Sam Harris Kickstarts Ham: A Musical Memoir
Courtesy of Sam Harris
We know, we know. When you think of Sam Harris you think of the guy who, in 1983, set the bar for all of the reality singing show competitors that would follow. The golden-voiced guy with the tuxedo tailcoat and tennis shoes. The king of the dramatic key change and a killer final note, who made “Over the Rainbow” his own, had a 14-week winning streak and was crowned the grand champion of Star Search’s inaugural season. But as we learned in a recent one-on-one interview, there’s more to Sam Harris than the annals of television history might recount.
In 2014, the reality TV legend turned recording artist turned Tony-nominated Broadway star added author to his list of hyphenates with the memoir Ham: Slices of a Life. While doing a book tour in theaters across America, Harris started to adapt the tome into a one-man show — with a few show tunes and original songs added in the mix, of course. And now, with the help of supporters of a Kickstarter campaign that ends on Saturday, June 11 at 8:15 A.M. PST, Harris is planning to film the production.
Ham: A Musical Memoir is Harris’ own personal story of a gay kid with an obsession for performing growing up in the bible belt in Oklahoma. Yet in true mega-theatrical Harris fashion, Ham is not your average cabaret recounting of past events. Rather than standing by a baby grand rehashing a lifetime of anecdotes and belting out a round of musical theater classics, Harris has crafted a show in which he plays not only himself but his father, his psychology teacher, his mentor and even an 80-year-old black woman.
As he explained, “I’m having conversations with myself. I’m one and then the other and then one and then the other. Defining that and experiencing that is trippy.”
Needless to say, it adds an unimaginable level of difficulty to his performance. “When you’re an actor and you’re playing another character, you just want to imbue that character with your own personal experience to make it fully realized,” Harris noted. “But when you’re playing yourself and it’s not substitution, it’s actually your own experience, it’s a different thing. It’s harder than playing somebody else. When I am playing other people in my life, they’re very real characters. I know what they look like and dress like and the timber of their voice.”
“What’s challenging about doing that in a one man show, when you’re having actual conversations, is turning off one emotion into the other’s perspective,” he acknowledged. “There’s a scene in which [my psychology teacher] really changes my life. Me, Sam the teenager, is taking this in and learning something about myself and it’s very, very emotional. Then switch to him, who is calm and peaceful. It’s like turning the faucet off and on.”
But the rewards of tackling such a difficult undertaking are great. As Harris discovered while developing the show, “I found a great deal of compassion for my father. We all go through our parent stuff. In writing the book, I’ve seen some of that... But I’m playing him, strangely finding his perspective, which was eye opening and really moving and touching to me. Nobody’s one thing. Everybody does the best they can do. And my father has certainly evolved. He was always a good man but I don’t think he knew how to express that because he was a kid. They were all kids when they had us in those days. So, that was a big eye opener for me.”
And after all, it was Harris’ dad who gave him his first big break. “He plunked me down in front of a microphone at a football game to sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ when I was three. He pushed me. He encouraged me. But yet there was this thing that hovered over it because he looked at my obsession as something that made me different rather than unique. But, we’ve all come to terms with that and it’s a great relationship now. His relationship with my son and his relationship with my husband, it’s amazing, really amazing.”
What’s amazing for decades worth of Harrisites is the rewards they can get if they give to his cause. Harris is offering signed copies of his book and meet and greets at the show but there’s so much more. Those who are able to pledge more could walk away with the “record jacket” and gold lame Converse high-tops that he wore on his self-titled Motown album, the letter jacket from the Sam-I-Am cover or even one of those tuxedo jackets he donned on Star Search.
It seems almost unimaginable that a celebrity would be able to hand over his iconic wardrobe items. But Harris conceded that his mother is having a more difficult time parting with these priceless pieces of pop culture than he is. “Maybe it’s from having my house burn down two times, but things are not terribly important to me… And if those things can help serve a higher purpose now, than great.”
And Harris does believe that Ham is more than just a chance for him to tell his own trials and tribulations. “This may be my specific story but we all are the same, we all have the same experience in our way. Our specifics are different but everybody’s felt outside. Everybody’s felt unable to get out of whatever their small world is. Everybody’s wanted something outside.”