'Les Mis' made me

The world is Ivan Rutherford's oyster after long Broadway run as Jean Valjean

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 5:47pm

A few weeks ago, before controversial New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was booed on his return to Boston's Fenway Park, Ivan Rutherford stepped on the field to sing the American national anthem in front of 37,000 people.

Unlike Rodriguez, who later got drilled by a pitch, Rutherford received a standing ovation. "It was an honour for me," he says from his home in Irvine, California, in the lead-up to his appearance in Hong Kong next week. "I'm a Yankees fan and I was keeping that under my breath. I don't think anyone was expecting me to sing it that well."

In that role, I felt I owned the city. I didn't know anybody in a more popular show than we were
Ivan Rutherford

That performance is another achievement in a career that has seen Rutherford entertain everyone from Broadway theatregoers to US presidents, fellow actors and entertainers. His powerful vocals were honed in his long-running stint as the heroic French Revolution-era character Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway.

For more than a decade, he performed before sell-out crowds eight times a week in a role that he considered a dream to play. "To me, it was the absolute pinnacle of any theatre piece," he says. "The first night I went on, I remember mumbling to myself 'How invested will I get in this role? In six months how will I feel?' And six months turned into 14 years."

Rutherford was a fan of the musical before he was even a part of it. Hoping to become an actor after university, he discovered his voice in an effort to create more work for himself. After extensive classical training, he found himself in Tokyo for a couple of years performing in Japanese, before moving on to a regional production of Les Mis in Boston.

Soon enough, Broadway beckoned. "It was a huge accomplishment for me to get to Broadway, considering where I started," he says. "In that role, I felt I owned the city. I didn't know anybody in a more popular show than we were."

He loved everything about it. There was the community of fellow actors, including a pre-fame Ricky Martin, which he found supportive and "tight". There were surprise appearances, like the night former US president Bill Clinton showed up. "Backstage he was telling me it was Chelsea's 16th birthday, and he was saying through teary eyes how much the last scene meant to him and how he wanted to let go," he says. "It was just he and I talking about kids."

Above all, Rutherford thrived on the daily energy of the audience. They reminded him that he was on the greatest stage in the world, even if the reality was a bit more subdued than the fabled dream. "The Broadway stage is surprisingly smaller than you would imagine," he says. "People think it's a giant place with giant stages, but it's a bit more intimate than some of the civic centres you see on tour. I feel the audience right in front of me, and that's close."

Eventually, Rutherford took a break from Les Mis, only to move across the street to star in a stage version of Titanic. Even though it won five Tonys ("I have not won one yet," he says quickly), it didn't have the longevity of Les Mis, which kept pulling him back into its fold. "It's just so beautifully written, from being a prisoner on a chain gang to being on the lam," he says. "It's got such great music and a great story. I've had people telling me it's their 40th time seeing it."

Starring in one of Broadway's most recognisable roles gave Rutherford the idea of doing a one-man show. It's this show - filled with songs from a wide range of Broadway productions mixed with stories from his career - that he'll be bringing to Grappa's Cellar in Central for a dinner-theatre evening.

Accompanied by a pianist, it will be both a salute to the stage and a journey. "I will tell my story, moving to California from the east coast," Rutherford says. "People will enjoy music from different eras. I don't think they need to know anything that I've done to appreciate what I'm doing."

The show has allowed him to spin off into charity work and corporate events, which always celebrate the tunes associated with Broadway musicals. Rutherford calls it a "great arc for entertainment", which has also enabled him to be a surprise hit at weddings, whether it's for an unknowing bride or even an oil baron like T. Boone Pickens.

"I sang for his daughter's wedding and for some reason he thinks I sound like Josh Groban," he says. "He could have gotten Josh Groban, but he wanted me to perform at his 78th birthday. He had fire breathers, painters, ballroom dancers, Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart. Nancy Reagan was there, Arnold Schwarzenegger too. I just kept thinking 'He could have gotten Josh Groban and he got me'."

Today, with three teenage children, Rutherford believes Broadway has been the gift that keeps on giving, which is why he's giving back. "People need that live storytelling and the music makes it spectacular," he says. Away from his one-man performances, he gives vocal training to students around the world via Skype.

He also laughs at a strange encounter he had with Marlon Brando, which seems to have foretold his entire career. "I was a beach-boy waiter in the late 1980s, and as I sat his drinks down, he drew a picture on a piece of paper and said it was me," he laughs. "The picture was clearly Jesus Christ. Brando was a very strange guy. But seven years later, I'm in the full beard, raggy clothes and I'm thinking 'Where have I seen this?' It came together for me right then."

Ivan Rutherford, Thur, 7pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$700. Inquiries: 2521 2322