Synopsis: Based on Tony Award nominee and multi-platinum recording artist Sam Harris’s critically acclaimed book and the original stage production.
Stars: Sam Harris
Director: Andrew Putschoegl
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Though I now consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool musical theater nerd in addition to a massive film buff (that’s either two strikes for me or against me…you decide), there was a time when my knowledge of the stage was limited. The most I knew about theater were the local shows that played in my hometown and I’m lucky that my parents had such a fondness for it as well. I’m also counting my blessings that I grew up in Minnesota which has a thriving community for theater with many opportunities for talent to cut their teeth while often being a hub for new works to travel through on their way to Broadway. We’ve seen Julie Andrews in the pre-Broadway tryout of Victor/Victoria and the massive musical production of The Lion King originated at our beautiful Orpheum Theater.
All that’s to say that in 1994, I was a theater newbie and my mom had just taken me to the first “big” show I can remember, a bus and truck tour of Jesus Christ Superstar and my mind was officially blown. Leaving after the matinee we caught a glimpse of a poster advertising an upcoming tryout of a revival of Grease that was coming to town and headed to Broadway shortly after. What’s more…it was starring Rosie O’Donnell. My movie love was already in high gear so the chance to see someone that was in A League of Their Own live on stage was big news. The tickets were bought, the show was seen (and enjoyed), but while Rosie was fun to see it wasn’t her performance that I came away remembering the most throughout the years. A secondary character that didn’t have his own song in the movie version, Doody, had this great number (‘Those Magic Changes’) and the actor playing him, Sam Harris, possessed a killer voice…leading me to spend the next two decades not thinking I was a Danny but a Doody.
At the time, I had no clue that Harris came to Grease already a big star in his own right. When the television show Star Search premiered in 1983, he became its first grand champion and rode that wave into a recording contract and the rest, as they say is history. Though he’s flown across my radar several times over the ensuing years, he’s always been first and foremost Doody to me but I never had the opportunity to know more about the singer/actor than what you could hear on a podcast or the occasional profile on a theater website.
In the new film HAM: A Musical Memoir, Harris has filmed his one-man stage show adapted from his memoir that covers his life growing up in small town rural Oklahoma up through the present when he becomes a husband and, eventually, a father. Interspersed throughout are songs, a number of which Harris is known for (his chart-topping rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ is delivered quite nicely) in addition to a few barnstormer roof-raisers that show-off Harris’ still-strong vocals, as well as an original tune crafted as a silly title track of sorts. Accompanied by his piano-man Todd Schroeder whom Harris has the occasional banter with, it’s largely a scripted “improvised” conversation between himself and the audience and one of those harmless bits of self-promotion that plays a few sold out shows and exists as a sort of “you should have been there” remembrance.
So why the film? I get wanting to capture the show for posterity, but something feels a little lost in the transition from stage to screen because there’s little separating the viewer at home from becoming a viewer of viewers watching Harris perform. Do you follow? It also comes off like Harris has ramped up his energy for that very reason and the delivery winds up reading more forced than felt, as if this was Harris playing Tevye for the 500th time and he’s recounting his Star Search victory laps with a weary back. Perhaps it’s because the show was recorded by director Andrew Putschoegl after it had already played a few venues and wasn’t quite the fresh experience it was when it began.
That’s not to say Harris isn’t an engaging storyteller or that his experience of coming out in a much different atmosphere doesn’t have its curveballs. Those going in expecting to hear stories of O’Donnell escapades backstage at Grease or what Ed McMahon said when the cameras weren’t rolling will be disappointed because Harris isn’t a namedropper in any kind of fashion. This is his story to tell and by keeping most of the celebrity-ness out of the conversation while still being interesting makes HAM: A Musical Memoir that much more of an intriguing watch. Of course I wanted to hear just a tad more about the life of a Broadway baby but maybe that’s left for a sequel down the road.
Streaming now on BroadwayHD, a subscription service that has a bevy of other Broadway related content, I’m sure I would have jumped at the chance to see this show live simply because of the lasting impression Harris left on me in Grease all those years ago. While I wish HAM: A Musical Memoir had been a little less, uh, hammier (the show starts out pretty rough with jokes of the creaky dinner theater variety) it’s very recommended on the quality of the storyteller.