Before there was American Idol or The Voice, there was Star Search. Hosted by Ed McMahon, the reality talent competition premiered in 1983 and was a wild success for the next dozen years, giving a platform to hundreds of young artists trying to break into the entertainment business. None captured America’s heart quite as profoundly as the Oklahoma-born boy in tux tails and sneakers who won the male vocalist competition in the show’s first season: Sam Harris. His through-the-rafters version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was an instant hit and he’s been a formidable presence ever since. Now, Harris brings three decades of stories to life in HAM: A Musical Memoir, which begins performances tonight at Ars Nova and plays through January 24.
“On one hand, anything that gives talent a platform is a great thing,” says Harris of the recent crop of talent competitions. “But the difference is that we didn’t have mentors, stylists, or pop catalogues to choose from. We sang what we wanted. . . and I wore what I wanted. What it gave me was an ability to express myself through the way I was performing. What I chose to say, my perspective, and my funky get-up—it was all a reflection of me—and it would never exist today. Now it’s all about creating a pop sensibility. Something that already exists.”
Many are familiar with Harris’s discography, which includes standards, pop hits, musical theater and more, but he’s also an accomplished writer, having written stage pieces for himself and others, as well as for television. HAM: A Musical Memoir is an extension of his latest creative endeavor: memoirist. “It happened quite beautifully,” says Harris of the process. It was suggested that he write “without expectation” and within four months he had recorded a collection of stories. He had a literary agent a month later and it was sold a month after that. “I’ve been surrounded by the best,” says Harris of his quick success with the project.
Very few stones are left unturned in the 16-story collection. Deeply personal, Harris taps into both the humor and pathos of his life experiences, recounting his run-ins and relationships with Liza Minnelli, Donny Osmond, Elizabeth Taylor and more. The only area where he treads lightly is around the adoption of his son with husband Danny Jacobsen. The couple adopted in 2008 and Harris felt it important to protect his child as well as the birth mother, saying “it’s not public information.”
But there’s plenty of material to explore and when Harris began discussing the book’s promotion with publisher Simon and Schuster, he said, “I’m happy to read a couple of stories and do the publicity, etcetera, but I’m a theater guy—why don’t we do this in theaters and I can sing some songs, too?” They loved that idea and Harris engaged his longtime musical director Todd Schroeder. The first run was two and a half hours but with the assistance of dramaturg Larissa Kokernot, the team began to pluck certain stories to craft into theatrical art.
“We took this stuff and made it alive,” says Harris of transforming HAM from a book into a stage piece. “Instead of talking about a character I am the character. It’s not just narrative. These stories have become personified and alive.
Producers Susan Dietz and Elaine Krauss saw the production and were so taken by it that they pooled their resources, paired Harris with director Billy Porter (Tony Award-winner for Kinky Boots and fellow Star Search alum) and booked him at Ars Nova.
Harris knew Porter from their days in the Broadway revival of Grease and says that his contributions have lifted the material off the page. “Billy is a Renaissance man in terms of his dramaturgy and musicality. [It’s] a challenge for me, as someone who lived it and wrote the book, to tell the story. I can’t wear all those hats,” says Harris. “He gives me some crazy ass idea and I trust him.” Audience members can expect to hear the kind of music Harris grew up with as well as original numbers, including an 11 o’clock number sure to bring the house down.
Based in L.A. these days, Harris is happy to temporarily be back in New York, though he feels his family’s heartstrings tugging away. “I love walking up the stairway to the rehearsal hall but. . . I miss my family. Daddy is doing something to fill his soul. I gotta tell ya, as much as I miss my baby, it feels great to focus on something in a room filled with amazing, creative, people.”
HAM: A Musical Memoir
511 West 54th Street
Through January 24
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His work has appeared in Passport, Hamptons, Gotham, Hemispheres, Travel Weekly, EDGE Media Network and more. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.