Exclusive Interview with Sam Harris
Sam Harris, the Tony nominee, recording artist (listed as one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 greatest singers of all time”), playwright, composer, director and best-selling author who is bringing his critically acclaimed one-man show “Ham: A Musical Memoir” to audiences everywhere. Based on Harris’ Best-Selling book “Ham: Slices of Life”, Sam is teaming up with Kickstarter in order to film the hit musical at a historic Los Angeles theater. The Kickstarter campaign launched on May 12 and provides details on the campaign and a hysterical video starring Sam. Also listed are rewards for various levels of contributions. Sam Harris, first burst onto the scene as the premiere winner of Ed McMahon’s “Star Search.” Before “American Idol” and before “The Voice,” 25 million viewers tuned in every week to watch Sam beat back the competition and triumph each time. Sam became the first singer since Judy Garland to claim “Over the Rainbow” as his own and Jimmy Fallon called this legendary performance, “One of the best musical performances I’ve ever seen ever aired on television ever!”
Harris went on to tour the country, selling out prestigious engagements at Carnegie Hall. Broadway called and Sam answered where he starred in numerous Tony Award winning and nominated productions including Cy Coleman’s The Life, The Producers, and the revival of Grease just to name a few.
Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us here at Talk Nerdy, we really appreciate it. I do have to tell you that I remember you on Star Search that first season. It was so exciting to see you move towards the finals. So, thanks for the great entertainment.
No; thank you for watching.
My first question is in two parts so take your time answering if you wish. What inspired you to write a memoir at this point in your life?
Well, I didn’t actually think of it as an autobiography or memoir, I wrote it originally as a collection of essays. I didn’t write them in chronological order, I just wrote about stuff. You know, I’ve written for other mediums, but a book seemed very ominous so I just had all these pages that I’d written. Then a dear friend of mine, Frank Langella – the actor who had also written a book, said to me ‘you know you need to be just writing these. You need to be putting them together and writing these stories without an expectation of what it’s supposed to be, without thinking this is a book. Just keep writing’.
Then I did that, just divorcing myself from any, ‘like this is supposed to be something’, but then all of a sudden I had a large number of pages which I submitted to a few literary agents. I flew to New York from LA and met with a bunch of them who were very excited about the project and ended up with a great agent who then took me to Simon and Schuster and it was like that was it. The book happened really, really fast; it was kind of crazy. The word memoir sounds like looking back at your life-ish and the show is more like that, but the book is out of chronological order. The show is in chronological order.
Ok, so now you’ve got your book out there and it is doing well. How did you then decide, maybe I should set this to music?
Well, actually it came about right after the book came out. You know typically when you release a book you go promote it. You go around to bookstores where you do signings and readings of the book; you do readings for book clubs and libraries as well. Well, because I come from theater, Simon and Schuster and I decided that it would be more fun and more interesting if I did it in theaters rather than bookstores.
So I toured around doing readings of the book but also putting music around them that sort of reflected the story or commented on something and because I was in a theater and I have an amazing music director, we’ve worked together for about twenty years, we were like ‘let’s throw in some songs because we’re in a theater’. Then the show started to develop itself because the songs started to not just reflect it (the book), but move the plot forward and I started rearranging the order of things to create an arc of something and then once when I was doing a reading in New York, and promoting the book thing, these Broadway producers saw it and said ‘you know, I think it’s really a show!’ And I’m like ‘great’.
I’m based in LA, but Todd, my music director, and I flew to New York and started working with Billy Porter who’s an old friend, who is a great singer, actor, Tony winner, but who is also a great director and that’s when we really, really started developing it.
All the characters that I had written about in my life I started playing. We could sort of divorce ourselves literally from the content of the book and start writing scenes for these characters. I play this vast array of people – I play an 80-year-old black woman, I play my father, I play myself at three years old, five years old, 15 years old and I play a hateful, horrible little league baseball coach, and a tranny… I mean it’s just all kinds of characters. It’s a bit of a… man it’s a hard show (laughs)! It’s a lot!
Then, of course, the songs started to become original songs which we were writing for the show. There are some songs that are not original, songs that I cover that are sort of Broadway things or pop things, but more and more it was original music; so that’s how the show developed. Then we played it in New York and then came to Los Angeles and it really, really got developed there. That’s where the production kind of came full out and now we’re filming it. It’s crazy!
It is a really cool story about how the stage show developed from your book – almost like a snowball picking up speed and material on its way down.
Yeah! We didn’t know, we didn’t know it was going to go this direction, but in retrospect it makes sense; it’s totally the trajectory of what should have happened. So, it’s great and I love the show… you know it’s so personal – that’s the thing. As an actor when you play a role you sort of imbue it with your own experiences to make that character more fleshed out and fully realized but when you’re playing your own self and your own crises, your own humor and the characters that were really in your life, it’s a whole other thing. So when the reviewers come, it’s not like they’re reviewing the show, they’re reviewing me! (laughs) They’re like evaluating my life.
I have to think that, that makes it just that much more nerve-wracking?
Yeah, it’s nerve-wracking, I mean it’s solid, but it’s also because, again when you’re an actor playing another part you’re sort of divorced from the reality of that person. Well, in this case, it really is me and I’m sort of reliving many of these moments – of which many are funny so there is a lot of fun, but there’s some raw stuff too. So it goes from the ridiculous to the sort of tragic. I have a teenage suicide attempt and some of these darker moments, but the lion’s share of it is pretty fun.
How difficult is it for you to face some of those darker moments, we all have them and many of us bury them. Does it still affect you at this point when you’ve done this show over and over and you’re coming into contact with your dark self over and over? What’s that like?
You would think… I mean the fear is that you’re not going to be able to connect with it because it becomes familiar – you know, like if you have a therapy session and you keep talking about the same thing then you will eventually become immune to its effect because you’ve dealt with it cathartically. So my… your fear, my fear always is that this not going to be valid anymore for me. So far thankfully that hasn’t happened, I go there and sort of re-experiencing it makes it really fulfilling too. Also, because the show is as fun as it is, it’s really about a sense of hope and finding… the theme I guess is about finding what is enough.
I think so many of us, all of us, in different fields – you know, it’s such an American thing to be going and getting more and more and whenever you get to that place, it doesn’t do it so you keep wanting more and it’s different. So this is about finding that and about going through that process and especially people in show business that are doing it publically, you know, love me, love me, love me.
So again, coming back to the point about how personal this show is to you, did you find it easier or more difficult to find the music for that – the original music?
Oh, it made it much easier. Absolutely, because you know, there’s the old thing – the old saying that asks why are there musicals? Why is there music? It’s because you know, when words are not enough it will have to musicalized and so it’s an extension of the story. It’s not a comment like ‘oh look what happened, this song was about that’ it’s really… they move the plot. That made it easier I think they moved the plot organically. I hate that word because I think it’s overused but you know what you mean.
Actually, I think organically is the right word in this case because this project did take on a life of its own and it seems that at times you have just become overwhelmed by this feeling where just words, plain words are not enough to communicate that to somebody else. So you reach out, you to music which is so entrenched in your life. So this then becomes your means to show other people how music saved you and how very important music is in your life. Do I have that right?
Absolutely! That’s beautifully put, that’s exactly right. It’s not only an extension, but also my means of expression and my savior. The music reflects where I am in my story so, I mean at the age I am until finally I’m this man having this perspective. It’s been really exciting.
Now in this new phase where we’re filming this and we’ve got the Kickstarter going… it’s crazy!
Which brings me to my next question, what would you like to say to people who are contemplating a donation to your fund, what would you like to tell them to convince them to get off of that fence?
The response has been so really overwhelmingly positive. We’ve gotten these amazing reviews across the board with nothing remotely negative or even critical. They were just these raves about the effect of the show. About how it was entertaining, but so much richer and deeper… which of course as the writer and the person who lived it, it’s like ‘wow!’ It kind of blew me away and so the whole impetus for this is… we want to first of all record it, we want to have a recording of this experience, but it is also for people who are not in New York and Los Angeles or a city that we happen to play in to experience this as well. It’s so they can get it as well.
I’ll say this even though it’s my piece; I think we have something really special here, beyond entertaining, I think it has a relevance that makes people feel good. I might be a singer, actor, a writer, but all of them (the reviews) are saying I’m a storyteller. So bottom line, it’s all the same, whether I’m singing, whatever I’m doing and I’m telling a story here that may be specifically about my life but that I think is relatable to everybody whatever their life or their circumstances are.
That’s a really great way to describe it to the readers. I did look at the reviews for HAM: A Musical Memoir and I could not find a negative review either.
Oh, that’s great! I’m glad to hear it.
Also, as I read through your reviews it got me thinking, like the questions I asked, about how personal this was and I thought to myself that I’d never be able to do that, to make myself so vulnerable, to put myself out there like that.
It’s weird with me. My husband always says ‘if I want to know what’s going on with you, I’ll come to see one of your shows’. Because for some reason, I’m always able to get it out on a public platform easier than I’m able to do it in my real life. Isn’t that weird? (laughs) I’m able to be honest in a different way and just throw it all out there but meanwhile, it’s not that easy for me to do even with good friends.
So then maybe the music and the shows are a gift to you in that they’ve allowed you to be able to communicate those inner feelings that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. I use writing.
You said earlier you’d never be able to do this and yet, you do. In a different format, but you do. So the truth is this, our circumstances may all be specifically different, but it’s all about the human condition, all of it; and for me, the other savior besides music has been humor. I have to find humor in it or I won’t make it. It’s gotta be funny, there has to be a perspective on it, even if it’s ‘are you fucking kidding me?’ There has to be something that you have to stand back… you know what they say, comedy is tragedy with time and that’s true. You’ve to look back and find the comedy.
So true, how many times have you said or heard someone say, ‘you know, in 20 years we’re going to look back on this and laugh’.
Exactly! That’s what I’ve done and that’s what I want for my son. If I could choose the things that I want for him I’d say, “I want you to be happy, I want you to feel safe and I want you to be funny’. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I think that having a sense of humor really helps each of us when we are faced with those times that are really hard. If you can find that little spark of humor then maybe you can that next step forward.
You don’t necessarily find it in the moment, but if you can find it after – even 20 years like you said – what it does is give us hope and that’s all any of us really want. We just want some hope! That’s why people do go to entertainments, do go to the theater and do watch movies. It’s because they want to see a reflection of the human condition and relate to it on some level whether it’s funny or not funny. We’re all the same.
Yeah, so that even if you can’t find that little bit of hope in your own life, and I’m sure you know this as an entertainer, you can find it externally and hold on to that while you’re in the rough water. Like a lifeline or life-preserver. So your music, your show may offer people a way to look back at their own lives and see the humor that they hadn’t seen previously because you’ve pointed it out through your own experience.
Right, you know specifically in my circumstances, part of the show is growing up gay in the Bible belt at a time when that wasn’t as doable. Meanwhile, everybody has felt like an outsider, everybody has felt like they are from another planet so even those specifics don’t have to separate somebody from their version of that situation.
Absolutely, we don’t have to go through the exact same circumstances to understand each other or to recognize common feelings. We all, at some time, feel like nobody ‘gets’ them and that even if they do eventually ‘get’ them, they’ll hate them. You and your experience and the show can certainly help people understand that they can be different as well.
You’re right on target. The other thing that’s really good about Kickstarter, I’ve backed about a dozen of them myself, and the great thing about them is that you feel like you’re part of something, you’re helping to create something that exists beyond the earth. You’re doing this because you think it’s something valuable not just ‘what is this going to get me’. I think that there’s great value in that, that you are part of making something happen that didn’t exist before.
You build a sense of community.
Yes! If you haven’t, you need to go to the page (Kickstarter) and view the pitch video because you are going to laugh your ass off. Also, because I’m fortunate and because of my business we have all these testimonials up with, Rosie O’Donnell, Jason Ritter and so many others who have seen the show and wanted to know what they could do to help. So that’s kind of cool too.
I would encourage everyone go over to the HAM: A Musical Memoir Kickstater page and look at the pitch video as well as the testimonies. There are great rewards available at a range of price points so if you’re interested in supporting this project, I’m sure you can find something that fits your budget.
You can follow Sam Harris on social media at:
I found this so interesting! The show sounds like something most everyone who has passed thru hard times could relate to, and walk away feeling good about.