BWW Interview: SAM HARRIS HAMs It Up While Telling It Real
This showbiz phenom has been making music and telling stories since he burst into the public's consciousness as the winner of the first season of Star Search in 1983. A multi-platinum recording artist, Broadway staple and frequent TV actor; Sam Harris has now added book author to his growing occupational categories of credits.
Sam graciously took time to answer a few questions for BroadwayWorld before prepping his limited run of HAM: A MUSICAL MEMOIR at The Pasadena Playhouse opening July 9.
I have seen various live performances where you reveal/share stories of your own life, especially in SAM. What makes HAM: A MUSICAL MEMOIR so different from your shows before? Or would you consider this SAM, Part 2?
Well, I've always sort of bared my soul in my shows. My husband always says, "If I want to know what's going on with you, I'll come see one of your shows." But HAM is something different. This is a play. The book was non-chronological stories and essays from different times of my life and the characters in them. But the play is chronological and I play the characters that I wrote about in the book. I play myself at various ages, starting at three - and an 80-year-old black woman, my father, a baseball coach, my mentor, a teacher, a tranny and a brief appearance by Carol Channing.
How closely does your musical play HAM: A MUSICAL MEMOIR follow your memoirs Ham: Slices of a Life (which will soon be made into a film)?
When Billy Porter helped develop this from a series of stories into the musical, he encouraged me to break free from the specific logistics of the book - of my life. I wrote dialogue for these characters, these scenes, some of which have two characters talking to each other back and forth. The stories are true, but there was creative license when it became a play.
Tell us about your Kickstarter experience, in which over $100,000 was raised for the purpose of filming HAM.
Kickstarter is an amazing thing. And it was SOOOO much work. I mean a full-time job with four people working on it daily. There is actually a term called "Kickstarter fatigue" and now I know why. But it has allowed me to film the live show and so it's all worth it. And I'm so, so very grateful to the people who believed in this enough to fund this project. People are pretty incredible. And they've expressed that they like being a part of something - helping make something happen that didn't exist and they know they are a part of it.
So we are shooting the live show at The Pasadena Playhouse, a truly beautiful, old fashioned, ghost-on-the-boards theater. It actually reminds me of a NY theatre with the history. Three shows are being filmed with a live audience and lots of cameras!!
You won Star Search in its first year in 1983. What do you remember most of that whole experience?
Hmmm. I guess the power of television. You know, it was crazy. From totally obscurity to making records and touring and being imitated on SNL and being an answer on Jeopardy in the scope of a single year. This was before The Voice and Idol - Star Search was the only talent show and there weren't 400 cable networks. So we had a weekly audience of 25 million people, which doesn't really happen anymore. It was pretty mind-blowing.
You're a proud gay man and married to Danny Jacobsen. You're parents to Cooper Atticus Harris-Jacobsen. What was it like in the Early Stages of your career, in the early 1980's, for you being gay?
Ha! Well, it was all a big secret. I mean people knew - the industry knew - anybody who knew me (and most who didn't) knew. But it wasn't talked about. And that was an acceptable thing. It was the given. So much has changed in my lifetime. The idea of being legally married and having a child was not a fathomable concept when I was growing up.
With yourself in the biz, would you want your son Cooper to join the boards?
Want him to? Not really. But if he chose to, certainly. I don't see it happening, but you never know. Right now, there's a better chance of him going into the army than going into show business. He's eight years old. This fascination with nerf guns and war is a foreign world to me. When I was his age, I was doing plays with adults and writing shows and songs. It was my every breath. He would rather play Spiderman and "nuke" plastic army guys with his friends. Go figure.
With over 20 years of singing and performing, what rituals do you go through to keep your vocal instrument so wonderfully tuned?
Oh, my. Well, I used to get very fussy. When doing a theater schedule, I'd sleep until 11, not talk before 3. Then work out, and then steam, and then have some protein, and then warm up slowly. Since I became a father, all that has gone out the window. I get up at 6, make breakfast, pack lunches and go over homework with Cooper. I might get a nap in. I leave the house as early as possible, so I can be in my own environment for some peace and sanity. And I have my protein shake and my warm-ups. And if I'm a little slow to get there, I have greasy things like potato chips and fried chicken. Grease and salt. Grease and salt. The answer to all things voice. And apples. Lots of apples.
You won Star Search singing "Over the Rainbow." You must have sung this song thousands of times. I, and a lot of your fans, never get tired of hearing you sing it. How do you keep it fresh for yourself to perform?
Thank you. The thing with a song as great as "Over the Rainbow" is that it can be interpreted in many ways. And through the years, it's meant different things to me. At first, I think, it was about attaining a dream - purely about hope - something more. "Why, oh, why can't I?" meant I can dream too. For a while "Why, oh, why can't I?" meant "why the fuck not me?!" There have been times when it is a total song of gratitude "and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true," because they have. In the show HAM, I sing it twice - the first time as I did on Star Search with all the power and drama of that time - and then I sing it later to my son (whom I play) as a lullaby. The song can be many, many things. So it doesn't get old. In concert, how I sing it depends on what happened that day.
Another one of my favorite Sam Harris songs is "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." How did that song initially become part of your repertoire?
I love that song. And I love the arrangement we do. I first sang that a number of years ago, gee, I think about 20 years ago, for a benefit. Then the arrangement grew and changed. I did it the first time I was on Oprah and it was a gospel fest! Todd Schroeder, who has been my musical director forever, is the best, the very best. Our collaboration every time we do it is what makes it so important to me. We are one! And it's pure joy every time.
What one bit of advice would you give to an eager, wanna-be performer?
Well, one of my complaints (and this is due, in part, to the talent shows on TV) is that singers tend to think of how to sing rather than why. Having a great instrument is wonderful. Being able to sing certain notes and licks is wonderful. But the lyric of the song is always, always to me, what it's about. The lyric tells you how to sing something - it happens on its own. As a writer, actor, singer - I consider myself a storyteller. That's all really. So my advice would be to focus on the text. Always the text and it will tell you everything you need to know. And while technique is important - mostly so you have stamina and don't hurt yourself - the greatest thing you can do to study being a performer is to live a human life. Observe people. Observe situations. Be a camera to the world. And be in the world. You don't get to be a good actor in a vacuum. Oh, and work your ass off. Sing, act, write, whatever is it you do - do it as much as you can. Fail. Fail. Fail. Steal. Steal. Steal. And somewhere along the way you will find yourself, your style, your perspective and that is what will make you singular.
We could go on and on forever with all your great memories of your participation in the many theatrical shows in your resume. Will you respond with a couple of sentences for the following shows?
Best cast ever. Gifted and passionate and kind. And Cy Coleman was like a kid - all the time. He came into rehearsals with a curiosity and enthusiasm that was inspiring.
Tommy Tune's GREASE
It was a Broadway debut for many of us. There was an innocence about it. And a family thing that comes from establishing relationships that are supposed to have existed in the show. Crash course on history. And in the case of GREASE . . . not a lot of "stuff" there, so you had to fill in the blanks. Even something fluffy has to have something under it. If not for the audience, then for the actors!
Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS
So lucky to have been in this historic show. Genius, genius! And the most genius part for me was working with the great Gary Beach. He taught me so much. He was forever fresh, making up scenarios to keep it all alive and real. "Let's say we've had a couple of cocktails." And it would affect the scene for us without the audience knowing. It gave it purpose. Or "Let's say we've just had a horrible fight and we need to make up." He would do this in the songs before we went on. Brilliant man.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
The production I did was directed by Tony Stevens, who used some amazing staging and symbolism to create some really breathtaking affects. I do remember the hush that was the audience when the cross (which I was hanging on!) appeared to be floating into the heavens through the stars. Truly beautiful.
Emcee is such a great character. I nearly fell off a very high platform supported by invisible wires as I leaned out over the stage singing "I Don't Care Much" - but I cared! I cared!
JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
More about set-ups and push-ups than singing. I met my husband on that show. So it's a great show.
Usually the nude scene is about 10 seconds of dimly-lit fogginess. Our production had me naked on the stage in a spot light for like two minutes. Scandalous. And oddly freeing. My son wants to be naked all the time. He'd be great in this show.
Michael Arden was Pippin. Such a good actor. I was certainly intimidated by even trying to fill the legendary shoes of Ben Vereen in this role. And I was particularly nervous the night he came to the theatre - along with Stephen Schwartz.
THE JAZZ SINGER
Ahh, the show that was never to be. This show, all about Al Jolson, is one of the best scripts I've ever been a part of. It had many incarnations and was SOOO CLOOOSE, so many times. In its last version, it was so smart and dark and fascinating - inside the mind of a megalomaniac. A little like Donald Trump, but talented, and people liked him.
THE FIRST WIVES CLUB
Good cast. Not the greatest of experiences. It was a bit of a cluster-fuck. One of those shows that was a "could-have-been."
Your one-man show SAM
Mixed. Loved doing the show. But a very difficult time for me. It was just before I got sober, so there were a lot of things swimming around in my head and heart. I was so . . . sad.
NEW YORK'S FINEST - BROADWAY'S LEADING MEN
This is a show I created and directed in Los Angeles. Great cast: Levi Kreis, Brandon Victor Dixon, David Burnham. Stupid talent! God, I love talent. I've been so blessed in so many ways. Worked with so many great talents that I've learned so much from, collaborated with, been better because of my work with them. I change hats a lot - singer, actor, writer, director - but, as I said, - it's all storytelling. And when I get to work with other storytellers in whatever way they tell their story, it's truly a dream life. Unpredictable. It's inspiring. And it's that wonderful thing that I hope doesn't ever go away for me: "I wonder what's going to happen today."
Besides wanting to entertain the hell out of your audience, what do you want them to leave with after the curtain of HAM: A MUSICAL MEMOIR falls?
Well, the specifics may be to my own life, but I hope that the humor and pathos and themes are accessible to everyone. It's not just my story - it's really for anybody who ever felt outside, who wanted something more, and perhaps who found that "more" in the most surprising places.
Thank you, Sam! And break a leg @ Pasadena Playhouse!
Be the audience for Sam's live filming of HAM: A MUSICAL MEMOIR July 9 @ 2p & 8p and July 10 @ 2p. For further info, visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org