Before there was American Idol or The Voice, there was Star Search. Hosted by Ed McMahon, the reality talent competition premiered in 1983 and was a wild success for the next dozen years, giving a platform to hundreds of young artists trying to break into the entertainment business. None captured America’s heart quite as profoundly as the Oklahoma-born boy in tux tails and sneakers who won the male vocalist competition in the show’s first season: Sam Harris. His through-the-rafters version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was an instant hit and he’s been a formidable presence ever since. Now, Harris brings three decades of stories to life in HAM: A Musical Memoir, which begins performances tonight at Ars Nova and plays through January 24.
“On one hand, anything that gives talent a platform is a great thing,” says Harris of the recent crop of talent competitions. “But the difference is that we didn’t have mentors, stylists, or pop catalogues to choose from. We sang what we wanted. . . and I wore what I wanted. What it gave me was an ability to express myself through the way I was performing. What I chose to say, my perspective, and my funky get-up—it was all a reflection of me—and it would never exist today. Now it’s all about creating a pop sensibility. Something that already exists.”