Even within the arts, very often the powers that be like to box us in. An ingénue plays her fair share of Lauries in Oklahoma! and Marias in The Sound of Music. The character actor travels the dinner theater circuit reprising his version of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls then dons a fat suit (or gains the weight) for Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha. The idea of “type” sticks to an actor’s resume like fly paper. It takes a certain fortitude to crack the mold. . . or cast a new one. Sam Harris, who premieres tonight at Theater 511 at Ars Nova in his show HAM: A Musical Memoir, has taken a sledgehammer that ideology.
Harris proves that invention and reinvention is the very essence of the creative process as he recounts his early days growing up in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, to winning the Grand Champion title in the very first season of Star Search, and finally welcoming a little star of his own into the world with the adoption of his son Cooper with husband Danny Jacobsen.
The premise of the 80-minute performance is Harris’s recent collection of essays, Ham: Slices of a Life, which was published by Simon & Schuster last year. Setting out to promote the book, Harris convinced the publishers to allow him to present a more theatrical presentation of his work than a typical bookstore reading. Producers Susan Dietz and Elaine Krauss saw a reading at 54 Below and thought there was enough there to craft a standalone musical memoir. They were right.
Harris, with the help of deft direction by Billy Porter, pummels through his life’s stories at breakneck pace. He recounts his first foray onto the stage as “one of the two mixed-raced Polynesian bastard children in the Charles Page High School production of South Pacific,” his first exposure to the rousing hymnals of the Southern Baptist church, his mentorship by producer/director Jerry Blatt, his star turn on Star Search, a suicide attempt only to be waylaid by a sibling’s unfortunate encounter with a darning needle, coming out as homosexual, and expectedly, a tribute to his son. It’s a lot.
But Sam Harris is a lot. Self-described as an “extreme singer,” he shies away from nothing. Some characterizations are more successful than others and some of those extraordinary high notes occasionally crackle and fade. It doesn’t matter though because through it all he approaches the material with unabashed honesty. Much of the narrative is lifted directly from the book, though, and the past tense, dense narrative sometimes feels like prose rather than dialogue intended for the stage.
The book’s structure features a non-linear collection of stories, while this performance follows a more traditional trajectory with a few key backward hiccups, including a compelling scene where Harris plays both his teenage self and his psychology teacher, Mr. McDowell, who comforts him by saying, “You can’t pick and choose and snatch away pieces of who you are and expect to be the same person. It’s all one thing. There is nothing wrong with you. Either you accept and like yourself as a complete picture or you don’t. If I were you, I wouldn’t trade the person you are or any of what got you here. What a loss that would be.” The scene leads into the evening’s 11 o’clock number, “Broken Wing,” co-written by Harris and musical director Todd Schroeder.
HAM: A Musical Memoir may inherently draw a niche audience based on Harris’s cult following and unique discography but it is a solo work worth seeing for anyone who has dared—or dreamed—to color outside the lines.