13 Aug 2022

Playing Favourites with musician Rutene Spooner

From Saturday Morning, 11:05 am on 13 August 2022

Rising musical theatre star Rutene Spooner is getting ready to tour Aotearoa with his cabaret show Thoroughly Modern Māui.

He chats to Kim Hill about finding his 'fabulosity' and some of his favourite waiata.

Rutene Spooner

 Rutene Spooner Photo: Ivan Muller

Although Rutene spent the early part of his childhood in Wellington, in his early teens he went to live in Gisborne with his aunt.

"The East Coast and Gisborne are very strong in Māori performing arts and tikanga Māori… essentially, I was pining for being immersed in that rich culture and out of the city. Mum realised that and she made the greatest sacrifice to send me there. I definitely see that a lot more clearer now that I have my own child."

As a teenager kapa haka performer, Rutene developed a love for musical theatre while participating in large-scale events around the country.

"There are so many similarities between the discipline of kapa haka - at a competitive level - and the discipline of musical theatre. We're talking ensemble-based, powerful, beautiful singing and storytelling."

After high school, though, Rutene was on the first flight out of Gisborne, hungry for something new.

"I love Gisborne and it always has a place in my heart. But even today I can last about five days before the pace of the town is just a little bit too slow for me."

Having never been to the South Island before Rutene left his "very Māori world" for Christchurch where he spent three years at drama school, studying music and doing his best to assimilate.

As a youngster, he considered going into opera but the variety and spirit of music theatre and cabaret is where he's made his home.

"I think it's what I call... my mischief - I'm always interested in finding a new trick and doing something different and I didnt feel that there was that… flexibility in modern opera.

"I think what Māori are quite good at is telling a story and furthering that story in song. That's what draws me to cabaret and it's an instant interaction and connection with the audience."

At drama school, Rutene says he didn't have a lot of Māori role models but was greatly inspired by the flexible masculinity of Australian actor and stage performer Hugh Jackman (who inspired his 2017 cabaret show Super Hugh-man).

"Here's a man who can find strength and fierceness and also be quite fabulous at the same time. At that time, at drama school, I needed that because I could still be that haka warrior but also put on a pair of gold hot pants."

"I'm very proud of what I call my fabulosity but I think every male in musical theatre gets a hard time, especially in Māori musical theatre but it's character building.

"Hopefully a little Māori kid sees that in me someday so they don't have to run [just] to the Marvel character."

Rutene Spooner (Ngāti Porou, Ngaruahine) has appeared in musicals such as GreaseChicagoAnything GoesBilly Elliot and Oklahoma. He has toured Australia as part of the cast of Jersey Boys and is one of the members of the Modern Māori Quartet.

Thoroughly Modern Māui is heading to Wellington, Ōtaki, Auckland, Whakatāne, Hawke's Bay, Dunedin, and Nelson in September and October. Head over here for full details. 

Rutene Spooner played...

In Thoroughly Modern Māui, Spooner questions how men like him can draw strength from both the Māori and Pakeha worlds.

'Kia Hiwa Rā' - a Māori version of Puccini's opera classic 'Nessun Dorma' - exemplifies that philosophy, he says.


'Paikea' by the "powerhouse" kapa haka group Waihirere Māori Club is Rutene's "go-to" for connecting with Aotearoa when he's performing overseas. 


'Till' by the Māori show band Hi-Marks is Rutene's grandmother's favourite song and one he has sung with the Modern Māori Quartet.

"When we're overseas it feels like a warm blanket to sing that song... but this is very much a family song."


'Māreikura' is a song that speaks to all of the great Māori wahine leaders of our time and beyond, Rutene says.

"It's essentially a genealogy of the greats like Whina Cooper and the power that women possess and present and offer the world."