Jeff Harnar wasn't born in Chicago, but he will tell you first-hand that it is his home. Having spent his formative years in this city, Harnar discovered a passion for musical theater. Decades later, he has used his talent and passion to create a lifelong career in this industry. Windy City Times recently spoke with Harnar about his life and new album, I know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim's Words, Dancing in the Darkin which he comes out through music.
Windy City Times: What was the moment you fell in love with musical theater?
Jeff Harnar: We moved five different times when I was growing up. We lived in Dearborn, Michigan when I was 5. A neighbor was doing a community production of How To Succeed In Business and she had the wherewithal to sit me down with the cast album before I saw the show that night. And I just loved the cast album. I loved music already. So to see it that night and with someone I knew in the showthat's when I wanted cast albums. I fell in love with Broadway when I was 9. When we moved to Chicago, we got to see one Broadway show. I picked Kander and Ebb's The Happy Time because it had kids in it [who were] my age.
WCT: What was it like having Sondheim hear your take on his work?
JH: Terrifying is the first word. Thrilling is the second. I had avoided singing Sondheim until my 50s because it terrified me. [Harnar is in his early 60s.] I really thought it belonged to Broadway-caliber voices. And for the most part within the context of the shows, I didn't have the courage. But KT Sullivanwonderful singer in New Yorkwanted me to do a show of Sondheim with her. And not only did I have the courage to sing with her, I also had the courage to say "I love you, KT, but I am not in love with you." I want to sing love songs, but I would like to take this opportunity to sing love songs in alignment [with] my sexuality. This allowed me to sing songs he [Sondheim] wrote for women without having to change pronouns. So we got a New York Times review that said, "Sex role reversals in Sondheim." And within two weeks, he was at our show. So, I literally had my second or third performance of me trying to sing his work. He came way too soon, and he was way too kind. I had heard [things] about him, like he was very stern and criticalbut maybe he had mellowed? He was very kind to us. He loved the jazz settings. Usually he's a taskmaster but John Webberhe flips all those harmonies. And Sondheim said, "I love the changes and wish there were more." And then we remained email friends for the last of his life.
WCT: Where is your favorite place to perform?
JH: Any place that will have me! Any place where there is an audience. I have been all over, and I'm grateful for that. A friend once told me that once you're in a Broadway show, you're a factory worker. Everywhere I go, every audience, is a one-off experience. ... I love all of them. In Chicago, I love Davenport's. It's the definition of a great cabaret room.
WCT: It was just announced that you won the Chicago Cabaret Professionals Award. What does that mean to you?
JH: It's astonishing and seismic for me. Because, as you know, Chicago I think of as my hometown. And if I had not been exposed to the entertainment that I had growing up, I wouldn't be the performer I am today. And the times that I have gotten to go back as an adult and perform there, it has always been lovely. It's a lovely gift to give someone. I am very grateful and honored and excited.
WCT: What advice do you have for LGBTQ+ youth in this time? What do you wish you had known as a teenager?
JH: So hard. Such a different world when I was a teenager. So terrifying. I think that a couple of secrets in life are connection and [the fact] that we come here perfectly designed. My sexuality is just how this being, this organism is created. There's nothing wrong with me. My job is to get my thinking out of the way so that whatever that gift is that I have can come through me. Self-acceptance.
My album is called I Know Things Now. And I could never have recorded it. I would say this to my teenage self, "It took you until you were 63 to release an album that says I know things now. So please, try to figure them out sooner. This is a wonderful word where you can be connected to your community, so find your community. The problem is not in me. The problem is not in you. The problem is how people see you. Find the right people."
We all come here with something special that's meant to flow through us so that we are a part of and in service of each other and the planet. It just took me so long, so, so, long. I struggled with a series of addictions from the age of 19 to 51; that took me a long time to find my way to inner peace. And it's just like in the Wizard of Oz. The answer was there the whole time. I don't know if I would have believed it if someone told me. If I had this kind of communication back then, to log into a Zoom community to find that someone is not alone, you're not alone...There is no question that if you leap up 30,000 feet and draw the trajectory of history, it's going in the right direction. Sure we have setbacks and bumps, whatever, how could it be a straight line we're talking about? [Both laugh.]
Harnar's new album on Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora. His website is jeffharnar.com .