A 12-year old goes on a school trip to a Toronto theatre. He doesn't want to go, but it's an afternoon off from lessons and for this small boy, who'd much rather be playing ice hockey than doing math problems, it turns out to be the single most important experience of his life.
"It was the first time in my life when I felt truly moved by something. I connected with it immediately. I thought, I'd like to do that.'"
He went back to see the show ten times, waited at the stage door to get an autograph from the star, and made a bet with his friend that he would play that role and, furthermore, that he would be the youngest ever to do so. The show was The Phantom of the Opera, the star was Colm Wilkinson, the 12-year-old boy was Ramin Karimloo, star of the new Broadway production of the world's most successful musical, Les Misérables. Sure enough, he did become the youngest ever, taking on the role of Phantom just a month before his 29th birthday.
Ramin is the son of Iranian parents who left Tehran for political reasons when he was a few months old and was always expected to do well. "An Iranian father always wants you to do better than he has done," he said. So Ramin applied himself to his chosen profession as though it were an academic discipline, going to the library and reading all the plays and acting manuals he could find. "I didn't have any formal training. Money was tight and I didn't want to create more debt, so I went and read Stanislavski. I didn't differentiate between plays and musicals." Like most young Canadians, he would have preferred to be a professional hockey player, but that wasn't in the stars and, fortunately, he knew it early because he noticed that, "hockey players grew bigger, and I didn't."
Enter one of the world's most successful producers, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, "He was a boy. So young, maybe 20. He came and auditioned for me and I just knew. He had it. He always had it. That striking voice and those wonderful looks. He started as [a] cover for Marius in Les Misérables, and he's worked for me almost ever since." Except, of course, for his starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies. Through an apprenticeship that took in the supporting roles in Les Misérables and Phantom, Ramin learned his craft. Mackintosh said he owes his tremendous development as an actor to director Laurence Connor, who directs the new version of Les Miz, alongside James Powell, which first opened in Toronto and is now playing at Broadway's Imperial Theatre. "He always had the voice and the looks. Now he's a fine actor as well."
At just 35, isn't Ramin a little young to play Jean Valjean? After all, he's been in prison for 19 years when we first meet him. "I thought so, too," Ramin admitted. "In fact, I turned it down when Cameron first offered it. I didn't think I could find a way into the character of Jean Valjean. I thought maybe I could play Javert instead. And then, at the 25th Anniversary concert [for] Phantom, Cameron came to my dressing room and said he'd come for 'his pound of flesh.'" Ramin wasn't convinced, but because Mackintosh couched it in terms of a favor, he knew he'd have to try. "I owe everything to him. He's allowed me to grow as an actor, he's been my mentor, and I have the greatest respect for him."
A respect, it seems, that is reciprocated. "I told him," said Mackintosh, "I want you to play it. You're not too young, you'll bring something fresh to Jean Valjean. And this is a fantastic way for you to make your Broadway debut."
Slowly Ramin came around to Jean Valjean. "I told Cameron I wanted to sing it for him, to find my voice for Valjean. And the more I thought about it the more I realized there was a lot I could relate to here, that this was a story I wanted to tell. He's a man who struggles with fate, it's about a man's heart and his journey. Now [that] I'm doing it, I'm really glad I'm on the younger side because I'm never off the stage, and it takes a lot of energy."
In its latest incarnation, pre-Broadway, Les Miz opened in Ramin's hometown, Toronto, and was an immediate hit. "My homecoming was also my debut. And although you try not to look for it, my validation." Critics and audiences were ecstatic about both Laurence Connor's production, which is decorated by Victor Hugo's own artwork, and about Ramin's Jean Valjean. In the audience on his opening night was his hero, Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role nearly 30 years earlier and whom he had seen ten times as the Phantom. Wilkinson said, of Ramin's performance, "When I see him play Jean Valjean onstage, I forget that I ever did it. He's absolutely amazing."
Cameron Mackintosh hadn't forgotten that Wilkinson had been the first Valjean and invited him to take part, with Ramin, in a special charity performance, playing the Bishop, the role he played in the recent movie. Together, they sang the anthem for which Wilkinson became famous—"Bring Him Home." For Ramin, "It was such a big moment when he handed me the candlesticks, such a big moment. Colm is a great man, on and off stage." Ramin is endearingly amazed at what has happened to him. "I had waited for his autograph when I was [a boy] and now, I sat in my dressing room and there was Colm jamming on the guitar and there I was on the banjo, and I thought, 'How has my life turned out like this?' Everything I could have asked for as a kid, I've got."
Sir Cameron said that Ramin deserves all the success he's now enjoying, "It's his time now, the right person at the right time in the right show. It was meant to happen for him. He's as special a human being as he is a talent and that is why I've always loved him."