Writer: Sam Harris
Director: Andrew Putschoegl
Sam Harris may not be a name many UK theatregoers will recognise but having won Star Search in the US, he became a big name on Broadway. His solo show HAM: A Musical Memoir, which has a virtual cinema release this week followed by a stint on Broadway HD from January, may serve as introduction to international audiences in this charming performance.
It is easy to forget that the one-man show was a genre all its own long before Covid turned everything into a safe-to-perform socially distanced monologue. And while some actors used them to celebrate and emulate their favourite Hollywood starlet or singer, others created cabaret shows around their own career history and musical performance. Harris tends towards the latter but adds his own stand-up flavour to create an ‘audience with’ meets ‘variety show’ hybrid.
Reminiscing about his early life in Sand Springs, Oklahoma – where he acquired his Ham nickname choking on a piece of pork – the last thing Harris thought he was allowed to be was a musical theatre performer in a place with ‘all of the pollution of a big city without a single perk’. An area dominated by Southern Baptist thinking and racial division, Harris hilariously recreates some of the pivotal experiences and people of his childhood, from attending a gospel church for the first time to wanting to ‘read’ for the role of Helen Keller in a local production of The Miracle Worker.
Following the biography format, Harris also draws on his own rags-to-riches story creating variety in the presentation by playing a brash producer who carts Sam through the small clubs and venues with no audiences where all aspiring artists cut their teeth, drawing out the comedy drawl used to describe Sam’s talents. Getting his big break on Star Search in the 1980s is equally entertaining with a medley of songs that Harris performed week after week as his fame and exposure increased.
But what sets Harris’ show apart is its honesty and emotional integrity as he confronts mental health issues and troubles with self-acceptance. Describing a suicide attempt interrupted by the needs of his younger brother, the way in which Harris weaves his feelings of doubt about his talent and his own struggles with his sexuality is very moving, clearly resonating with the performer all these years on. The candour of the feelings he describes for Scott who he meets aged 15 and the concern that it would never be socially acceptable to be a husband or a father are deeply felt, balancing out the more jocular aspects of the show with a heartfelt honesty that will strike a chord with the viewer.
Including a number of musical numbers to illustrate the tales Harris shares, Todd Schroeder provides piano accompaniment for an eclectic collection of tunes from a song about ham to homages to shows such as South Pacific and his famed Over the Rainbow interpretation. HAM: A Musical Memoir is a little sentimental in places but is a show with a big-heart and an even bigger message – that however much of an outsider you feel, there is nothing wrong with you. UK audiences may not yet know Sam Harris, but this show is a worthy introduction.
Released on 3 December 2020