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Musical educator explains universality of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Ellen Katz will perform her ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ retrospective at B’nai Jehudah on Saturday, Sept. 10.

An “edu-tainer” is someone who both educates and entertains and that’s exactly what Ellen Katz does with her retrospectives of super-musicals — the definition of a musical play that is brilliantly crafted and has social, cultural and artistic achievement.

 

Katz’s goal is to explain how musicals are produced and created in order to instill in people a new appreciation of the Broadway musical. Next month she will render a presentation of “Fiddler on the Roof” at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah. (See box for details.)

The public will have the chance to hear how Sholem Aleichem’s original series of eight stories about Tevye and his daughters, first published in 1894, metamorphosed into a play, a Broadway musical and a film. The musical debuted in 1964.

Katz has portrayed her musical histories in several states around the United States, including Maryland, Florida and New York. In addition to “Fiddler on the Roof,” they include “Chicago,” “The King and I,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserable,” and “Jersey Boys.” She does them all in costume.

When she presented “Fiddler on the Roof” for Temple Shalom in Naples, Florida, Charles Siegel, a member of Brotherhood at B’nai Jehudah, caught her performance and asked her to come to Kansas City.

He says he saw a small blurb advertising that the synagogue was doing “Fiddler on the Roof.” He had no idea if they were going to do a skit or the play or what it was exactly.

“So I went over and Ellen put on this collage that she does and I was just absolutely blown away,” he says. “It was fantastic. It’s just really well put together.”

He says he talked to Katz afterward and asked if she would be willing to take her “show” on the road. She said yes and gave him her card. Siegel contacted Steve Cohen, Brotherhood president, and asked if they could underwrite it. Cohen thought it was a great idea and said to get Sisterhood involved. Jody Cosner, Sisterhood president, was also on board.

Katz told Siegel she didn’t want this to be a fundraiser; she just wanted to be reimbursed for expenses. So Brotherhood and Sisterhood are paying her airfare and about $100 for the video clips. Cost of the show will cover the dessert reception.

“It’s truly a labor of love and Ellen is a delightful individual,” Siegel says. “She’s taken this talent she has to the next level.”

Writing under the pen name of Sholem Aleichem, Solomon Rabinovich wrote about life in the shtetls during the 19th century. Katz uses PowerPoint to show clips of some of the famous Tevyes — Zero Mostel, Topol, Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel and even a Japanese Tevye.

Although Katz says “Fiddler on the Roof” has been translated into many languages and is an international and universal hit, it is our story as Jews, and is the first musical that has been about an all-Jewish topic.

“It reaches very deep into our psyches, it touches us,” she says. “The majority of Jews in this country are descended from Jews in Eastern Europe who came here between 1880 and 1920.”

Sholem Aleichem’s stories became so popular, Yiddish presses all over the world began to syndicate them. Each week there would be a portion of a story in Jewish papers in America, England, South America, Mexico and Argentina because that’s where Jews immigrated.

In New York, the Jewish Forward published his stories every Friday. Katz describes how families would gather for Shabbos dinner and afterward the father would read to the family the portions of Sholem Aleichem’s stories that were syndicated.

“So every week families would hear the stories, not only of Tevye and his daughters, but many other stories he wrote,” she says. “He was a very prolific writer, so prolific that there were volumes of his materials.”

She explains that in addition to writing his own stories, Sholem Aleichem started an almanac inviting budding Jewish writers to send their stories to him for publication, so he was responsible for a huge wealth of Jewish literature. He is famous for starting that movement.

“If we think of Sholem Aleichem in terms of just writing the story of Tevye, we’ve missed the boat,” Katz continues. “Because of his influence on Jewish literature and folk stories and his humor, he was called the Jewish Mark Twain. So we have to have a rather large view of what Sholem Aleichem did. These stories of Tevye and his daughters were just a part of his legacy.”

Everyone loves the songs from “Fiddler on the Roof,” so when Katz presents her program, she lets the audience sing along. The words are up on the screen and PowerPoint provides accompaniment by Katz herself on the piano. At B’nai Jehudah she will also be accompanied by Hilary Fried on the violin.

Fried, a violinist with the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra, has performed many songs from “Fiddler” at Jewish weddings and celebrations. She also was the orchestra concertmaster for the 2014 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at White Theatre.

Katz believes Tevye is such a beloved character because he has so much humanity. He loves his family, he has a deep relationship with God and he talks to God.

“That relationship to God affects the way he carries on his life; he is devoted to God, to the synagogue, to his family,” she says. “He also has tremendous convictions and one of those convictions is that no one in his family will marry outside of the faith. So when his daughter converts to Catholicism and marries a Christian man, he says Kaddish for her.”

In addition, Tevye is also a survivor. He deals with poverty, discrimination, all the hardships of living as a Jew in a place where Jews are hated, but he carries on, he faces his problems and handles them.

“That’s another way Jews relate to ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ — it’s the way Jews survive,” says Katz. “We’re looking at our own survival through ‘Fiddler.’ It’s our story. For people who don’t have a Jewish background, Christians and other religions, they are amazed at the history behind the story. This show is so universal that people can identify with it no matter what religion they are. They can identify with families, children, generation gaps, intermarriage and discrimination. It just appeals to so many people and it’s not a religious show per se.”

Katz graduated in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science degree in vocal music from the University of Maryland and has been teaching music ever since. She currently teaches adult music at the Osher Institute at Towson University in Maryland. Her presentations have been performed at the Chautauqua Institute in New York, Johns Hopkins University, Peabody Conservatory of Music, Osher Institute, Old Dominion University and Florida Gulf Coast University.

‘Fiddler’ musical retrospective

The Brotherhood and Sisterhood of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah invite the public to a musical retrospective of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, in the chapel of B’nai Jehudah.

Broadway ‘edu-tainer’ Ellen Katz will present a history of ‘Fiddler,’ in costume, with PowerPoint, photos, music and singing, accompanied by Hilary Fried on the violin. A dessert reception will follow.

Cost is $10 per person and reservations with payment are due by Friday, Sept. 2. RSVP by paying online at www.bnaijehudah.org on the ‘Upcoming Events’ tab or mail your check payable to B’nai Jehudah Brotherhood to: Fiddler, 12320 Nall Avenue, Overland Park, KS 66209.