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Interview: Sam Harris' OPENLY GRAY, Openly Happy

Sam Harris debuts his latest show Sam Harris: Openly Gray on the West Coast at the Catalina Bar & Grill March 25th and 26th

Interview: Sam Harris' OPENLY GRAY, Openly Happy

Multi-million selling recording artist Sam Harris debuts his latest show Sam Harris: Openly Gray on the West Coast at the Catalina Bar & Grill March 25th and 26th. I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to this popular and very talented cabaret performer/writer.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sam!

Your latest cabaret show Sam Harris: Openly Gray will it be Ham: Part 3? Or a totally different spin on your life and musical tastes?

Well, as you know, Ham is autobiographical. First it was a book, then made into a one-man musical, first directed by Billy Porter in New York and then by Ken Sawyer in L.A. We filmed the show at the magnificent Pasadena Playhouse, and now it's streaming pretty much everywhere. I am so proud of this show. And after the five-year process of all of that, the Ham chapter is closed for now. Moving on!

Ham was a full-on, full-out theatrical production with sets and designers and the whole thing. Openly Gray is a show meant for clubs and smaller theatres, like 54 Below and Catalina. It's eclectic, with Broadway, pop, and classic songs that I've chosen because they move me or make me laugh. I try to create a show that has a real sense of theatre structure no matter where I'm playing. There is always a lot of comedy; timely observations on what's going on in the crazy of this world. We have to laugh, or we'll die. Seriously. And of course, there are some very personal moments. My husband always says, "If I want to know what's going on in your life, I'll come to one of your shows." I'm a lot more vulnerable on stage than I am in real life. Somehow, exposing myself to an audience is easier than with people who are intimate to me. It's an odd thing, I suppose.

What fan-favorite tunes will be included in Openly Gray?

There are songs that have become part of my expected repertoire, but with this show, we really wanted to expand into a lot of new material that I've not done before. There will always be "Over the Rainbow," and songs from shows I've done like "Use What You Got," from The Life and "Close Every Door," from Joseph... but the focus is my take on new material. I like to dissect songs and find new ways to interpret them. One of my favorite things is when someone who's been to my show says of a well-known song, "I never heard that lyric before." I'm a lyric guy. For instance, I'm doing my version of "Help." You know, the up-tempo, fun, Beatles song. Except it ain't up-tempo this time. The lyric is really powerful, and it says a lot about what I've been through in the past six months.

Your musical director Todd Schroeder will be accompanying you as he has been for years. How far back do you go with Todd? What circumstances brought you two to work together?

Interview: Sam Harris' OPENLY GRAY, Openly Happy Todd is my musical soulmate. He is so much more than an accompanist. We develop the shows together. We co-arrange songs and he always has a million ideas. He forces me to expand. He is my safe place. We breathe together. We have been working together for 30 years this December!!! When we met, he was the MD on a benefit that I'd said yes to. He came to my house, and we met. We played through some stuff, and it was magical, and I said, "I've got some commitments coming up, but after that, will you be my music director for the rest of my life?" It was love at first sound. And here we are!

I love your play on words in Openly Gray. Very clever. Where did this title originate? When did you decide to let your hair go naturally gray?

The title Openly Gray is the statement that, after all we've been through with COVID, as well as my own personal challenges, that I'm just putting it all out there. This is it. No covering anything.

Like for so many people, COVID cut through the bullshit of a lot of things for me, including any need to be anything but what I am. I am all for anybody doing whatever makes them feel good and look good to themselves, but for me, it was just time. I'd been coloring my hair for 20 years! I don't need to hang onto that kind of youth. I can be a silver daddy now! Ha! Who knows, maybe I'll color again. I just got a huge amount of new tattoos all over my arms and full chest, so I have no idea what I'll do next. As the song goes from The Life: "It's my body!!!" As for the origin of the title - it came up in a conversation with a good friend when we were talking about this very subject. And it just came out: "I'm openly gray!"

Besides taking a pandemic break with the rest of the world, you've been recuperating from your own health issue. Now that you've come out of the recovery tunnel, would you tell us how it all went the last few months?

Oh, my God! It's been a tough road to get where I am now. The truth is, I'd lost a bit of my onstage joy after Ham was done. It took so much of me. It was a very difficult show, stamina-wise, to do. And very emotional since it was about my life, and painful things I had to re-live every time I did it. When I moved out of that and into other performances, I was finding myself with so much anxiety and stage fright. I've always had really bad stage fright, but it was getting debilitating. I would be physically ill and literally shake.

And I didn't think I was singing well. I was muscling through it. And then COVID happened, which exacerbated my fear of singing after such a long break. But I decided to really get in vocal shape. I worked every day doing exercises and finding my way back. Then, just when I was starting to feel confident, I hemorrhaged a vocal cord. And it wouldn't heal properly, even with total voice rest. I coughed and it re-hemorrhaged. It was that vulnerable. It hemorrhaged two more times. I didn't know if I would sing again. Finally, I had surgery. All in all, it was five months of a nightmare. I can't begin to describe the fear.

Interview: Sam Harris' OPENLY GRAY, Openly Happy But I had the greatest team to get through this with me. My doctor/surgeon, Dr. Shawn Nasseri, is brilliant. He's THE guy. And my vocal coach, Joan Lader, in New York, is the goddess of coaches. I had a lot of support from my family and, of course, Todd, who nurtured me while I was rehabbing. It was a really scary time. My identity was at stake. Not to mention, the challenge of being totally silent for MONTHS on end. You have no idea how much you learn about yourself and others during that kind of silence. And emotionally, the most vulnerable I've ever been. But!!! But!!! I am back and singing better than I have in many years.

Dr. Nasseri has told me for years before now, that I have a strange sort of deformity on my vocal cords. I have a weird growth on one side. It's not a bad growth, it's just always been there. And my vocal cords are smaller than normal and closer than what is typical for a man. He says those things combined are more than likely my "secret sauce." Why I sing like I sing. Funny, right?

I saw those vocal cords on a scope video two to three times a week for months. If I put all the videos together it could be a TV series. Dr. Naserri was more than a doctor, more than a surgeon. He was a therapist. There were many times he took me in his arms and held me when I was in total panic. He's done surgeries on so many major artists and he knows what it's like to go through this.

The main thing is that I am singing smartly now. More than ever. No matter how long we do something, we can fall into bad habits. And it's good to be back and strong again. And in the joy. Being free. Singing with abandon but backed up by technique that I need to apply if I want to sing for years and years. That's the payoff.

With your memoirs and shows, you have turned your life of lemons into entertaining, inspiration lemonade. In what form will you present your experiences the last few months to your adoring audiences? A new musical? A new book? A tear-jerking cabaret act?

What a beautiful thing to say. "Entertaining and inspirational lemonade." Thank you, Gil! The bottom line of it is that the lemons, as you called them - the pain of whatever our experience is, comes to two choices for us: to be informed or defined by those circumstances. If I choose whatever the tragedies of my life are as making me more in touch with myself and humans in general, then I cannot wish those experiences away. I must even celebrate them. However, if I choose to let those tragedies define me, then I am lost. I am a victim, and they are for nothing.

The artist uses those experiences to further investigate whatever role, song, show, character we choose to play. They are the window to excellence if we are willing to go there.

Ultimately, I consider myself a storyteller. It's that simple. That can either come from what I write, or what I sing, or how I portray something. It's all the same thing. So, yes, this new show is a reflection of where I am in my life, as well as what all of us have been through one way or the other. We are in a time like no other. The things we have faced have been unpredictable and earth-shattering. Not just COVID. The very substance of our sense of morals and goodness. That permeates in all other aspects of our lives. My job is to put a microscope on the human condition, which is freaking funny and terribly poignant. Our specifics may be different, but we're all the same at the core. And we need to be together in a room with strangers and experience common emotions. We need to laugh. We need to cry. We need to feel the energy of others who are experiencing the same thing that we are. That's what theatre is: the unity of human experience that brings us together.

Interview: Sam Harris' OPENLY GRAY, Openly Happy That said... my show may hopefully have insightful or poignant moments, but it's a shitload of fun!!! I promise to leave everyone feeling good. Ultimately, that's the point. To feel better than they did when they got there.

Look, I'm not saying I'm some magical artist who knows the recipe for healing. But I do know that I provide an entertainment that, through looking at ourselves in song and speak, finds the source of things we relate to, and offer an experience that has value. I leave it all on the stage, Gil. I give all I've got. You know that from my whole career. It's the least I can do when people have spent their money and time to see me. Ultimately, I'm the recipient of the gift.

Another positive byproduct of the lockdown - you were 'forced' to stay at home and spend time with your family instead of touring the country and singing your heart out. What new things did you learn about your son and husband you didn't know pre-pandemic?

I've learned that contrary to the notion that being together 24/7 for long, long, very long, super long periods of time makes you closer and happier, the truth is no one should be subjected to that much closeness and happiness! I jest! My family is pretty spectacular, and we weathered the quarantine quite well. I think we all learned patience. We learned to respect each other's alone time and ride the rollercoaster of good days and bad days together. Thankfully, our house is big enough to have space from each other. But I got to hear my husband, Danny, on his Zoom calls in our home office for his work, and realize another level of how gifted and smart he is. And Cooper, our son, actually thrived during COVID on remote school. He's 13 years old, and I learned to trust him completely with regard to fulfilling his responsibilities on his own. And we fought! Goddamn, did we argue! I had a framed saying in the kitchen that said, "I'm sorry for everything I say while we're in quarantine." Ultimately, we grew closer as a family. We cuddled up for movies with the dogs. We cook and eat together. We take long walks in the hills. We do silly, stupid stuff. We put on Russian disco music and dance around the kitchen when we're cleaning up.

Was your show at The Purple Room in Palm Springs the beginning of February your first show back in front of a live audience?

Yes, indeed. And I was terrified. I'd not been on stage for two-plus years and after the voice trauma, it was so scary. But the joy I had been missing before everything went down was back. I'm a rehearsal freak and I had solid preparation. (I would live in a rehearsal room if I could!) I also had Todd. It was really a wonderful time getting back on stage. Having an audience was the final piece of the puzzle in my vocal recovery. They are what make it whole.

Although you can reach a wider audience, nothing like a live audience, as opposed to streaming to a camera, right?

I presume you're talking about COVID streaming as a substitute for live singing. There is nothing, nothing in the world like a live audience. The streaming thing is wonderful in that we had this medium to perform in during COVID from our living rooms, but it felt like it was in a vacuum. Not only could we not perform for a live audience, but we didn't even have proper sound and lights and accompaniment that make a show a show. The team of it was not there. That is a big part of what makes something its best. I've had the good fortune to work with people who are the top of their craft. They make me better. It felt lonely. I am grateful that we really discovered this new way to see people remotely - it has changed everything. But it should be an extension, not a replacement, for live shows.

Interview: Sam Harris' OPENLY GRAY, Openly Happy There was a benefit I was asked to do called Night of a Thousand Judys where everyone sang Judy Garland songs. I decided I didn't want to sit at my piano and sing another song by myself. So I got together with Todd and an amazing director friend of mine, Andy Putschoegl, and The Renberg Theatre in Hollywood donated it's space to us, and we shot a music video with an orchestra track. I did the song, "By Myself," which Garland sang in her last film. The video turned out really special. The point being, at that time, I needed at least the feeling that I was on stage and doing something larger than in my kitchen!

With a number of shows cancelling or postponing, how concerned are you with either of your Catalina or Feinstein's/54 Below shows being affected?

I've had to let go of all that. I have no control. I would be terribly disappointed, but I am not alone in this. When I was going through my voice stuff and I was so concerned I wouldn't be ready to sing in time, my good friend Krissy Fraelich, (my Narrator in Joseph and a brilliant singer who'd been through a similar surgery) told me to just keep focused and if I wasn't ready, then I wasn't ready. Period. Fact. You do your best, you prepare, you act "as if." And the rest is out of your hands. There is a freedom in that philosophy. So, I've applied that to the bigger picture. "Force Majeure" has been in every contract I've ever signed. It means both parties are free of obligation when an extraordinary event like war, riots, or A PANDEMIC take place. Who knew we'd actually be living in that? Our whole lives have become force majeure. I think I'm more concerned about people feeling comfortable to come to public places. I hope it doesn't affect that. It didn't in Palm Springs. We were packed and it was a love fest.

Do you prefer performing as yourself or totally enveloped in a scripted character?

Hmmm. I love playing a role. And I love having a company of actors to play with, on stage and off. And it's a lot less difficult when you share the stage with others. However, there's nothing quite like doing my own shows as me. I pretty much take on a role when I am singing something anyway. There is definitely a character and circumstance for each song, like little plays. It's the way I learned, and it keeps it alive for me. And while I do improvise in my shows, they are written with a foundation so the show is structured with ups and downs and arcs, and scripted, especially since I do so much comedy and monologue.

One of the many times I have interviewed or photographed you on the Red Carpets and at charity events, you were arm in arm with Liza for the DVD release of her Liza With A Z. How did you two first meet?

We first met in 1984 right after I had won Star Search. I was in N.Y. playing Carnegie Hall for the first time. It was a HUGE thing for me of course. I was 22 years old. I went to see The Rink and, because I was a bit of a new celebrity, I had no qualms about inviting myself backstage to meet the stars of Broadway shows! Ha! I sent word that I was there, and I was led to Liza and Chita. They were so wonderful. I was in awe and in heaven! I have a photo of the three of us on the empty stage. I'm in the middle of the two of them and I have my arms around them, and I am holding a lit cigarette! On the stage! Times have changed! It wasn't until years later, when I was living in New York, that Liza and I became close friends.

When you were singing and winning on Star Search, had you already envisioned a career in performing?

I am fortunate in that I knew exactly what I wanted to do from when I was about three. I found my joy and it played out in everything I did. I was always making up stories and songs and forcing the neighborhood kids to be in my basement productions. I think it was not only my gift, but also my survival tool. The fantasy of it, the escape from my reality. Looking through my lens of small-town Oklahoma in the 60s and 70s as a gay kid trying to find himself. My talent was my ticket out. I was very focused and driven. I ended up leaving Oklahoma when I was 15 and found my tribe with other singers and actors. Now, here I am - and my son, at 13, is exploring so many things now in his life. Figuring out who he is and what he loves and what his gifts are. It's beautiful to watch. That's how it's supposed to be. It doesn't necessarily gel when you're a toddler! For me it wasn't so much what I wanted to do as much as how I was going to get to do it.

Interview: Sam Harris' OPENLY GRAY, Openly Happy What creative goals have you set for yourself that you still need to reach?

Oh, my! Well, my latest book, The Substance of All Things, is probably my proudest accomplishment and it is crying out to be made into a limited series. It's not autobiographical this time, it's literary fiction. So that's a big goal. I also want to direct more. Also, a musical that I wrote years and years ago with Bruce Newberg, called Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood! needs to be produced again. I am so proud of that show. That's a goal. And I miss New York with all my heart. I've chosen to be a father first. That's my most important job. So I've stayed at home in L.A. But now that my son is older, doing a new Broadway show is back on the table. I mean, we would move there if we needed to at this point. We'd figure it out.

What's in the near future for Sam Harris?

The near future is losing thirty COVID pounds, getting the cabinets in my kitchen repainted, making sure my family machine is running smoothly. How's that? Oh, and playing Openly Gray wherever I can. It's good to be back on stage!

Thank you again, Sam! I look forward to attending your Catalina gig in-person March 25th.

For tickets to Sam's live Catalina performances March 25th and 26th, log onto www.catalinajazzclub.com




From This Author - Gil Kaan

      Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas of film, television, and stage in... (read more about this author)


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