THE LEADING MEN: Ramin Karimloo, the London Star of Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies

By Mark Shenton
June 12, 2012

Meet Ramin Karimloo, the Iranian-born, Canadian-raised actor who became a West End star wearing the mask of the Phantom of the Opera. He talks about his past work and his new album.



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Ramin Karimloo has come a long way since he was born in Iran 33 years ago, before growing up in Canada and then coming to Britain at the age of 21, as part of a cruise ship he was performing on — on which he met his future English wife Mandy (and mother to his two sons, now four and seven). He settled in Britain and soon acquired an agent, and his first job as an understudy in a production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park. He then served a long theatrical apprenticeship, via stints understudying in Les Misérables to taking over as Marius, playing Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera before covering and then taking over the title role, as well as starring in a tour of Miss Saigon.

But it wasn't until he originated the role of the Phantom in the troubled sequel Love Never Dies, for which he was Olivier Award-nominated, did he become a star in his own right. He was chosen to return to play the original Phantom in the globally screened live 25th anniversary concert production of the show at the Royal Albert Hall, which has now also been issued on a DVD. A year earlier he also played Enjolras in the 25th anniversary of Les Miz at the 02 in London. Now he's a solo concert and recording artist as well, who has recently completed a sell-out U.K. tour following the release of his solo debut album, "Human Heart," for Sony Masterworks.

Now he's in America, where next month he will make his New York concert debut and where his album has just had a U.S. release. Playbill.com's London news correspondent Mark Shenton met him in London.

You've just finished a stint in Les Misérables in London, this time playing the lead role of Valjean. How did it come about?
Ramin Karimloo: There'd been a couple of conversations about whether I'd be interested, and I always said no — I didn't know what I'd do with it, and I was getting tired because of the three years I'd spent on Love Never Dies. But then Cameron [Mackintosh] asked me to do the Phantom of the Opera 25th anniversary concert, and in week two of rehearsals he sat me down in the office at Ealing Studios where we were rehearsing, and he told me, "I've come for my pound of flesh!" I think I owe him more than a couple of pounds actually, and I'm carrying a few more myself! Then he said, "I need you to play Jean Valjean for me." But he had more faith in me than I had in myself. Its the only time I've ever talked myself into an audition — I asked him to let me come sing it for him first. That gave me time to get the Phantom 25th out of the way and also time to think about what I was going to do with the character. I then read the novel in the meantime and I got inspired — and when I went in about ten days later, I really wanted it!

Karimloo in Les Miz.
photo by Alastair Muir

So how did the audition go? Your friend Hadley Fraser, with whom you are in a band together called Sheytoons, was already in the show playing Javert...
RK: They brought him in to do the confrontation with me. And that's what made me nervous — more than Cameron watching me! We had first been in the show together ten years before when he was Marius and I was his understudy! Both of us have gone on different journeys to evolve our craft; we think a lot alike now, and we think very differently now to what we did back then. To put my work on the line in front of him was tough, though he wasn't there to judge me but to root me on. And my favorite compliment from him came that day when he said to me, "I love you and I think you're good — but I didn't expect that!" I knew then that we were going to have a good time together in the show!

And what's happened to your band?
RK: That's never been about work, it was about fun. We spent more time together when we weren't next door to each other! But we never wanted to put any pressure on it — as much as we like putting stuff on youtube and doing concerts, neither of us are ready to fully commit to getting a record deal for it.

Instead, you got a solo recording deal with Sony! But it's not actually your first album — you produced your own, limited-edition EP early on "Within the Six Square Inch."
RK: Yes, And Hadley and I did "New York State of Mind" on it. I don't think I even have a copy anymore, but I was so proud of what we did on that....

This time around, though, it's very different, isn't it?
RK: There's a machine behind me now! But I didn't search for it. I've always had guitars around the house and I've been passionate about making music for a long time, but the older I got, I thought maybe that chance has gone. But once I got Love Never Dies, there was a lot of press about me and a music management company approached me. They started piecing the puzzle together of how they could cross me over. And before asking me if I'd even be interested, they went to labels and started pitching me. By the time they told me, they had a label ready to work with me!

Cover art for "Human Heart"
So how did the album come together?
RK: I was very specific — I didn't want to do a theatre album, not because I don't like musical theatre, but I don't know enough about it. I'm not a connoisseur of it — I didn't get brought up on it! I haven't seen The Wizard of Oz in the West End! And I wondered what I would do apart from what I've done already — and though I'm very proud of the shows I've been in, there are already definitive versions out there of the shows I've done.

Apart from "Till I Hear You Sing" from Love Never Dies, of course, where you're the definitive version!
RK: Why thank you!

So you wanted to do something different than what, say, Michael Ball does?
RK: There's nothing wrong with that, but he knows that world better than I do. When we started talking about my roots and things I've been hiding for years, they got excited. We knew we had to bridge the gap between where I'm coming from and where I'd like to go. And one of the places I'd like to go is to that [fact that] there's a songwriter in me and I'm very passionate about music. So I wanted to make an album, but I didn't just want to be a singer on it! And that excited them, too — they expected me to want to come in and do what I do. And this isn't just about one album, it's going to be a process. This is the first step, and what we've come up with is the best thing we could have done.

How much of it is original?
RK: Most of it — I've co-written four of the tracks, "Eyes of a Child," "Broken Home," "Show Me Light" and "Inside My World," and we've got new songs from Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, who wrote "Human Heart," and Ryan Tedder, who wrote "Coming Home." The two Phantom songs are important to me, too — they're part of my journey and part of who I am a musician. But we're not being ambassadors of the shows with those songs — they've been given new arrangements so they fit into the album. There's a recording of me doing "Till I Hear You Sing" already, so we had to make it fit this album as if it had been written for it. And of course I've not recorded "Music of the Night" before.

The album feels quite serious and emotional.
RK: Yes, for me it is about remorse, redemption and rites of passage. It's about finding ourselves — we're always finding ourselves. I have no regrets about anything that's happened, though — all of it makes me what I am today, and hopefully I will just keep growing.

Karimloo at the Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert
Photo by Dan Wooller
You spent a while trying to find a new musical for yourself by creating one out of the Houdini story. There's also a Broadway one in development; what happened to yours?
RK: It's been shelved now — to cut a long story short, a lot of time passed with nothing happening. The sad part is that there's material there, we've got the songs. We thought there was money there but it wasn't. Nearly two years have gone by since I first brought the team together. It's scary how fast time goes, but if what I set out to do with everyone happened then, we would be open by now!

But you've served your dues in the business and, as you know, things take time. RK: Yes, I've worked hard! I know now that when I get a challenge, I'm ready to work towards it, whereas before I felt that perhaps it would be out of my league! Now I know where to go to get the help I need. I take risks because I'm an actor — you never know what's happening next. What I chase is goals that I can make creative, and that make me a better actor — and I can have fun doing. I don't want to do a new show for the sake of doing it. If it's something I'm passionate about, I'll give it my best; if I'm not happy in a show, I'm going to be awful and doing a disservice to the show and to the director.

Karimloo and Sierra Boggess in Love Never Dies.
photo by PA Photos/Landov

Love Never Dies was a bit of a baptism of fire for you, wasn't it, in the way a new musical can get launched and derailed and re-launched.
RK: I had a great time with Love Never Dies — it was forever changing so it was never boring. The day I got nominated for the Olivier Award was the day that I phoned an acting coach — I told myself it's time to get better, to further my craft, because I didn't want to rest on any laurels. When I was asked if I'd stay for six more months at the end of my original contract, I decided to do it because I knew I could use it to re-inspire myself with the work, and I had a playground in which I could put my acting work into practice. It was also nice knowing that the show wasn't going to change anymore, so after what felt like 12 months of rehearsal I could actually enjoy the gig. I don't regret staying at all.

Would you like to do plays?
RK: I'd love to do Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire — and I now have enough faith in me to know that I can prepare for it. The first thing I ever did in Canada on stage was Lost in Yonkers — when I was 15, I played Jay Kurnitz, and it was great. I'd love to do plays for sure — it's not that I shied away from them, but once you're in a musical on a yearlong contract, a year of your life goes. I kept getting presented with opportunities that were challenging me. I wasn't chasing a paycheck — I've been chasing time to rest!

So now you're embarking on this new chapter in your career as a concert and recording artist.
RK: You can only do so much at one time. I've double-shifted for about two or three years now. I'm not leaving musical theatre, but I need to focus on one thing at a time more. This is a new venture, so I've got to put more focus on it. For ten years solid I've done musical theatre. I've not stopped, but I deserve a break, I think, and I think people want a break from me as well! But I also think I'm doing my best work now — I feel more free now than ever. I've had ten years of professional experience and served my apprenticeship. My learning is not over, but what's different to me is that my preparation is a lot different now — it's much more in-depth, so when I go into something, I'm not afraid to make mistakes.

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For details on Ramin Karimloo's North American tour dates, visit raminofficial.com, where you can also hear clips from his album.

(Mark Shenton is Playbill.com's London news correspondent. Follow his work in our International News section.)