Ellen Katz cuts quite the dashing figure in her slim-fitting breeches, waist coat, frock, cravat and knee-high boots. But you won’t see her sporting her 18th-century attire at the Quarry Café, down the hill from her home in The Bluffs at Quarry Lake.
No, Katz is saving that look for her first-ever “The Best of Hamilton” class set for six dates in October and November at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. The classes are multimedia performance presentations on the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton: An American Musical,” about the life of the equally dashing Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton.
Born into a musical family, Katz, 72, was singing on the radio by age 5 and taking voice lessons by age 10.
“My teacher used to take me around to various hospitals and nursing homes, so I started getting a lot of performing experience very, very young,” Katz said.
While attending Forest Park High School, talents for math and music emerged, and after high school she started at University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in math and engineering. But finding she was the only woman out of about 300 men in her pre-engineering classes, she felt out of place and wasn’t excelling. So, she decided to check out the music department.
Switching from math to a music major made all the difference in her world, launching a 51-year career in music and teaching.
While attending the University of Maryland, Katz toured with the USO across Germany and after graduation returned to Baltimore, where she landed a job teaching elementary voice and music for Baltimore County Public Schools. She eventually found her bailiwick as a special education music teacher.
After she got married and had two boys she paused her career and later returned to teaching music part time in elementary education, nursery schools and Jewish schools. In 1985, on the suggestion of a friend, Katz started teaching adults at community colleges and senior centers.
Through researching and collecting materials on composers, performers, plays and playwrights for her lessons, her love of American popular music grew.
“I developed an intense knowledge of American popular music from about 1890 to 1990,” Katz said. “And that interest went to Broadway and pop singers. I would research their lives, I would play the piano and sing their songs. And then I would print up song sheets, and everybody would join in. But people were so interested in the lives of these people.”
Today a walk-in closet in her home is crammed with tote bags for each lesson, filled with the life stories and musical legacies of the likes of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein and George Gershwin. Then Katz began teaching individual musicals.
“Most important to me was who had the vision to create the musical?” Katz said. “It had to come from somewhere. It had to come from a compelling story.”
“‘Hamilton’ is based on a book about a person who has tremendous vision,” Katz added. “The vision has to go from the characters themselves to the person who writes a book about them or a play. And then somebody comes along, it could be a producer, a composer, a lyricist, and says, ‘I think that I can bring that person to life in music.’”
Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and lyricist of “Hamilton,” inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton.”
For her class, “The Best of Hamilton,” Katz compiled an original multimedia presentation she designed and edited, including photos, video and audio clips, background information and audience-participation activities from her extensive research. She read the source biography by Chernow and many others on Alexander Hamilton as well as learning how Miranda was inspired by the Founding Father to translate his life story into a contemporary musical, with intricate hip-hop lyrics, rousing music and a young multiracial cast.
“I love, as a teacher, to develop that idea of the vision of bringing something that’s on the page to the stage,” she said.
Over the years, Katz has brought to life more than 30 musicals, including her personal favorites, “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables” and “The Sound of Music.”
But even with the most beloved musicals of all time in her repertoire, “Hamilton” stunned her.
“This is the most fabulous thing I’d ever seen,” she said. “It was the finest production, the staging, the costumes, the lighting. But the music and the story were so inspiring because Hamilton as a character was so inspiring. When people met him they were taken with him that he was so brilliant and he saw the possibilities of the colonies uniting and being one country.”
Although Katz calls herself an edu-tainer, she is quite an inspiration herself, bringing her love of music and musical theater to children and adults for more than 50 years — and still going strong. Perhaps she’ll write her musical autobiography one day. A suggested title might be, “Ellen Katz: Let Me Edu-tain You.”
In addition to upcoming classes on Hamilton at BHC, Katz is teaching classes on “Chicago,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “My Fair Lady” at various locations. For more information, visit ellenkatzbroadway.com.