First came Ham: Slices of Life, 16 moving and guffaw-worthy personal essays in which the enduring singer, actor and recording artist Sam Harris effortlessly joined the ranks of David Sedaris and Chelsea Handler as a memoirist and humorist of the first order. His essays are shot through with curious, bizarre, transcendent, redemptive, even painful but always true, tales from 30 years in the spotlight and all of the glorious and glaring insanity that goes along with it.
Next came a stage adaptation of the book, called Ham: A Musical Memoir, which premiered at NYC’s Ars Nova in early 2015 and had another run earlier this year in LA. Like the book, this is the antithesis of the boring and typical and-then-I-sang, and-then-I-screwed, and-then-I-drank autobiography. Given just a few of the details of Harris’ rise to renown, how could it be anything but:
…growing up in the bible belt of Oklahoma, gay, an outsider, who found himself through the escape of singing and writing and acting. His public singing debut was when he was 3. He auditioned for the role of Helen Keller when he was 5. He wanted to be Jewish because they were the chosen people. He won first, second and third place at his school talent show. He was the only white boy in the black church in ‘colored town.’ His house burned down. Twice. He left home at 15 and fell in love with another boy in a show — an abomination — which led to an attempted suicide at 16. He became famous at 22 and went on the hamster wheel of show business, but something was always missing. In an emotional flashback to an exchange between teenaged Sam and his very wise high school psychology teacher, Sam is finally able to come to terms with the drive that made him a success but cloaked a constant need for something more. Years later, Sam is married and becomes a father. And that…is more than enough.
So modest, that Harris. For what’s omitted is how, at 22, he became that household name. Not that he hasn’t had a remarkable career — Broadway, concerts, tours, major-network acting and writing gigs. But for millions of us, first there was Star Search and a voice that left America stunned, rapt and weeping:
What’s next? If Harris gets his wish, Ham: A Musical Memoir will be filmed for broadcast and posterity.
But that costs some scratch, so Harris and his team — including music director and co-composer Todd Schroeder; co-director Billy Porter (yes, the Tony-and Grammy-winning star); co-director Ken Sawyer; choreography Lee Martino; producer Suzi Deitz; and co-producer Elaine Krauss — have just launched a campaign on Kickstarter to raise $100,000 to film the show.
Be forewarned: their Kickstarter video is not some schmaltzy craptastic mess. You are hereby dared to watch this and not laugh:
And now, 5 questions Sam Harris has never been asked:
“What do you have against Josh Groban and why such animosity?”
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“So, can you tell me about yourself?” — from an interviewer who had no idea who I was, anything about my work, what project he was covering, no homework whatsoever. It was humiliating. So I said, “Google me and then maybe we can talk.” I mean, seriously?!
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“I saw you in Hair, in which you sang naked for almost two minutes. Would you ever consider singing naked in your concerts?” (You can’t make this shit up!)
Can you walk us through how you turned autobiographical writing into a solo stage show? How did you decide what to edit in or out, what to sing or not sing? What convince you that there was a dramatic motor to your book that people would be moved by on stage?
When the book came out I did a series of readings around the country and my publisher, Simon and Schuster, agreed that since the stage is more my world, that I do them in theaters rather than bookstores. So I put in songs to reflect some of the stories. As we went on, the presentation began to take real shape and when I was doing it in NY a couple of Broadway producers saw it and came forward about developing it into a real show.
My music director (for over 20 years!), Todd Schroeder, and I went to NY to work with Billy Porter, who would direct. All the people I’d written about in the book became full-out characters — all of which I played. Much of the show is still narrative, but we were no longer beholden to the book except as a basis, so scenes were written for these characters: a little league baseball coach (I didn’t make the team, by the way); an 80-year-old black woman at a church in “colored town”; my father, my mentor, a tranny, my psychology teacher and others — including my own son, who was 7 when the show was created.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]More original songs. More production.[/pullquote]We did it in NY and then months later in LA when Ken Sawyer directed and took it to another level. More original songs. More production. So it’s been a journey. A really personal one. I mean, it’s one thing when you’re playing a character as an actor and you use private moments of your life to make the character human and three-dimensional, but in this case, it’s me? My own life. So it can be a little raw for me. But I love doing it — very rewarding.
And the music. I’m very proud of the original songs written for the show. One in particular, “A Broken Wing,” is my favorite.
If the King of Drama came down from Mount Dramaturgy and decreed that you couldn’t do this piece as a one-person-show, which character would you add in first, and why?
Well, I don’t think there are any characters in the show that I left out because I didn’t feel I should play them. It’s all there — and of course they’re not impersonations of these people. It’s my characterization of their essence. I’m not a mimic. (Well, except for a brief exchange between me and Carol Channing…)
We were so struck by your Kickstarter video that we have address some questions to each of the people who appear in it. First, to your agent: When Sam noted that he grew up in the Bible Belt and he’s gay, you seemed surprised. Darling, did you think he was merely glib?
From the agent: I love Sam Harris. He’s been a client for years. Since I was a boy. I didn’t know he was gay, though I’d suspected it when I saw that David Beckham bobblehead at his house. And then there was the time he took me backstage to meet the cast of Naked Boys Singing. And then there’s his Barbra Streisand collection, and his relationships with Alan Cumming and Neil Patrick Harris and Rosie O’Donnell and Sandra Bernhardt and Elton John and Ricky Martin and Jodie Foster and Sean Hayes and Wanda Sykes and Tom Cruise. But no, I had no idea.
To your producer: Was that call from Bratislaw Cykwykcykwykcykwykczech? He also invested in The Clyde Fitch Report! So generous, Mr. Cykwykcykwykcykwykczech. Would you let him know his stake in our new podcast is doing just fine? Tell him we didn’t go with “12 Days a Slav” as the title, though. Now it’s “You’re Such a Slav!” Let us know if he likes it. We’d love to get Sam, by the way, as a guest on our podcast, too.
From the Producer: I’m afraid your investor is not the same. My guy is Branislav, not Bratislaw. And his name is Cykwykcykwykckwyketzchei, not Cykwykcykwykcykwykczech, though he can be related; everyone in Slovenia is related. Branislav has invested in many of my projects: Captain America: The Winter Njoki (also a potato dumpling very popular in Slovenian winters); and The Jungle Knjiga, which is about a boy raised by pheasants who joins civilization to become a Kurenti, who typically jump, wear sheepskin coats, hold wooden clubs with a hedgehog skin attached at one end and wear cowbells tied around their waists. Big hit. Very big hit. We’d have won the Slovenian equivalent to the Oscar — the Osel (which also means “orange,” a much-desired fruit) — if we’d been nominated.
To your publicist: How’d the colonic go? All we know, bubi, is your pupik looks so good we’re verklempt down to our kishkes.
From the publicist: Darling bubbe ketzele, the colonic went well, considering I’d eaten at Yang Chow the night before and had too much mu shu, if there is such a thing as having too much mu shu. And my pupik is none of your business, but I will tell you that I have it cleaned once a month and save the lint and donate it to a Bolivian sweatshop, where they make it into sweaters. I’m wearing one now.
To the assistant at the white board: Kristin Wiig is suing your hair for trademark infringement. Any comment?
From the assistant at the white board: No.