BWW Interviews: Tony Nominee, Sam Harris, Celebrates Release of New Book, HAM: SLICES OF A LIFE
Celebrating the release of his new book, HAM: Slices of a Life, (a collection of stories and essays - Simon & Schuster), Tony Award nominee, Sam Harris, will make his San Francisco, Feinstein's at the Nikko, debut in a show of the same name on Friday, January 24 at 8 PM. and Saturday, January 25 at 7 PM. BroadwayWorld fans won't want to miss it! And, just to give you taste of what's to come, the following is an extended interview that Sam Harris most graciously did with BWW's Linda Hodges.
LINDA: Sam Harris, as I live and breathe! What a thrill to be interviewing you for BroadwayWorld. 30 years ago this month you were the hit sensation on television's first talent competition, Star Search and have gone on to have an amazing career. And now you're an author with a collection of essays and stories in your debut book called, "Ham: Slices of a Life."
SAM: So happy to be chatting with you! Yes, 30 years. I can't believe that's true. Of course I was only 5 years old at the time.... Okay, not five, but I was young. This new venture with the book is so exciting for me. I've written for the stage and TV but the idea of a book was something I always wanted to do but it seemed so large.
LINDA: I have to give a shout-out to your publisher, Gallery Books, (Simon & Schuster) for sending me an advance copy. But fans won't have to wait long to get their own copy. "Ham: Slices of a Life" is scheduled for release on January 14th but can be pre-ordered on Amazon right now. I highly recommend it. It's a fabulous and funny, tasty treat of a read; sweet and savory with just right touch of tang. How's that for a one sentence review? Take that, Esquire Magazine, LOL. But we both agree that your book is a hit.
SAM: That's a GREAT once sentence review! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book and agree with Esquire. It's an exciting time for me.
LINDA: In celebration of the release, you're touring the country with your new show which is a feast of stories and songs based on "Ham." (You can catch Sam at Feinstein's at the Nikko for two performances only, January 24-25; see below for details). BroadwayWorld fans, you won't want to miss Sam's "Liter-Usical" - a theatrical hybrid of excerpts from the book artfully interspersed with Broadway and pop songs.
SAM: It's a real theatre piece. In most cities we're in theatres, but in San Francisco we're doing it at Feinstein's and I am really looking forward to it. I love SF audiences. The best. And this show is something very different - as you said, a hybrid piece I call a "liter-usical" cause it's literary AND musical. But it's not just readings and songs. It's something we've crafted as show. It was a challenge to choose which stories I would tell. I'd love to read the whole thing, but we'd be there for days and I'd have to feed everybody. So we structured different elements to create a more theatrical arc.
LINDA: I know that your shows all have an element of the personal, but this one is totally based on your life growing up gay in Oklahoma at a time when it wasn't safe to be out (and maybe still isn't), the early years of playing every awful club in LA, your big break on Star Search and all that that brought - to getting married and having a baby. What are the challenges of doing a show about your own life? What are you having the most fun with?
SAM: I've always been one who kind of tells it all on stage, but this is a whole 'nother animal. Much more out there. More raw. The book and the show are mostly humorous, but I do hit on many very personal elements of my life, including growing up gay in the Bible belt when there were NO role models or examples of anyone gay, especially gay and happy. The book and show covers so many different aspects of my life. The book is non-chronological, but there is a sense of through line, even out of order. There is a sense of triumph and discovery. And a lot of absurdity.
LINDA: You write that at seven years old, you knew what you wanted to do. Did you ever waver from that? I mean, were there ever thoughts of going into dentistry or perhaps archeology?
SAM: Dentistry nearly drew me away and yes, archeology is still an option... But no, I was lucky that I always knew. I knew before 7, but that's when circumstances illuminated a conscious choice. I've never waivered, but I've tried to explore all aspects within, well, storytelling I guess. Performing my own stuff, being in shows and plays and TV shows, directing - whatever calls to me at the time. And now the book. It's been a great ride so far. Up and down and sideways. But it's all variations of storytelling. That's what I am, I guess. A storyteller.
LINDA: What has it been like getting ready to do this show based on your book/life?
SAM: It's different from anything I've ever done. I feel like my whole entertainment experience has brought me to this. First of all, the primary challenge was taking a 305 page book and choosing which stories should be told and woven in to a show. It's more linear than the book. It's also different in that when I am doing another show, I am finding, as an actor, personal experiences to imbue a song or role to find something authentic and personal. In this case, it's reality. It's REALLY my story, so it's personal on a completely different level.
LINDA: One of the stories you write about happened back in the days before Star Search. You played the almost requisite dive clubs, but you were working with Jerry Blatt, creator of the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler. Not too shabby. How did that come about?
SAM: My father recognized how driven I was and that I was getting a little attention from my efforts, albeit small, and we he wanted to get someone to help me get to where I wanted to be. Jerry was recommended by several people as "the guy" for me. And it turned out to be true. In every way. It was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me. So after that initial hiring of Jerry, we just continued to work together through everything for the next ten years. He was a genius at comedy and pathos and structure. He taught me to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and see the world as art. Brilliant man.
LINDA: What I thought was funny was that your backup singers were called the "International Pancakes" and you write that they wore "black corsets and puffed taffeta skirts with picture hats and stilettos and lace gloves." Do you still see the International Pancakes? (And if so, what do they think of your success?)
SAM: I am in touch with a couple of Pancakes! What a time that was. Completely creative and open and risky and incredible. We were all learning and experimenting and it was such a formative time. They are happy for my success as I am for the successes in their lives.
LINDA: Broadway called you early and often. You did Tommy Tune's Grease, Cy Coleman's The Life, not to mention The Producers and Andrew Lloyd Weber's Broadway production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. You also starred in Jesus Chris Superstar, Cabaret, Hair, Pippin, The Jazz Singer, The First Wives Club and the self penned shows Hard Copy, Different Hats, Revival and the smash hit one-man show, Sam. Is it safe eto say that your heart is on Broadway?
SAM: It is. I do love getting to do different things. I love doing TV comedy, I love recording and writing, but there is a singular place in my heart for the stage, and Broadway in particular. It's BROADWAY! The best of the best.
LINDA: You share some hilarious moments from Joseph. Was that among your favorite shows?
SAM: Well, it ain't "Gypsy"... But it's a fun show. The challenge of that show was the four million sit-ups and pushups I did because I was practically naked throughout the show. The best part of that show is that it was where I met my husband, Danny Jacobsen. He played Daniel, Jacob's son. My brother. It turned out to be incestuous! And now we've been together for nearly 20 years. We have a good life. He is an exceptional human being.
LINDA: Any plans to do Broadway soon?
SAM: I would go back to NY for the right project in a Yankee minute. I love Broadway - the people, the community, the work, the level of talent, the discipline. The combination of getting to do the same show and have the same family and yet discover new things with each performance. I've had this feeling that we'd move back to NY when Cooper, (our son) is growing up and he would have the experience of NY.
LINDA: Sam, in your book you are fearless. You share without flinching, some of the lowest points in your life. But you bounced back and now you're a husband and father of Cooper. Did you ever think you'd see the day?
SAM: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. I did try to be honest in the book to a raw degree. And I could not have fathomed, when I was a misfit gay kid growing up in rural Oklahoma, that it would be possible to be a legally married man with a child. It is an amazing time in history. And I've watched it and been a big part of it. I believe we will see equality on a Federal level in my lifetime and my son will grow up not knowing anything different. It's what he knows. We live in a diverse community of all kinds of families and it is not questioned. It's the way it is. Love is love. Family is family.
LINDA: I couldn't agree more. Here in San Francisco, we've lived the changes. Your anthem "My Reclamation" which is an anthem for equal marriage rights is like gospel here in the City. Have there been changes within show business that coincide with the movement or has show business in general always been ahead of the curve?
SAM: Thanks about the song. I'm proud of it and that means a lot. Show biz is a double edged sword in this area. The business has always been teaming with gay people, but even so, there was an invisible curtain. A "Don't Ask Don't Tell" where everybody inside knew everything but it still wasn't spoken about. Ask Neil Patrick Harris. The theatre is more of an exception, but in TV and film it was certainly true. Still is to a degree. But we've all come a long way. And the more people who are honest about themselves without the shame that we attached to being gay when I was a kid, the more that curtain dissolves.
LINDA: Amen! You write about many, many celebrity friends and acquaintances in "Ham." There are stories about Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Tayler, Madonna and others. But perhaps my favorites were stories about the great Liza Minnelli. How did you meet her and did you instantly click?
SAM: Yes, we instantly clicked. I first met her in...hmmm...1984. I was just a kid, 22, - in New York seeing a million Broadway shows, and I was coming off of the rocket ship of Star Search so I insinuated myself, with my newfound "stardom" (I was a little strut-ish!) into back stages to meet the stars of the shows. Liza and Chita Rivera were doing "The Rink" and I strutted myself backstage and they both acted like they'd known me forever. It was amazing. And then about 10 years later I moved to New York and Liza and I became very close friends and also worked together quite a bit on each other's projects. We always said "we've been through thick and thin together... we've both been thick and we've both been thin!" She's an amazing entertainer, of course, but she's mostly an amazing person. She led me to my sobriety. It's in the book.
LINDA: What, about her, touches you the most?
SAM: She is the very definition of hard work and discipline and remaining curious about what she will do and learn next. Our common ethic and credo and being a fan of work is probably what made us so close initially. And she has a director's eye and her instincts are quite brilliant. But above all, her heart is gigantic.
LINDA: Your story about Aretha Franklin was sad. It's not a surprise that sometimes when you pull back the curtain on show biz the glitz fades and the glamour dims. That's why I kind of prepared myself for the chapter where you share about 9/11 and being asked by Oprah to help heal the nation with your singing during that sad chapter in our shared lives. I steeled myself to hear that Oprah wasn't as authentic as her persona, but you write that "her integrity was astonishing."
SAM: My experience with Oprah was that she is exactly what you want her to be: honest, interested, the high road. In the book I talk about her quest to heal herself that makes her a healer to others. She is human and real and takes on the obligation of making the world a better place. That's a big thing. Something to learn from.
LINDA: Having seen you perform in San Diego and being a big fan of your Vlogs, I can say that your integrity is also astonishing and deeply genuine. What does it take to allow yourself to be so honest; so vulnerable?
SAM: Well, thank you. I think I've spent most of my life trying to prove to myself (and the world) that life is good. That people are intrinsically good. We get so muddled up in our own stuff, our own garbage and pasts and experiences. And it's the difference between being defined by our tragedies and being informed by them. When we are defined by them we are stuck, paralyzed, and that horrible victim thing happens. When we are informed by them we find that there are others who've trod the same path and survived and we get to carry on the chain, for others. I do it through humor, mostly. You talk about my raw honesty and I appreciate that, but a BIG tool for me has been humor. And seeing things cinematically to have a perspective. Pretty much EVERYTHING is absurd to me, and there is comedy in everything. And art. And poetry. Even the darkest moments. And that's what makes us human. And as an artist, that's where my material comes from. What started as a survival tool has become a career!!
LINDA: Now some random questions: If your life were a musical, what would the eleven o'clock number be? And will the show at Nikko's follow the book when you perform here?
SAM: My life IS a musical! And my 11:00 number is always changing. Sometimes it's big and brassy and defiant and sometimes it's quiet and simple and peaceful. The show is a little more linear than the book, so it's a bit of a play. And it's pulled from elements of my life, so there you go!
LINDA: Hardest song you've ever sung?
SAM: Hardest song I ever sang was "Sugar Don't Bite" (which was my first top 40 song in the 80s) because I didn't know what the fuck it meant! I have to know what I'm singing about or it's really, really hard!! BUT I just recorded it as acoustic thing and suddenly it made sense. Finally.
LINDA: Biggest flubbed line, if any, in a musical?
SAM: Flubbed line? None come to mind, though I've flubbed a lot. What comes to mind is a performance of The Life when a cover was on for a leading role and had forgotten to bring a gun on stage for the big ending where another character is shot. He whispered to me on stage "I forgot the gun" and I tried to telepathically tell the other actors. And then I screamed, "He's got a knife!!" And we played out this whole scuffle with a knife that wasn't really there and the guy had to "stab" the actor instead of shoot him. Oh my God it was hysterical.
LINDA: Best audience reaction?
SAM: I think the first time I did Carnegie Hall and the audience rushed the stage and was screaming and crying and reaching up and I thought "What the fuck? Is this real?" But it's usually less about an audience reaction than how I feel I've done. When it's just flowed and been like channeling and we've all gone the ride together, that's when it's the best. We've all climaxed at the same time. And then I have chocolate.
LINDA: Have you ever secretly said "MacBeth" before a performance just to see if anything bad would happen? Do you have any performance superstitions?
SAM: I've never said The-Scottish-Play-title out loud. Never!! I'm not insane!!! But I do get into weird sort of superstitions. I wore the same socks on stage for like three years. I thought I couldn't sing without them. Until they were tattered and I started pinning pieces of the fabric inside my clothes. And then they were no more. And, somehow, I still sang! I have certain affirmations. I do the Serenity Prayer. I have touchstones in my dressing room from different people and parts of my life that ground me. But I've become a lot less precious. Having a kid does that. All my rules about when I speak and the humidity and what time I eat and work out and on and on have gone out the window. There's no room for a star in our house. I get up at 6:00 a.m. and go, go, go for 18 hours. The phrase "Daddy needs to prepare 6 hours in advance" doesn't really fly.
LINDA: How are Cooper and Danny doing with all the excitement of the book? Is Cooper old enough to understand?
SAM: Danny couldn't be more ecstatic. He is so proud. He witnessed the whole process before I even knew it could be a book. And we've been on quite a journey together all these years. He's so successful in his business, which is HUGE, and I am so proud of what he's accomplished and who he is as a man and husband and father. Cooper does get it. He's actually said he's proud of me and knows this is a big deal. He has his own copy of a galley but thank God he can't read it yet....
LINDA: Does Cooper do any singing and dancing?
SAM: Yes, but he's more of a comedian. He does impressions. He does takes and double-takes and deadpans and slow burns. And gets it. You know we're all vaudevillians in the Harris-Jacobsen household. But the truth is, Cooper is more interested in battles and destruction and guts and gore and action figures than show biz. And that's just fine with me. But God we laugh. His laugh is THE most valuable thing in my whole life.
LINDA: What's next for you?
SAM: Next??? Can't I just be here? I've written, sold and am releasing my first book and it's with a major publisher and I'm going on tour with a show that I am so excited about. Isn't that enough? NEXT? I think I'll live in this for a while and take it in rather than wondering what it's supposed to be or do. That's the trick for me, you know. Staying out of the next and being in what is happening. And show biz and all the different stuff I've had the blessing of doing is an up and down rollercoaster of freakiness. We all have them in our lives, right? So, since there have been times that it's been tough to be Sam Harris, I relish the times that it feels really good to be Sam Harris. And this is one of them. In a big way. I'm a grateful guy.
LINDA: LOL! Glad you're living in the NOW. But what's next for me is seeing you perform your "liter-usical" at Feinstein's at the Nikko in San Francisco, January 24-25. Broadway babies - I want to see you there! And get his book "HAM: Slices of a Life." It's a delicious read. Sam, thank you so much for doing this interview with me and BroadwayWorld!
For additional information on Feinstein's at the Nikko, please visit: www.feinsteinssf.com.
For Hotel Nikko San Francisco room specials, visit www.hotelnikkosf.com. Code: FEIN