Sam Harris–the American actor and Broadway Alumni–recently launched a kickstarter.com campaign to fund the professional filming of his acclaimed one-man show, Ham: A Musical Memoir. Best known for his Drama League Award winning performance in the Original Broadway Cast of Cy Coleman’s The Life (he was also nominated for the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award in the same role), Harris’s previous Broadway credits include Mel Brook’s The Producers and the Tommy Tune-directed revival of Grease, for which he made his Broadway debut. Sam first burst on to the scene as the premiere winner of Ed McMahon’s “Star Search.” Aside from his theatrical achievements, Harris has sold millions of records over the course of a recording career which has seen the release of nine studio albums filled with both fan favorites and original compositions.
In 2014, Harris released the autobiographical novel Ham: Slices of a Life, which is a series of short stories that cover everything from his childhood–namely growing up gay in the Bible Belt– to his career and many other stops along the way. After a brief stint touring around the country to promote the release of the book, before long Sam found himself developing his novel into a one-man show for the stage. Ham: A Musical Memoir received excellent reviews during its limited run in New York City before it transferred to Los Angeles to as much–if not more–accolades.
Hot on the trails of promoting his kickstarter campaign, Theaterscene.net had the chance to talk with Sam about the project and discuss the process of how it all came together. For more information on the kickstarter campaign for Ham: A Musical Memoir, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/406349790/sam-harris-in-ham-a-musical-memoir. While there, be sure to watch the promotional video Sam created specifically for the campaign, a hilarious bit of sketch comedy in which he plays five different characters–himself, his producer, his publicist, his agent, and a not so enthusiastic intern.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
TheaterScene.net: When was it that you realized you might be able to impact people with your story and thought, “Hey, I could make a book out of this?”
Well, I didn’t go into writing Ham to write a book. I had always written for different medium but I think the idea of a book sounded very ominous to me. I was writing essays–some humorous essays–different things, and I showed a bunch of them to my friend Frank Langella [the actor and writer]. He said, “You need to keep doing this,” and he told me to “write without expectations.” Just write, which is hard–it’s hard to stay out of your way. But I did, and before I knew it I had a number of pages and submitted them to several literary agents, and went to New York and met with several of them and made a decision. It was little bit of a whirlwind, and then, all of sudden I was writing a book.
The whole process has been like that. It just sort of snowballed from [those first pages], to the book, to the show–well, to the reading and then to the show, and then now to filming it. It’s been amazing.
TS: When you started putting down all these different stories, how did you decide which stories to keep, and which stories got the ax?
The ones that got the ax were because I had, perhaps, hit that beat in another way. That I had made that point, or found that sensibility, or had that perspective in another way. So, you know, you kill the babies as you go.
TS: Did you ever feel nervous or hesitant putting yourself out there, putting these really personal stories on paper?
Oddly enough, no. It’s very interesting in that my husband will say, “If I want to know what’s going on with you, I will come to see one of your shows.” I tell everything through my work, rather than on a personal level. I feel oddly more free of doing it through some artistic form and just laying it all out with complete transparency, than I might even with a really close friend.
TS: So how did it happen that you decided you wanted to adapt HAM for the stage?
After the book came out I was doing readings all over the place, and I thought that rather than that, why don’t I do theaters–that’s more my wheelhouse. My music director [Todd Schroeder] and I went out and toured around, doing readings in theaters. Slowly, a theatrical arch started happening. By the time I got to New York–when I was promoting the book–a couple of Broadway producers came forward and said, “This is really leaning towards a play, are you interested in developing it that way?” and I said “Oh my god, yes!” So Todd and I went to New York and started developing [the show] with [actor and director] Billy Porter, who is a longtime friend. He really encouraged that transition for me to play all the characters. So, I’m myself when I’m three, five, 15, and I’m my father, the baseball coach, and an 80-year old black woman in a church, and all these different characters that are in the book. He told me that you’re not bound to the story, to the pages. That’s your truth, that’s what happened, but now you have to put it into a different form.
TS: How did you go about finding the songs and the music that lived within the characters and show?
Some of the songs are already written songs because they are from a certain point in my life that I actually performed them, but most of the songs are original. They are songs that I wrote, or songs that I wrote with my music director [Todd Schroeder]. It’s like when you are writing a musical. There are places where the song moves the plot forward, and informs both you and the character. Those things actually happened fairly easily. With the music, it was just very clear that there needed to be a song in a certain place.
TS: Were there any characters or scenes that you really wanted to keep, but no matter how you tried they just weren’t working?
The most changes we made were from the New York production to the Los Angeles production. It was all working and was being received very well, but there were places that felt clunky or that I could edit–that I could say the same thing in less words. Then we also added a couple of songs in Los Angeles that had not been in New York. That’s when the show took its real transition into a fully produced show. A wonderful director named Ken Sawyer took the structure that we had in New York, and then really built on it. The characters became clearer, the show was much more produced, we were able to go to a higher level of lighting and transitions–there is so much underscoring, things that glue it all together, that really came to be in Los Angeles.
TS: How did you decide to go with the Pasadena Playhouse?
It’s my favorite theater in LA because it feels like an old Broadway house. Everything about it is just glorious! The artistic director [of the Pasadena Playhouse] came to see HAM when I was doing it [in LA], and my producer Suzi Dietz also has a relationship with the Pasadena Playhouse. So it all just happened very nicely. We were looking to film the show, and it’s the perfect venue for it.
TS: Between writing a book and putting up a one-man show, which was the harder feat?
Writing a book is a private, personal experience, in which you are still determining what you are putting out there and what you are not–and how you want to do and say that. It’s a private experience. Building something that is for the stage–and that you are going to be performing–is a completely different animal. I have to leave the writer’s hat, and put on the actor’s hat. I had to say to the director that I must become the actor–even though I know [the story], it’s my own life and I wrote it–and divorce myself of my attachment.
TS: Looking past the recording of this show for your own personal reasons and considering future generations of young artists, what is it about this show that makes you believe that it needs to be immortalized on film forever?
What we’ve learned and what we’ve seen is that there are some universal themes here, that reach a lot of people. In my particular case, it comes from a kid growing up gay in the Bible Belt, who found music, theater, and writing as his savior–humor as a savior. They say “comedy is tragedy with time,” and so it’s about a perspective about this for everyone–everyone has felt outside, felt disconnected, everyone has had ups and downs in their lives. So there is a theme of that, and finding normal, and a theme of finding what is enough. Emotionally what is enough. [For me] I have found that in my family. It’s about that process, and it’s also cultural in that what we’ve seen happen in this time that we are living–from what was going on in the ‘60’s, culturally. I’m married and have a kid! That wasn’t even remotely fathomable when I was growing up, it wasn’t even something you could consider as a remote possibly. So everything has changed in this lifetime, and it’s about that aspect of things as well.
TS: Thanks for your time, Sam, and good luck with the kickstarter campaign!