- The Magazine
A born entertainer, Sam Harris could always find the spotlight, even as a precocious kid in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. “Man, I would sing anywhere,” he recalls with a chuckle.
The future Star Search singing champion, multi-platinum recording artist, and Tony-nominated stage performer already felt that showbiz was in his blood. “That was the greatest blessing for me. I think I knew what I wanted to be when I was like three, I knew I wanted to sing and make up characters and use my imagination to create things.”
Now, at a youthful 59, fresh off publishing his second book, The Substance of All Things, and releasing the video-on-demand version of his award-winning Off-Broadway show Ham: A Musical Memoir, Harris is still living the showbiz dreams that inspired that boy in Sand Springs. “All these years later, I am a storyteller and I am a showman, and the only difference between me now, and me when I was five and 10 and 15 and 20, is that I get to do it professionally, with people who are amazing, who are the best at what they do.”
Harris created Ham: A Musical Memoir with long-time musical director and co-composer Todd Schroeder. It’s based on his acclaimed first book, Ham: Slices of a Life, published in 2014. Segueing from singer to writer came naturally to Harris. “I love writing,” he says. “I love the rhythm of it. It’s a very musical experience for me. And so I just wrote these individual stories and essays and things. But the process of turning it into a musical was somewhat different.”
Harris and Schroeder composed original songs, with Harris writing some by himself, and the pair developed the arc and chronology of the show together. But Harris credits the piece’s first director Billy Porter — “who I’d known forever, he was also a Star Search guy, we did Grease together” — with getting Ham up on its feet. “People know him as an actor and as a singer,” says Harris of the Pose star, “but he’s a really fine director.”
Schroeder and Harris, both of whom are based in Los Angeles, spent a month or so in New York with Porter refining the structure and nuances of the autobiographical story. “Billy was the one who got me off the page of my memoir, and on the stage. He would say, ‘I don’t want to hear about it, I want to see it. Write the scene.'”
Following the show’s New York run, Harris took Ham to L.A. “Ken Sawyer, a brilliant director, took it then to the next level of production.” The film version, recorded live at Pasadena Playhouse, premiered at Laemmle Theatres, before being streamed exclusively on Broadway HD. With Ham now hitting streaming services everywhere, new audiences will discover the belter from the Bible Belt who grew up to be a world-class entertainer, as well as a devoted husband and father.
Harris confesses there was one person in the audience that set even this old-school showman a little on edge: his son. “It was a little scary for me to show him Ham,” he says. “He went to a premiere, on a film screen. And here he is seeing his dad and some elements of his dad’s life that were not easy, like a teenage suicide attempt, a rough childhood in a lot of ways, and overcoming obstacles and demons. I was questioning whether to let him see it or not.”
In the show, Harris deals not only with the depression he faced before coming out, but the closet he felt trapped in once he’d accepted his sexuality and others, like his record company at the time, had not. “Yes, I would go to the Grammys with a girl on my arm. Yes, I did those things. I was told to. But the people in the industry knew. I knew who was gay and who was in the closet. And nobody was really out…. It was part of the culture.”
He realized that by omitting his truth, “you’re also not sharing your joy. And I think that’s what railed on me more than anything, was the idea that, ‘I am a really happy person. I’ve been through the war, I’ve been through it, and I’m here now, and I can’t tell you that?’ I can’t not tell you that anymore. I don’t think it was till the ’90s, that I did an out thing in The Advocate, and then everybody was like, ‘Duh. Really? Big surprise.'”
Harris wants his son to know his story, and hopefully understand the value of all his dad’s experiences. “I do have a good life and I have to acknowledge that all those things, the bad things, too — maybe more so — made me who I am. And if I like who I am, and I have survived that, then I have to almost celebrate those things because they’re a component of me, that I wouldn’t be the same without. So in showing it to my son, instead of being scared, I was able to say, ‘Look what I did and this is how I came out.'”
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!