years, stuck to her plan. She taught voice and music in Baltimore County Public Schools for seven years, taught in private schools for 13 years, as well as at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Florida Gulf Coast University and at the Chautauqua Institution.
Now, blending her love for performance and teaching, she offers her “supermusicals” at the Osher Lifetime Learning Institutes and at community colleges and senior centers. In November, she will present the “Hamilton” next at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
“Hamilton” is something extra special, Katz says.
“I think how exciting it is to be able to present something that’s so monumental and it’s the biggest mega-musical that’s ever been created,” she says. “It’s so unique. And to be able to bring that to people, it’s the most exciting thing in music that I’ve ever done.”
Presentations of “The Best of Hamilton — Amazing Excerpts from America’s Epic Musical” will take place at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave. For additional information, visit ellenkatzbroadway.com
Top photo: Ellen Katz (Photo by Melissa Gerr)
Melissa Gerr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and photographer.
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