Events, Interviews — September 12, 2013 at 11:55 am

The Many Stages of Ivan Rutherford


His biggest claim to fame is…pretty big. For over a decade, the California-based actor/singer Ivan Rutherford had the lead role—Jean Valjean—in the Broadway production of Les Misérables. During that time, he worked with fellow cast member Ricky Martin and had many well-known figures knock on his backstage door, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

This week, Rutherford will make his debut in Hong Kong as he stars in a one man show. Ahead of his performance, he talked about his past, Broadway and how he hopes to have many more performances in Asia.

Ivan Rutherford


Hello Ivan, what have you been up to?

I got to sing the National Anthem for the Yankees/Red Sox last Sunday…


How was that?

Fenway Park is kind of an infamous field. That was my first time at Fenway, singing to 37,000 people. My daughter saw the clip and I don’t think they were expecting me to sing it so well. It was an honor for me. I’m a Yankees fan. I was keeping that under my breath. That was the game where Rodriguez got plunked.


How did it come about?

I actually said—when I was doing the run of Les Mis in Boston—“Hey, why don’t you get me to Fenway?” And they’re like “Great.” The scheduling was such that it was my last show. It got their name mentioned and it was just a cool way to cap off my trip.


How does the Boston show differ from the Broadway production of Les Mis?

It was the same show, different production. It was brand new cast…and a brand new set up from start to finish. I would call it the greater Boston area.


How was your Hong Kong show set up?

I was introduced to Steve (Bernstein, the show’s promoter) a few years ago and we ended up having sushi together. I had lived and worked in Japan for a couple years and performed there in Tokyo. We talked about how we would like to go back East and so we brainstormed it. Years later we reconnected and he set this all up.


What are your thoughts on playing Hong Kong?

I’m thrilled—can’t wait! I love travelling. I love culture and experiencing on every level and performing for a different audience is going to be great. I’d fly to Mars to do a show if I could reach out that far, so this is great.

I’m hoping to do more. It’s my splash over there, so I want to work over there more. Hopefully there will be buzz and I’ll be booking out my calendar.


When did you discover your voice?

I was studying acting outside of college and I noticed that a lot of the musicals were heavy dramatic musicals with singing. I started studying singing as well and I was probably in my early twenties. I studied over the years with some of the greatest voice teachers in the world.

It was mostly traditional classical training. I veered off into the pop contemporary world on my own. I have a demo CD right now that I have released. It’s something that people would want to purchase after they see my show, it’s demos from my Broadways shows and a few standards in there too.

I started singing in order to create work for myself and became incredibly passionate about it. I started doing more musical theater. I started getting roles in different stage productions and eventually, my big break was Les Mis.


What’s your show itself like?

I’m not Les Misérables when I go. I’ll do songs from many different musicals. Plus I will tell my story—moving to California from the East Coast—and then going back. I chronicle my journey through this. Hopefully it’s not the end of the journey. I think they will enjoy different music from different eras. I think the standard songs are just a nice little break up. In other words I don’t think they need to know anything about what I’ve done to appreciate what I’m doing….


How did you come up with the concept of a one man show?

The concept of the one man show—I’ve done several cabaret shows where I’ve come on as a guest. I’ve got all these stories of all these travels and I’m just going to put it together with my own stories. I’ve performed it about a dozen times…it’s constantly in motion. I take things out and put things in. I’m always experimenting and trying new things.


What was performing in Les Misérables like?

It is a vocal and physical marathon. It’s a long show, beautifully written—from a prisoner on a chain gang, to being on a lam. It’s got elements of The Fugitive. The music’s incredible. It’s a big stretch. To do it 2,000 times is kind of nuts. At this point I’m in excess of 2,000. It’s such great music. It’s such a great story. I had people saying “It’s my 40th time seeing it.”

That was my way of getting through the show because I knew somebody out there hadn’t seen it.

Les Misérables - Jean Valjean

Les Misérables – Jean Valjean

When and where was your first appearance in it?

1995 in Boston.

I was a fan of the show before I was even it, so it was the dream role for me. To me, it was the absolute pinnacle of any theater piece. The first night I went on, I distinctly 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.

I do it for a year—and then go away for a year—and come back. There were times when I would do two shows a day, eight times a week. I love it…to me it was like going to the gym…it was a workout all the way around….


Is being on Broadway as good as the dream?

It was a huge accomplishment to me to get to Broadway, considering where I started. In that role I felt like I owned the city. I didn’t know anybody in a more popular show than we were.


How did you feel?

You feel like you’ve arrived. It’s surprisingly smaller than you imagine. The Broadway houses are kind of tight. They think it’s a giant stage and it’s a bit more intimate than some of the civic centers you have when you are on tour. I feel the audience right in front of me…and that’s intimate.

That’s why I’m looking into film and television work, because it’s close.

Audiences underestimate their contributions to the energy of a show to an actual performer. Entertainers say it all the time. I think a lot of the audiences feel like they’re seeing a movie. How attentive they are has a lot to do with the performance level of the performance. If an audience is excited, the performer is doubly excited.


How did you get involved in the Broadway production of Titanic?

I was leaving a contract from Les Mis and I auditioned for something in Titanic. I was rehearsing Titanic while I was finishing Les Mis and they were across the street, so that was convenient.

I think the Broadway community was trying to separate the film from the movie. We didn’t want movie fans seeing the show and saying “Where’s Jack and Rose?” Ours was really focused on the different class levels of the ship. There wasn’t a love affair. It was based on how each class was treated and everybody’s hopes and dreams of what they were looking for in America.

It did win five Tony Awards. I did not win one…I say yet!


Do you want one?

That would be nice. I won’t base my feelings of success on it. I would love to win a Tony!


What was the Broadway community like?

It’s a real social network of cool people. In fact, I was listening to the lyrics to “Give My Regards To Broadway” And it’s about telling the gang “I’ll be back.”

I think that’s always been the way it is. Broadway communities are really tight. There’s a lot of meeting grounds. It’s a crazy, wonderful community. Those who have been a part of it completely understand. I’m so grateful to have had some time in that. It shifts all the time.


How did you get involved in voice coaching?

I started in 2001. It’s another hat I wanted to wear. I knew decades ago I wanted to teach. I enjoy passing on my experience. It’s been something that I’ve done consistently since then. I do it on Skype. I have students all over the world and I’m in the studio now.

It works just like when they’re standing here in the room. There’s a slight delay. We do vocal exercises, technique building. The student has a track on their end. They keep a file. When they sing with their own music, it’s together and I’m listening and recording on this end.

You and I could be having a voice lesson right now.


I also read that you do corporate shows.

Along with my one man show, I do a lot of charity work and corporate events. We do crazy fundraising and it’s amazing how people love this entertainment. It’s not an opera singer. It’s music that they know. You can create a great arc for entertainment.

I’ve been flown across the country to sing at a wedding. In one case, as a surprise, I was flown out to Chicago by a woman’s father…it was a weep fest and it was so much fun. That’s a great payoff.


Have there been celebrity corporate events as well?

The oil baron T. Boone Pickens is one example. Years ago, I went to sing for his daughter’s wedding in Del Mar, San Diego and for some reason he thinks I sound like Josh Groban. He could have got Josh Groban. I did this wedding. Then he had his 78th birthday party and again he asked for me. He had fire breathers, painters, ballroom dancers and then he had Natalie Cole and Rod Stewart shows up with a karaoke track. It was crazy! Nancy Reagan was there. Merv Griffin, Arnold Schwarzenegger….I just kept thinking, “He could have gotten Josh Groban…and he got me.” I get crazy gigs like that once in a while.


Let me run down some of your other experiences. You performed with former “Annie” Andrea McCardle.

Andrew McCardle—she was LaFontaine in Les Mis. She’s wonderful, crazy and fun.

Andrea McArdle

Andrea McArdle

Lea Salonga.

I know she’s a big deal over there. She was very sweet.

At the time I worked with those two—they had done the role, and rehearsal was minimal. I think we just ran our scenes and that’s it. We’d spend a couple days. We would go over our interaction. Everyone respects everyone’s work.

Lea Salonga

Lea Salonga

Do you ever forget your lines?

Once in a while. It’s always an interesting learning experience about how I tick.

In Les Mis it’s all in the song, so it’s a little easier to remember that way.


What was your time like in Tokyo?

I was in Tokyo from 90-’92. I landed a job over there which I thought was a good experience for me. I had to perform in Japanese. That was a big challenge for me. It was a lot more work than I thought it was going to be.

I just kind of went with it and learned a lot very quickly. It was good enough to stay two years.


And at one point you met Marlon Brando. What was that like?

I was a waiter in a restaurant in the late eighties in Los Angeles. I was waiting on Marlon Brando. As I sat his drinks down, he drew a picture on a piece of paper on the table and said that it was me. The picture was clearly Jesus Christ and I just said thank you and thought “Wow, he thinks I look like Jesus.”

He was a very strange guy, socially inept, but a good tipper. I was even star struck when I rang his credit card and it said Marlon Brando.

Seven years later, I’m in the full beard, raggy clothes and I’m saying “Where have I seen this?” It came together for me right then. I wanted to write a letter to him.


So, you have 24 hours to go anywhere, eat anywhere and do anything. Where are we off to?

I’ve never been to Paris and it’s on my bucket list. I jumped out of an airplane last year so that’s off. It was a fantastic sensation, and an exercise in letting go for me. So I’d have to say Paris and Hong Kong!


Thank you.

Thank you.



Ivan Rutherford, September 12th, Grappa’s Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, Hong Kong HK$700. Inquiries: 852-2521-2322 and tickets booking here.