by Matt Smith
“Of all the energies that drive us, there is only one that can never be transcended into negative actions toward others, and that is the energy of compassion.” — Dr. Howard A. Rusk
We’re just three songs into Renee Katz’s solo show, Never Been Gone. The lights blackout completely, and Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” plays through the sound system. The classically trained singer rocks slowly back and forth to the song, while images of the album cover flash on the wall behind her. It’s jarring, to be honest. It’s unsettling, and frankly, it seems egregiously out of place. That is, until the big reveal.
The song’s lyrics, as Katz explained, reference “a girl they pushed in front of the train, took her to the doctor [and] sewed her arm on again.” It’s in this moment that Katz reveals herself to be the subject of this musical phrase. For those unfamiliar with this woman and her work, it’s a pretty surprising twist, as the messages touted within the evening’s program continue to take on completely new meaning from this point forward, shaping the evening around this particular event. But have no fear; it’s a story that must be told, and it’s one that will shake you, inspire you, and ignite the fire within you like never before. You just have to trust in Katz and come along for the ride.
It was June of 1979, at 8:14 in the morning. Katz, then a fresh-faced 17-year-old, just days shy of graduation at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, before packing up and heading out to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music was waiting for the train to school. Mere minutes before boarding, the prodigy, classically trained in piano and flute, was unexpectedly thrown from a subway platform and onto the tracks. She thankfully skirted death by rolling out of the way of the metro, but was unable to save her right hand, instantly severed by the oncoming E train. Her future as a musician eradicated before her eyes, she was immediately thrust in the national spotlight, as she navigated rehab, receipt of letters from well-wishers and inspired individuals, and, of course, the multiple surgeries she went through to successfully re-attach her right hand to her body, and learn how to live independently once again.
This account is at the heart of her show, which brings her back at Don’t Tell Mama’s through Oct. 15 — the venue where she first revived her cabaret career back in July. Accompanied by pianist Tedd Firth, who displays effortless proficiency in gliding across the keys, she weaves her harrowing tale through a delightful evening of powerful song, with anecdotes of her time spent as one of “Bellevue’s shackled prisoners,” encounters with kind strangers, and the gratitude she feels she owes her personal heroes all serving as fitting introductions to the numbers that followed.
The autobiographical evening mixes somber selections that illuminate the issue, with more buoyant ones that celebrate life as it is — her accident having opened her eyes up to “appreciating what’s less visible to others, as time is so precious,” all interspersed with expertly utilized projections, courtesy of her high school pal Michael Kolomatsky, that outline the scenes she details, and excerpts of her own writing, from her book of the same name, which delve further into her emotions of the aftermath of that faithful day. It’s clear the set list was carefully chosen; some numbers are tributes — one to “her someone,” Barry Packer, who, despite her injury, “loved me for me,” and another to former mayor Edward Koch whom she wholeheartedly credits with revitalizing her career (“he gave me recognition as a singer, not just as a crime victim”) — while others, like “Keep Smiling at Trouble” and “I Got The Sun In The Morning,” serve to emphasize where her attitude lies on this whole devastating situation.
And while her rich, resonant soprano and commanding stage presence would make these songs enjoyable regardless, lyrics such as “When did I last throw my arms up in glee?” and “I don’t curse what I can’t change / I just play the hand I’m dealt” pack an extra powerful punch, considering the context from which she’s sharing them.
Simply put, the effervescent Katz is not, as she sings, a stranger to the rain, but she also doesn’t let it define her. If you push her, to quote the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash hit in which she was featured, she’ll push back. She won’t take “no” for an answer. She’s got that “can-do” attitude that brands her as a fighter for life. As she comments in a particular point in the evening, “I focus not on what I lost, but what I was lucky enough to keep….My voice [is] my salvation, and I feel really blessed to be able to sing.”
Her positive outlook is further brought to the forefront when, in a particularly heartwarming moment, she mentions her parents — her father, a Holocaust survivor, and her mother, an expert composer and pianist, despite suffering significant hearing loss at birth — both of whom she considers to be the epitome of the “fighter,” exemplifying the strength she needs to soldier on, before proceeding to perch herself at the piano and perform one of her mother’s original compositions.
Despite a slow start and visible difficulty in playing with a mangled hand, she’s showing the audience she’s got the strength, like her parents, to push on. Sure, it’s difficult, but she’s got something to prove, and she won’t allow obstacles to set her back nor slow her down.
And maybe, in a way, that’s the point. Whoever you are, whatever your struggle, however “different” you may feel, you can do anything you set your mind to do. It may not sound the same as what your neighbor is doing, but you come from different places… different backgrounds… different struggles… and different stories. If your heart’s in it, you can prevail. You, too, like Renee and her parents, can “proudly reclaim your wildflowers and daisywishes.” You will not be silenced.
To that end, it’s all the more poignant that Katz then finishes the show with the title number from The Sound of Music, defiantly declaring, “My heart will be blessed with the sound of music, and I’ll”—despite all odds—“sing once more.”
Indeed she will, and presumably more than just once. It’s apparent as she sings: she’s herself on that stage, in her element, basking in all her limelit glory. It seems, at long last, she’s finally home. But, truth be told, it’d be inaccurate to call her show a homecoming. ‘Cause, after all, as we know, she’s really never been gone.
Renee Katz performed her solo show, Never Been Gone, at Don’t Tell Mama on September 10th, September 17th and October 8th. She returns to the venue on Oct. 15th. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.reneekatzmusic.com or www.donttellmamanyc.com.