Sam Harris hasn't appeared on Broadway since he took on the role of Carmen Ghia in The Producers in 2002. But he has a good reason: He has a family and a five-year-old based in Los Angeles. Yet the Tony Award nominee (for The Life) is never too much of a stranger to New York, his one true home. On May 12 and 13 he will make his debut at Broadway nightclub 54 Below, presenting an eclectic mix of music, wit, and excerpts from his upcoming book, Ham: Slices of a Life. Days before the concert, we chatted with Harris about that collection of short stories, his method for choosing songs, and Liza's last husband, aka "The Man Whose Name Shall Go Unmentioned."
So this is your 54 Below debut.
I'm excited! I've never played this room. Even though I live in Los Angeles, New York is probably the only city I've felt truly home in, so whenever I go back, it's a much-needed fix. I've heard so many great things about this space.
Tell me about your show.
The show is eclectic. It's pop, it's Broadway, there's a lot of special material, and I'm doing something I'm very excited about. I have a book coming out in January with Simon & Schuster called Ham, and I'm going to be reading excerpts from it, which will be the book's New York debut.
What is Ham about?
It's a memoir, but it's not linear or chronological. It's all about my childhood and show business, and growing up, and parenthood. It's about growing up in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and sort of my knowing really what I liked to do as a kid and the obstacles that surrounded me culturally, and growing up gay. There's a crazy account of Liza's wedding, the most recent one, and [the groom] is referred to as "The Man Whose Name Shall Go Unmentioned." [Laughs] And [there are stories about] adopting our son and parenthood. If you go to Amazon, you'll see the jacket, which is a scream. They wrote a beautiful description of it.
How do you go about choosing a set list for a concert such as this one?
I always look at it in terms of a theatrical arc. Whenever my musical director says "set list," I say "ixnay." Set list implies a list of songs, and I find so much joy and challenge and fun in structuring a theatrical arc that covers all bases and takes us on a bit of a ride. I'm a structure freak, I try to do things that are not necessarily predictable. I let the arc set up songs. I don't like to hear someone say "This is a song about…" or "I love this song…." It feeds into itself and the songs in to each other.
Can you preview some of the songs?
We open with U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "I'm Still Here," with special lyrics. I know they're completely opposite songs, but oddly they do work together. The old Harold Arlen song "The Wail of the Reefer Man," which is about what it sounds like. Everything from "Red House Blues" by Jimi Hendrix to "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George. Liza and I did a show last year called Schmoolie & Minnooli, and we did "Razzle Dazzle" from Chicago and I wrote completely new lyrics about show injuries. Anyone who's been doing it for a while, everything's been replaced but we still bang it out. It's about the false body parts and the torn meniscus, and how you keep going. And, "Use What You've Got" from The Life, which I've performed all over but never in New York since I did the show.
As a former Star Search champion, what do you make of all of today's televised singing and talent competitions?
I think that everything that gives a platform for new talent is a great thing. My disinterest sometimes is when I find that some of the shows encourage homogenization. Everybody is sort of like someone else rather than a "star." A star is someone who is original and fresh and makes you see things in a different way. On some of these shows, they sort of encourage a watered-down version of that so they feel they have a better chance at creating someone who's market rate. But there's so much talent. And there's so much not. Special talent is a rare thing.