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by Michael Portantiere

Sam Harris Breaks Free

  • SamHarris.jpg


    Some alumni of TV talent contests and "reality" shows have done very well on Broadway, others not so much. Sam Harris, who first came to fame on Star Search, has a proud place in the first category: He sang the hell out of "Magic Changes" as Doody in the 1994 revisal of Grease, gave an excellent performance as the hustler Jojo in the Cy Coleman musical The Life, and did a hilarious stint as Carmen Ghia in The Producers. Since then, he's done a lot of concertizing and recording, and he had a recurring role on the 2006 CBS-TV sitcom The Class.

    Sam lives in L.A. and isn't scheduled to return to Broadway in the near future; but his NYC fans have a chance to see him perform live July 30-August 2 at Birdland, where he'll be debuting songs from his soon-to-be released CD, titled Free. I recently spoke with him about that gig and several other aspects of his life and career, including his new baby and his upcoming TV talk show.


    BROADWAYSTARS.COM: How's it going, Sam?

    SAM HARRIS: I've never been so busy in my life. Between finishing the record, having the baby, and taking meetings about the talk show and other stuff that's coming up, it's been insane. I've had to learn to deal just with what's right in front of me. Now it's the show at Birdland, which will be mostly songs from the new record with some old favorites thrown in.

    STARS: I've listened to some tracks from the album online. Would you say this is a new musical direction for you?

    SAM: It's mostly a pop-rock, acoustic thing. I wrote most of the songs; there are only two covers, and the rest are original. The record is called Free, and pretty much every song is about a different type of freedom. I'm really proud of the writing, because I was able to explore some things that I hadn't before. Like I said, my life has never been so full. The main thing is our new baby boy, Cooper. He's given me a new perspective on everything -- and it's great that he was here when I was doing the final vocals for the record, because some of the songs are about him.

    STARS: You recently wrote a wonderful article for The Advocate about how you and your partner adopted Cooper, but maybe you can summarize the story for readers of BroadwayStars.

    SAM: After many years of discussion, my partner Danny Jacobsen and I decided to go forward in December, and we started the adoption process. It was the most amazing, extraordinary, emotional, terrifying experience of my life. The birth mother came out to L.A. a month before the baby was born. Then this little gift happened. It was beyond anything I've ever known.

    STARS: I understand there's an interesting story about the birth.

    SAM: Yes. I was on one of Rosie O'Donnell's R Family Vacations cruises last year when Danny took the birth mother to the obstetrician, and he said she was going to deliver early. I thought, "My son is going to be born and I'm on the ocean!" So I did my show on the cruise and then, the next morning, I got on a plane and high-tailed it out of whatever port we were in. But I loved the Rosie cruise; I think it's really extraordinary what Rosie and Kelli have done. You know, my partner and I introduced them; we took Rosie and Kelli on their first date together. So I feel personally responsible for the Rosie cruises. They never would have happened if it hadn't been for Danny and me!

    STARS: What does Danny do?

    SAM: He used to be an actor; now he's a hugely successful in another field. I call him the Tony Robbins of the corporate world. He goes to these major companies and teaches presentation, and he's a director of events as well.

    STARS: What can you tell me about your TV talk show?

    SAM: I'm in negotiations now with a major studio and a major network that are going into partnership to produce the show. It came as a result of these video blogs I do, which Rosie O'Donnell convinced me to start. I started blogging with great reticence, because I initially thought it would be very peculiar to share my life in that way. But it's become something I really love, and I think doing the blogs has actually made me a better person. They're funny, they're poignant, they're entertaining -- everything from me going backstage at the Emmys to my "Friend Fridays," in which I interview my friends, many of whom are celebrities.

    STARS: How did the idea of turning the blogs into a TV series come about?

    SAM: Jeffrey Klarik, one of the creators of The Class, saw the blogs and said, "I think there's something here. Would you like to develop this?" I love him and trust him, so we put our heads together and created this sort of talk-show hybrid. We started taking meetings and, pretty much everywhere we went, there was interest. So now we're negotiating and trying to figure out the best way to do this. I'm really excited about it.

    STARS: I imagine there will be a lot of musical performances on the show.

    SAM: Yes, absolutely!

    STARS: I believe you have a place in history as the first reality TV star to make it on Broadway. Is that correct?

    SAM: I guess so, if Star Search was reality TV.

    STARS: Nowadays, they're creating TV talent contests specifically to try to cast Broadway shows, as they did with Legally Blonde and the current revival of Grease. How do you feel about that?

    SAM: Well, we all want to look behind the scenes, and I think anything that informs people about the casting process is good for the aspiring young actor. However, what's funny to me is that what takes a season on TV can be done in New York City in a few days. And I'm concerned that some of the people who are cast in Broadway shows through television are cast because of their personalities rather than because they're right for a particular role. For TV, they always cast personalities, whether the show is Big Brother or The Amazing Race or Dancing With the Stars. Still, the Grease and Legally Blonde TV shows are big, fat advertisements for Broadway. If they actually get people to come to New York and see the shows, I'm all for it.

    STARS: Is there more Broadway in your future?

    SAM: I miss New York desperately, and I'm eager to come back to Broadway. But I'm really looking forward to the show at Birdland. I love that place. It's intimate, and yet it's right in the heart of the theater district. It's great for me to have an open door to a place where I can come in and do these songs that I've never performed live before. That's a real privilege for me.


    [For much more info on Sam, visit www.samharris.com]

    Published on Monday, July 28, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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