Unabridged version of an article I wrote for Paste Magazine’s website.
Rob Evan Comes Back Home Again
By Michael Dunaway
The production of Les Miserables currently playing at the Fabulous Fox through this weekend has a special resonance for Broadway star Rob Evan, who once again plays Jean Valjean. In a way, this is where everything began. “I grew up in Decatur,” he explains, “and I was a football player at UGA, and that’s the first time I saw Les Mis — twenty years ago here at the Fox. It just made me go, holy crap, I want to do this for a living. I was just a business major, I had wanted to go to law school, but this show lit the fire.”
Law school’s loss was musical theater’s gain, as Evan had been bitten by the bug. But everything didn’t come together quite like he naively expected. “I ended up auditioning at a Les Mis open call a la American Idol two years later. I waited ten hours to sing sixteen bars of Stars.” He walked out with the proverbial gold ticket. “I thought it was going to be instant stardom and cash, not knowing any better.”
So law school was off for good. His family proved key in the decision – his parents were very supportive, and his sister, first an associate and later a partner at King and Spaulding in Atlanta, provided him a place to live. “I always tell her that the two of us could have easily flipped careers. I tell her that the two jobs ain’t that different,” he jokes. After a few community theater roles, he got his first Theater of the Stars part, an ensemble role in a production of South Pacific starring Howard Keel. Success came at a price, though – he signed an Actors’ Equity union contract, and “didn’t realize at the time that that meant I could never do non-professional theater. That really limited me here in Atlanta, to say the least.”
So he took his show on the road, or at least on the water, as he signed on with a cruise ship, one of four lead singers in a musical review. “It turned out not to be my thing but I met my wife, who is from Oslo, there and it was the Love Boat for a few months.” And with the optimism of youth, they were ready for the next step. “She didn’t know me from my life before, she only knew me as this actor guy, and I was starting to see myself that way too. So, young and in lust, we decided to go for it in NYC.”
A few shows and a lot of waiting tables (at the TGI Friday’s in Times Square, no less) followed. Eventually he was cast in his first Les Mis role, as an understudy for the part of Enjolras. He went on several national tours. But he always came back to various roles with Les Miserables. “Les Mis was the world’s greatest temp job,” he quips. Eventually he was offered the pre-Broadway tour of Jekyll and Hyde, and he “began finding my way into that part.” It wasn’t long before fate intervened again.
“My wife gave birth to our first son prematurely while I was on the Jekyll tour in Chicago, and I kind of freaked out.” He left the Jekyll and Hyde tour. “I walked into Cameron’s (Mackintosh, the producer of Les Miserables) office and said “Look I need to be off the road.” Cameron said “Well, we need some new Valjeans. 26 is a little young, but let’s bring you up for it. I’ll give you the understudy on Broadway and if it goes well I want to give you the tour, and you can take your wife and baby with you.”
The part proved daunting, and challenging. And thrilling. “Valjean is such a complex part. Before I had been a little afraid to play a man at that emotional depth, but that first kid changes everything. I thought, now I get it, I get all that emotional range. Now I look back twelve years later and I think about how ill-prepared I was. You have to grow into Valjean.”
Evan returned to the Broadway cast of Les Miserables, ironically right across the street from where he began rehearsing Jekyll and Hyde. “I was playing Valjean at night and rehearsing Jekyll during the day, which just about killed me. Then I left Les Mis and Jekyll took over my life from 1997-2000.” It would prove to be his signature role, as he eventually was billed above the title for over six hundred performances. He affectionately calls “This is the Moment,” the hit song from show, “This is My Mortgage.” Evan still is the one man many fans most associate with the role, despite some of the big names that followed him: “After I left, the part was played by Jack Wagner, Sebastian Bach, and of course David Hasselhoff. Hasselhoff was just a blast. Everybody knows he’s this big party guy, but he was actually also very sweet, very generous. He’d come and ask for help on the part.”
But the Great White Way can be a demanding mistress. “After Jekyll, I was pretty crispy fried, pretty burned out. Carrying those large parts can really wear you down. I also had been on this direct NYC career trajectory – understudy, lead, Broadway, above the title. But now I found I was in a tiny group of guys all fighting for the same parts. And you can’t ever go backwards.” Fate intervened again, as Paul O’Neill from Trans-Siberian Orchestra had seen Jekyll and was impressed by Evan. He was looking for a new singer for the band, and it was a match made in heaven for Evan’s voice, and his inclinations. “I was always a wannabe rock star. One of the things that first attracted me to Les Mis was that the music was not so traditional; it had more of an edge. Although I started out studying opera, I really always wanted to sound like Steve Perry or Lou Gramm or Dennis DeYoung (who later offered me a part in Hunchback). I’m such a guy of that era, that 80s rock. That’s what I love, that’s me.”
“Paul has really been brilliant in the way he handled that band. I have three platinum records on my wall because of him. In fact, the house they’re hanging in is because of the last TSO record we did.” Evan toured with TSO for two seasons, and is now an integral part of their studio work. He’s also involved with several other projects fusing classical music and rock, including his new show “The Rock Tenor.” “It’s Nessun Dorma into Kashmir, Stravinsky into Purple Haze,” he explains, “that’s where me heart is right now. I’d like to reinvent myself and move on to the next phase, which is kind of funny at my age. I got it backwards — I should have been the rock star back in my twenties.”
But for now, it’s back to Les Miserables and Valjean. There are so many great Valjean moments in the show, but one stands out for him: “Soliloquy is my moment. I’m all over it. Those A’s and B flats are where I live, and I feel a connection to the emotion of that moment.” As far as other men who have played Valjean, “Of course I like Colm (Wilkinson) a lot. He’s such a great guy, and like me a wannabe rock star, but he’s got this beautiful Irish tenor voice. Mark McVay has a gorgeous tenor voice too, and he’s another favorite.” And how does he deal with entering once more into that emotional and spiritual weight of the part? “It’s hard. Some nights it just flows out of me. But some nights it doesn’t. Some nights I feel Bring Him Home more than others. And I’ve learned not to try to artificially create it. You just have to be true to the connection at that moment and ride the ride. That part is written so well. You just have to let things happen.”
Things are continuing to happen in Evan’s career, to be sure, and this show is one the best of those things. Don’t miss his performance.