Sam Harris initially grabbed people's attention as the grand-champion singer of Star Search, winning with his version of the classic song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." This brought him a contract with Motown Records and his debut single, "Sugar Don't Bite," became a Top 40 hit.
He went on to record more records and his song "My Reclamation" became an anthem for marriage equality.
His stage work has earned him several Drama Desk nominations such as the revival of Grease and the musical The Life. He's appeared in productions of The Producers, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Hair and Pippin.
This out performer's latest project has him transforming his personal essay book Ham: Slices of a Life into a movie version set as a stage play called Ham: A Musical Memoir. In it, he plays 11 different roles to tell the story covering his childhood and rise to fame.
Harris met up during Ham's Outfest debut in Los Angeles to talk about his career.
Windy City Times: Did you study music when you were younger in Oklahoma?
Sam Harris: As you saw from the film, I was always creating my world. I took a little acting class when I was seven. I did my first play with adults when I was 10.
I forced my teachers to let me write, produce and direct my own little productions. Once I got one teacher to say yes then I used that every year. I also made shows in my basement and had all the neighborhood kids be in it. It was a survival tool for me, growing up a gay kid and knowing I was different.
WCT: Did you have a favorite musical growing up?
SH: I loved Gypsy more than anything. I was a newsboy in Gypsy when I was 10. When A Chorus Line came out, it was my everything. I lived in my room going, "step, kick, kick, leap, touch!"
WCT: When did you come out?
SH: I wasn't really out until the '90s. It was a different time. I moved away from home when I was 15 and had a boyfriend when I was 16. I was in Nashville and in a show. Everyone knew it but didn't say it. We had two beds that were like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, that we would push together at night.
As my career went on, it was always a hidden thing. During my time with Motown, interviewers were told not to ask anything personal. I never lied directly, but it was difficult. At the Grammys, they always had a beard for me. I felt like since I wasn't allowed to say something then it must be shameful.
It was long overdue, but I came out in 1999 in The Advocate. At that point, it was snooze! [Laughs]
WCT: How do you take care of your voice after all this time?
SH: It's a little dime-sized muscle and has to be exercised. I don't vocalize all the time, but when I am getting ready to do a concert I rehearse. Rehearsal is my favorite thing in the world. I could be in rehearsal 14 hours a day and forget to eat. People make fun of me about it.
WCT: What reactions have you gotten from people that are depicted in Ham?
SH: The psychology teacher[the one] who basically saves my life after a suicide attemptcame to see one of my readings of the book. It was very emotional to see him. I don't think he knew the impact of telling me back then that nothing was wrong with me.
WCT: The hot-dog story in Ham is a classic one.
SH: I had all these accidents as a child. I electrocuted myself in a light socket. I choked on an Oscar Meyer wiener. I died and came back!
WCT: What's your opinion of American Idol and shows like Star Search today?
SH: I think it's great to have that platform for new talent. I don't watch them, unless I have a friend on. It's a very different thing than Star Search because he had total autonomy on what we sang and what we wore. We didn't have groomers or mentors.
WCT: You didn't have a contract that you were stuck in?
SH: No, we did not. In my case, I was different and theatrical. I dressed funky and wore an oversized tuxedo coat and sneakers. I think being able to present my persona was what caught on. I was a misfit guy who sang torch songs at 21 years old.
WCT: You mention performing at Opryland, the country amusement park in Tennessee in Ham. That was my first job.
SH: It was a great training ground. The whole park was built on entertainment unlike other parks like Disney World. I learned so much doing an hour show, four times a day.
I took all of it very seriously. I wasn't one of those kids that partied all night. I met some amazing people and I am still in touch with a few of them.
I did it two years. That's when I quit school. I finished high school through correspondence courses. I met my first love there.
We had a live orchestra there. No theme parks do that anymore. We sang live and danced our asses off. That's where my injuries started. I'm like a NFL football player. I broke a couple of toes, had shin splints, since then had two knee surgeries, a hip replacement, a torn rotator cuff, all from shows!
WCT: How did Ham happen in the first place?
SH: I wrote the book Ham: Slices of Life. After Simon & Schuster published it, I started doing readings. The readings developed into a play. I started writing original music, some with my music direct Todd Schroeder. We have been working together for 27 years.
I went to New York and Billy Porter helped with the dramaturgy of it. He moved it from the story and the readings to a chronological musical. He encouraged me to write the scenes with the characters in it, rather than talk about them to give them a voice and portray them. That was really instrumental. He directed the New York production, then I had a new director in LA, Ken Sawyer, who is a genius.
WCT: What are you working on next?
SH: I'm working on my next book. It's fiction and not autobiographical. I am finishing a TV pilot. The character is an agent who is brash and politically incorrect who doesn't fit into our PC world. I play her! [laughs] The same director who shot it directed the film Ham.
For more info on Harris and Ham, visit SamHarris.com .