Ramin Karimloo has become an internationally recognised star of musicals in the last few years, since first originating the role of the Phantom in the ill-fated premiere London production of LOVE NEVER DIES five years ago. Since then, he has gone on to release a studio album (left), star as Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES both in the West End and more recently on Broadway, and starred in the Tokyo premiere of the Hal Prince revue PRINCE OF BROADWAY. Now, as he returns to London for his first UK concerts in over two years, I revisit the 2010 interview I did with him before LOVE NEVER DIES opened in London.
* NOTE: An Evening with Ramim Karimloo takes place at Islington’s Union Chapel on January 19 and Islington’s Assembly Hall on January 20.
TEN YEARS ON, FOR THE PHANTOM AS WELL AS THE ACTOR
Mark Shenton meets Ramin Karimloo, facing the biggest challenge of his life as he prepares to play The Phantom of the Opera again in the show’s sequel Love Never Dies that opens officially in the West End on Tuesday (March 10, 2010).
There is no show in theatrical history quite like The Phantom of the Opera: since first opening in London nearly a quarter of a century ago (and where it is still going strong at Her Majesty’s Theatre and is now the longest running show in Broadway history as well), it has grossed more than any other film or stage play in history, including Titanic, ET and Star Wars.
So its sequel, Love Never Dies, that has its official opening at the West End’s Adelphi Theatre on Tuesday, has a tough, even impossible, act to follow. Last week its director Jack O’Brien told me, “Nobody is going to thank us for doing this. And honest to God, we are not going to know what anybody thinks for a long time. There is too much noise. One has to just say, this is the course I am sailing, these are the people who are going with me, I really believe in this, and I am having a wonderful time.”
And key amongst the people who are on that ship is Ramin Karimloo, the 31-year-old Iranian-born, Canadian-raised actor who last November completed a two-year stint of playing the Phantom in the West End original, and is creating the role afresh now. Meeting the dashing, modest actor in his backstage dressing room, he says of the daunting challenge of following the earlier show’s footsteps now, “It’s surreal. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. But there’s an odd sense of calm about it. I’m not thinking, ‘I’m the best’; I’m just the guy who is doing it now. And I will do the best I can do with it, knowing that one day I am going to give it up, and somebody else is going to take over and do their best.”
Phantom has, in fact, been the a big part of his life for a long time, and not just over the last two years as he has stepped into the spotlight in London and then, over the course of three workshops and the recording of the album that is being released on Wednesday, to the starring role he finds himself in its brand-new incarnation. “For every major peak and plateau of my life, Phantom has been involved somehow. The first show I ever saw was Phantom, and it’s what made me want to be an actor. As a kid, I waited at the stage door in Toronto, and met Colm Wilkinson [who played the role in the show’s Canadian premiere]. I asked him, ‘how do I do what you do?’ And he said he said he started out in rock bands, so that’s why I joined one, too, because I thought that’s what you’ve got to do.” For a school project a few years later, the theme was vocations, and he decided to do his on aspiring to play the Phantom. He met Peter Karrie, the British actor by then playing it, “and they made a big press thing of it; there was an article linking the Phantom with his shadow, me! It said Ramin would like to be the Phantom one day, and Peter saying that it would take up to 15 years to weed out the weak from the strong. But 11 years later, I got it!”
By then he was 27, and had long settled in England. He came over first to sing aboard a cruise ship – “I had nothing to lose, and I had no one to depend on me” — and after docking for the last time, he says, “I knew one person who lived in Oxford – so I went there and ended up working in a factory making the insides of hand-driers! But I knew I had to get to London. Someone said to go to the Pineapple Dance Studios, so I did. There was this board full of singing and acting teachers, and I thought I should learn some theatre songs. So I closed my eyes and pointed and took a number – and I went to this guy’s house, who heard me sing and introduced me to an agent, Michael Garrett, who took me on. Four months later, I was working at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, understudying Gary Wilmot as the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance. I learnt so much – I was never in my dressing room, I’d always be in the wings. It wasn’t because I was dying to go on, but because of what I could learn.”
He was 21 at the time. Now, ten years on, he has learnt a lot himself, “and it’s perfect for this Phantom, which is also set ten years after the first one ends. But it parallels a lot that I’ve experienced myself.” A lot has changed for both of them. The new show finds the Phantom relocated from Paris to Coney Island – “the Vegas of its day,” says Ramin – “where he could fit right in and be part of the population. People went there to see freaks, and society didn’t hound him there but loved him. He had an outlet for his musical creativity. But the problem is that it doesn’t fulfil his soul.”
That yearning can only be met in a reunion with his former great love, Christine, whom he gets to come over from Paris with Raoul, now her husband. (Ramin has also previously played Raoul onstage and had a cameo role in the film version as Christine’s father — “blink and you’ll miss me!”, he quips – and so has played each of Christine’s major loves.)
And Ramin, too, recently had a watershed realisation: during the workshops and recording of the show, “I thought I knew the character well, because I was still doing Phantom I at night, and thought he was the same character. But he isn’t. I had two months off before I started this, and a lot happened to me in my personal life – I had to deal with the things you push away when you’re in eight shows a week. And it hit me. It had been ten long years for him, as well as for me. And the director said something: we live our lives in decades – our teens, twenties, thirties, forties – and we change. I’ve learnt so much. The guy that I was at 21 – we share the same name, but we’re different people. I walk differently, I talk differently. And I’ve had a blessed life, unlike the Phantom. Life gives you circumstances to deal with, and you grow and change.”
One of those realisations is that “there’s no point carrying the weight of things you have no control over”. Like the reception to the show, for instance? “Yes. I can only do the best I can.” But it calls on all his resources, too: “Singing Cole Porter is beautiful, but you’re not blasting out 11 top C’s in a row, either. I can’t read music, but I said, ‘Those are big notes, right?’ And I’m no Pavarotti, I’m telling you – I’m no King of Top C’s!”
But he concludes, “It’s more about the heart. I don’t go out thinking I have to sing this perfectly. That would be boring. In a drama course in high school, the teacher asked how we were feeling today. If you said 65%, he said, can you give me 100% of that 65%? And that’s what I do now – I’ll always give 100% of whatever I’ve got on that day, then I’m not selling anyone short.”