As we walked into the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood to see the West Coast debut of “Ham: A Musical Memoir,” a life-affirming tale performed by Sam Harris with Todd Schroeder on piano, our hands were stamped with “Stonewall Inn” to note we held tickets for the evening. It surprised me that my guest did not know anything about what happened there in 1969. So for her and those unfamiliar with the reality-altering event, here is a brief description.
The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay (LGBT) community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.
Thanks to the events put into place in 1969 after Stonewall, places like the Los Angeles LGBT Center became an unstoppable force in the fight against bigotry and the struggle to build a better world; a world in which LGBT people can be healthy, equal and complete members of society. It’s the perfect location to see “Ham: A Musical Memoir,” a celebration of how far we have come as a society as now Harris and his husband can walk through their local supermarket pushing their son in his stroller without anyone looking askance at them.
Harris’ desire of finding love and creating a family on his own terms was an impossible dream in his early life. Harris describes how even at the age of 3 in Sand Springs, Okla., he knew he was different – he loved to sing and be the center of attention onstage. He was a failure at Little League Baseball and only found happiness performing onstage or singing in an all-black church across town, a fact he could not share with anyone, especially his traditional father and mother. Harris had no one to talk to when at age 15, he fell in love with another boy while on tour with “I Hear America Singing.”
But of course when he returned home, he could not speak of it for fear of being ostracized. It did not take long for Harris to attempt to end his pain by swallowing dozens of Seconals, a solution so many gay teenagers have attempted when faced with trying to accept their own homosexuality.
Harris opens up about how singing came out as a cry from a deep need within for acceptance. He put on “basement extravaganzas” with his childhood friends to entertain all the neighbors and performed in many school plays and even won first, second, and third place in his 9th grade talent show. With his innate ability to sell all types of songs, it’s easy to see how that could come to pass as he can belt with the swagger and style of the best divas or bring you to tears with his soulful renditions of heartbreak.
Those are just the facts of his life story, but it is the emotions with which he shares many important people in his life that will grab your heartstrings. Harris easily transforms into his father, Little League coach, life-saving school psychologist, his black friend Michelle who took him to her church for the first time, and especially the older black church lady who grabbed his hand while singing, proclaiming “change is upon us.” Indeed it was after the Equal Rights Amendment was passed in 1972, although it’s been one step at a time – just like overcoming stage fright by just walking out there and doing what you were born to do. Thank goodness Harris never gave up and is now sharing his inspiring tale with the rest of us, including his life-altering Grand Championship win on Star Search, long before American Idol or America’s Got Talent made stars overnight.
Many of the show’s songs inspired the audience to clap along, especially during his rousing church hymnals. “It was a united, glorious noise and I had been singing with Aretha in my room, and here I linked up with a happy God who loved me,” Harris shared. His energy filled the room, encouraging him to up the ante during his 90-minute celebration of life. You will marvel at his renditions of Streisand and Channing favorites, re-worded to fit into his personal moments being shared.
This is an open book story that will inspire you to overcome whatever obstacles are in your way so that you can accomplish your dreams, no matter what they are or how different they may be from your friends and family. Acceptance is key; communication paramount to freeing yourself and succeeding to be who you were meant to be. The musical play hilariously, passionately, and poignantly takes you from a conflicted childhood in Bible-Belt Oklahoma to the dizzying roller coaster ride of a life in show business to the fulfillment of the impossible dream of fatherhood, culminating in the lessons of a life well lived.
Direct from its critically acclaimed off-Broadway run, “Ham: A Musical Memoir,” written and performed by Sam Harris, directed by Billy Porter and Ken Sawyer, with Musical Direction by Todd Schroeder, makes its West Coast debut at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre at 1125 N. McCadden Place (one block east of Highland, just north of Santa Monica Boulevard) in Hollywood. The limited engagement continues through Feb. 7. Tickets are $35 and are available online at lalgbtcenter.org/theatre or via phone by calling 323-860-7300. Free onsite parking is available.