BY CARY GINELL
In the second installment of our interview with Sam Harris, Sam talks about why he selects particular material, and about his aborted attempt to do a Broadway musical based on the life of Al Jolson.
VCOS: It takes a lot of guts to take a song like “Over the Rainbow,” which has an iconic performance inexorably tied to it that can never be topped, and try to put your own stamp on it. How did you go about that?
SAM: I think when I first chose that song to sing on Star Search, I did it because I loved it and I loved Judy Garland. But I was also too young, naive, fresh-faced, and honest to second-guess myself. So I didn’t worry about that or any of the songs I sang on that show. Unlike the shows now, where you have a catalog to choose from or if they’re honoring someone like Stevie Wonder or whoever, I could sing whatever I wanted to sing. So I chose a lot of obscure songs, a couple of original songs, and then I sang things like “God Bless the Child” and “Over the Rainbow.” But I don’t think I had the commercial savvy to think that, oh, this is taboo or sacred. Again, it spoke to me and I chose it, but remember, Patti Labelle had recorded that 6/8 version of it and so I was taking from hers as well. But I had no idea, of course, that I would get – for the lack of a better word – stuck with it, and sing it for the rest of my life! I mean, if you’re going to get stuck with a song, that’s the one to get stuck with.
VCOS: Your career seems to be tied to a rubber band that keeps snapping back to Broadway. Are there shows you would still like to play? With your versatility, I could see you in things like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
SAM: Oh, I haven’t seen it.
VCOS: There is a part where an actor plays eight different characters.
SAM: In this upcoming solo musical show called Ham, which is also the title of my book, one of the ways that we are putting it on the stage, in scenes in which I talk about someone in my book, I become them. I had a show that I did years ago that I called Hard Copy that was about an all-night newsstand, and I played about eight different characters. But you’re right, it is like a rubber band that stretches out. I mean, my book is becoming a theater piece. That’s my center.
VCOS: In some of the things I’ve read on you, you’ve been compared to Al Jolson. I know that you had worked on a stage production of The Jazz Singer. Was that a disappointment when it didn’t come off?
SAM: Hugely. That show had been through so many incarnations and so many titles and so many almosts…When I first started working on it, it went from a gigantic, very expensive workshop into pre-production. I had costume fittings, we had shot a commercial for our first out-of-town run in Boston. Then, on my birthday, the New York Times was writing about what was coming up for the season, and they said, “Who else but Sam Harris could play Al Jolson?” That night, as I was going out to dinner to celebrate my birthday, I got a call telling us that all the money was gone. (laughs). It was HORRIBLE and SO typical of the roller coaster of show biz. It was up several more times and was called “Broadway Man” and then it was called “Jolson” – and, I’ll tell you, Cary, it’s an extraordinary piece. It’s very dark and really explores the psychological machinations of this incredible megalomaniac. Jolson was ridiculously insecure and was only at home on the stage. There are so many wonderful stories, like on his wedding night with Ruby Keeler, he went out to get a pack of smokes and ended up singing for a bunch of firemen in a fire house for three hours. It’s so crazy, and yet, I understand him, I relate to him, and this show is quite, quite brilliant. The good news is that even though it has been fifteen years since the first version, I’m not too old to play it. So maybe it will still happen.
VCOS: Tell me about the show that you’re doing in Ojai.
SAM: Well, I’ve been there two times before in that little gem of a theater, and the audiences are so wonderful. All of my focus right now has been on the Ham shows, so what do I do? There are certain songs that I will always sing but I don’t want to give them the same show that I gave them before. So I’m doing a couple of pieces from Ham, I’m doing some standards, some contemporary pop, and a couple of original things. I try to give it a theatrical arc; even in a concert it’s necessary for me to try to stretch it that way, but because it’s Ojai and because it feels like home, it’s really just this collection of material from all ages of the American Songbook. I’ll be with my music director, Todd Schroeder, who is just a genius. We have a great time. I’m doing a couple of songs that I’ve done on Broadway, but that’s the overview.
VCOS: We have a lot of high school and college students that read our blog, so as someone who came from that world, what piece of wisdom do you have to impart to them?
SAM: What I would say – and this is a reflection of watching all of these contests on television, of people singing – is that your focus is not how you sing, but why. What are you saying? It’s story telling. If you’re authentic, you can do anything and you can try anything. It’s about being authentic, telling a story, and finding a relationship to that story. It doesn’t matter how great you sound. It matters what’s behind it. And I think too many people get lost in the “wow” factor instead of the content. The content is the wow factor. You just have to have your own experience. You can’t be thinking outside of yourself. What it looks like, what it sounds like, what somebody else would think. You’re just telling a story. It’s the hardest, but at the same time, the most simple thing to do. There are pieces in the concert that I’m doing this weekend that feel like monologs. That’s why, when you asked me what I won’t sing? I’m a lyric guy. And if it comes from that place and it says something in a particular way, that’s what grabs me.
VCOS: Sinatra used to say that, too. His performances were all about the lyrics.
SAM: Absolutely. A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York, working on the Ham show, and I did a show of Cy Coleman songs with a big band that was just fantastic. And they wanted me to do a song from The Life because I had done it on Broadway. But instead of doing that, I wanted to show another side of Cy. So I went through his catalog and I found a song called “I Walk a Little Faster.” It’s this little GEM of a song that he wrote with Carolyn Leigh – it’s just so beautifully structured and the lyric just kills you. I had never heard of it before. So that was my favorite thing that night because among all these extraordinary songs that he wrote, here was this little whisper of a piece. I’m going to do it this weekend and I’m excited because very few people have heard of it.
Sam Harris appears this Saturday at the Ojai Art Center. For ticket information, visit www.ojaiartcenter.org