Movie Review: Sam Harris steps out in “Ham: A Musical Memoir”

Hey, you can’t say you weren’t warned. I mean, it’s right there in the title.

Broadway star, “Star Search” alumnus and LP-selling machine Sam Harris looked back over his greasepaint spattered life and recognized what anybody who makes it in the musical theater has to own.

He’s a ham. He’s a belter, a big-voiced Ethel Merman for the Stage of Our Age. And as he says in “Ham: A Musical Memoir,” which he adapted for this one-man (plus singing accompanist) show, you’d better not step into his spotlight unless you want to get stepped on. Even if you’re a little boy co-star, as he recalls in this film of a performance of that show.

“I’m an ooooopen book,” he sings. And a “Ham,” he adds, in the show’s title number.

Is it possible you’ve never heard of the guy? Sure. The shows he’s starred or co-starred in, aside from touring revivals, haven’t generally ventured from Broadway into common currency.

His “pop” LPs aren’t radio fodder. Truthfully, we don’t have to see the many glimpses of his aged, seemingly Midwestern audience to know he’s biggest in the Clay Aiken/Michael Buble/Andrea Bocelli belt, “Branson” here we come.

And he got his big break on a TV show that was popular, as he reminds us, long before the now-decrepit “American Idol” ever made its bow. Ed McMahon hosted “Star Search,” and a generation of country, pop and Broadway singers (Timberlake and Spears, Usher and LeAnn and Beyonce and Christina among them) became bigger names than him thanks to it.

“Ham: A Musical Memoir” is kind of generic as well. Shows like this, particularly the ones with song and (a little) dance in them, are basically extended versions of the famous monologues from “A Chorus Line.” Gay guy from Flyover America discovers his sexuality, struggles with it, finds his home in the theater and steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Suicidal thoughts, “shame,” self-awareness, pride and triumph eventually follow.

Where Harris sets himself apart is in the self-effacing humor he embraces and the see-my-life-through-a-Broadway lens gags that follow from that.

He was a song and dance man from birth, he tells us. It doesn’t matter than he grew up in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, where “gay” wasn’t tolerated even after is wasn’t illegal. He can see that, now. Little League to impress his school band-director dad?

“Auditions– I mean TRYouts,” didn’t go well. They stuck him in “right field, that’s upstage left, house right.”

Harris, accompanied by Todd Schroeder, an upright pianist at an upright piano on a mostly-spare stage set, relates his life story in a breathless self-effacing patter, just like every “one man show” or “one woman show” of this type you’ve ever seen.

He breaks out a Carol Channing impersonation, relating how he inculcated “the show must go on” ethos from show people like her. There’s an original song or two, “Over the Rainbow,” his “Star Search” number — made for vocal histrionics — and snippets of “South Pacific” numbers (his stage debut as a kid) and his own spin on “Rain on My Parade.”

The glory in a simple, formulaic “musical memoir” like this is how familiar this ground has become, how the “you’re not alone” and “It gets better” messaging is reinforced with every new incarnation of this well-worn path through “My Wonderless Years.”

He’s on dicier ground when he recalls his teenage exposure to the African American “side of the tracks” in his hometown, and feels the need to impersonate the preacher he saw there.

But again, he knows his audience. That awakening will play in Branson. A show that’s just “theatrical” enough, just triumphant enough, just “look how far we/I’ve come” enough for Middle America’s comfort zone isn’t going to offend when its hero has an epiphany about America’s most oppressed.

MPA Rating: unrated, profanity, discussions of suicide, sexuality

Cast: Sam Harris, Todd Schroeder

Credits: Directed by Andrew Putschoegl, script by Sam Harris, based on his memoir. A Global Digital release.

Running time: 1:52

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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