“You gotta reach for that ring while you’re on that ride — how long does that ride go on?” Sam Harris sang in “Use What You Got,” his 1997 Broadway hit from The Life.
Harris has been entertaining audiences for most of his life. Now the Tony-Award-nominated performer has become an author with a new book titled Ham: Slices of a Life from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
“It’s a good time to be Sam Harris,” he said.
In addition, Harris has taken all his best anecdotes and combined them with some of his best-loved songs to create The Ham Show, which he is bringing to Kansas City’s historic Folly Theater for one night only on Thursday, Feb. 13.
“By doing the Ham show, I am merging performing and the stories from my book about many personal things, so it’s a whole ’nother experience,” he said. “It’s reliving those specific moments in detail, right out there. Fun and exciting, but also very emotional.”
Of what audiences can expect from the show, he says, “It’s one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had … something really special. I call it a ‘liter-usical’ because it’s literary and musical, a hybrid of stories and songs, but a real theater piece. I’m very excited about it!”
A native of Sand Springs Okla., Harris grew up the son of the local high school’s band teacher and made his stage debut at age 5 in a school production of South Pacific. Leaving home at 15 to work as an amusement park entertainer in St. Louis, he said, he was “seeking people and places where I could live as myself.”
In January 1983, he burst onto the national scene when he was named the first-ever “grand champion vocalist” on Star Search, the pioneering TV talent competition that paved the way for such later shows as American Idol and The Voice. This led to a diverse career that has included, besides Broadway performances, CDs, concerts, producing and directing.
Harris is married to Daniel Jacobson, whom he met while touring in a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Harris was playing the title role, and Jacobsen was cast as his brother Daniel. Together, the pair now have a 5-year-old son, Cooper.
“I married a wonderful man and have the greatest kid in the world!” Harris said, beaming.
The vigorous, empathetic spirit that Harris displays has doubtlessly taken him far.
“I would like to take every young person who has been bullied and emotionally (or physically) beaten and hold them by the shoulders and tell them they are enough,” he said, “and that their responsibility is to be a good person, a good citizen. To find love. To live a good life. To choose happiness.”
However, Harris also acknowledges that sometimes seeing the glass as eternally half-full isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
“I am an eternal optimist to the degree that I am often blinded by my optimism,” he said. “I wrote a chapter called “Liver,” which is specifically about my need to block out the negative and focus on the smallest morsel of promise, even to my detriment.”
His “Liver Law,” after which the chapter is named, was formulated over time in response to this problem. It maintains that: “If it looks like liver and it smells like liver … it’s liver. You can throw on a little bacon, a little onions, but it’s still liver!”
Nonetheless, the singer remains philosophical: “I know a lot of my art — and my very person — came from oppression. It came from the need to break free and be heard, to survive and express. It’s not just ‘a gay thing’ — it’s the artist’s quest to create something that has a particular, singular perspective and that almost always comes from tragedy or oppression.”
Little wonder that Harris finds strength is such classics as “Over the Rainbow” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” both of which he sings regularly in concerts. He also performs songs that he’s personally written that champion hope and never giving up.
Enjoying a kind of personal therapy through writing, Harris says he would often work to the point of forgetting about nearly everything else.
“When I was writing the book, it’s all I wanted to do — I would forget to eat and work into the late night with no clue,” he said. “I’m a fast writer, and that’s therapeutic — kind of like gushing it all out at once. I love words. I love punctuation. I love the rhythm of a sentence. It’s like a kind of music. And being a bit meticulous by nature, I love to research and ponder and write and rewrite, which is very cathartic for me. It makes me go deeper.”
Harris said that while preparing this memoir, he discovered (or rediscovered) so much about himself. “The stories I chose forced me to really go to a real place of detail – what it looked like, smelled like, the light.”
Performing, he said, is also a therapy of sorts, but a totally different kind.
“When I am putting together a show, I want to stay in rehearsal 14 hours a day. Performing requires the same kind of introspection, the same kind of cathartic process, but you’re creating it on the spot,” he said. “Finding details that suit that song at that moment, so it’s quicker, more intense.”
Never was this therapy more evident than when he was asked by Oprah Winfrey to sing on her first show after 9/11, appropriately titled “Music to Heal Our Hearts.” Harris calls the experience life-altering.
“I’d moved to L.A. from N.Y. on Sept. 10,” he recalled. “Danny and I both felt totally outside our world, our home, and without community. Getting the call from Oprah gave me the transformational experience of going from the feeling of complete helplessness to actively doing something for healing — for myself, as well as being of service to others.”
In Ham: Slices of a Life, Harris shares 16 funny and poignant episodes, which, when taken together, form a kind of non-linear autobiography. Alternating between juicy “showbiz” experiences and down-home memories, Harris shares his charms and foibles and offers an understanding that behind all the good looks, talent, and that incredible voice, Harris is a remarkable individual who has seen a lot, survived and, in so many ways, conquered!
“It’s a mostly funny book, but then it’s not,” Harris said. “I hope it’s about more than just a collection of stories you enjoy and then forget about — my hope is that something sticks!”
For more information or to obtain tickets to The Ham Show, go to follytheater.org/events/sam-harris. Harris’ book is available in all formats and can be found wherever books are sold. For more information about Harris and his upcoming projects, go to www.samharris.com.