The new Les Misérables revival is getting major buzz - largely because of Ramin Karimloo, its new (and until now) undiscovered star.
The pesky reality of a Broadway actor’s life — the thing you don’t always hear — is how exhausting it can get performing eight shows a week. Especially when you’re blessed with a high-octane, belt-that-ballad-to-the-back-of-the-house type of role like Jean Valjean in the musical Les Misérables. Add to that another odd bit of timing — they announce Tony Award nominations, the Holy Grail for Broadway types, early in the morning. So in April when this year’s Tony noms came out, Ramin Karimloo was — no surprise — sound asleep.
All photos by Ari Mintz.
“It was a little surreal,” he recalls. “When I woke I saw a text message from a buddy back in the UK, saying he’s proud of me. I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘You’ve been nominated for a Tony.’ I said, ‘Sweet’.”
Insert snoring sound effect here. Karimloo fell back asleep.
Ramin Karimloo — that’s Rah-MEEN KAH-rim-loo — isn’t a name most American theatergoers are familiar with. Karimloo, 35, who lives in London with his wife and two young sons, has a slew of credits from London’s West End (including a stint as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera) but when he made his Broadway debut as Valjean in the new Les Miz revival back in March he was a complete unknown.
That wouldn’t be the case for long.
When the revival was in previews, the reaction of many theater-going New Yorkers was...really? Again? The last (not terribly well received) revival closed just six years ago. But let’s face it, Les Miz, like a vampire, never really dies.
The musical, based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, debuted in London in 1985, hit Broadway’s Imperial Theatre in 1987 and has pretty much been playing somewhere on the globe ever since — seen by 65 million people in 42 countries, not including those who saw Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway (and their adenoids) in the close-up rich 2012 film, or the gazillions who’ve YouTubed Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent.
The tale, of course, is that of Valjean, an unjustly imprisoned man who spends nearly three hours evading an obsessed police inspector, revolting with France’s oppressed 99 percent, and belting out anthems.
“I’m a fan of the original, but there’s something special about this production,” says Karimloo. “There’s more Victor Hugo here”—the author’s little-known paintings are used as haunting backdrops — “which gives it even more heart.” The current revival also boasts new orchestrations (finally — that tinny electric piano is gone) and new sets (the famed revolving turntable has been replaced by scenery that extends into the house, almost surrounding parts of the audience). “It’s like seeing the show for the first time again, and so it’s like hearing it for the first time, too,” he says.
Born in Iran, Karimloo was raised in Canada outside Toronto, after his family fled their homeland when he was just a baby at the start of the Islamic revolution. (Dad had been an Imperial Guard for the Shah and…wisely, no doubt... they figured things probably wouldn’t work out too well for him if they stayed.)
At 12, he saw a Toronto production of Phantom and was mesmerized. An English class project required students to shadow a professional for a day, and he picked the Phantom. “Somehow,” he says, chuckling, “I managed to wrangle that.”
There. Then. The showbiz bug bit.
He started out singing in rock bands, then on cruise ships, and eventually transitioned to musical theater, making his West End debut in the ensemble of Les Miz in 2002. His Broadway debut earned raves, with critics praising his soaring rendition of numbers like “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.” The pecs got good reviews, too.
That’s right, move over Mr. Wolverine, there’s a new Hugo hunk in town—arguably, the first stage actor who’s gotten ripped for the role. “In the novel, it describes Valjean as medium height, broad shoulders, in the prime of his life,” says Karimloo. “I thought, ‘Medium height, no problem. But the rest….’”
This Valjean rips his shirt off, so Karimloo started working out five days a week at the gym to prep for the pre-Broadway run in Toronto last fall. He gained 20 pounds of lean muscle. Some months back, he proudly tweeted about a personal best — dead-lifting more than 405 pounds. “I never would’ve dreamt of that before,” he says. “Now I feel strong. I feel like Jean Valjean.”
His tattooed arms aren’t standard leading-man fare — among his various tats he has his sons’ initials tattooed on his wrist — but the Tony Award folks don’t mind, nominating him for best actor in a musical. “I’ve never really thought about awards,” he says. “As a kid daydreaming about doing this, I dreamt about the roles, about acting.”
As an adult, he continues to daydream, this time of non-singing theater roles, and parts in TV or film. But he’s still not picturing that big Oscar- or Emmy-winning moment.
This story goes to press, alas, before the Tony Awards ceremony itself, being held at Radio City Music Hall on June 8. So whether Karimloo takes home a trophy or not is still a mystery.
Win or lose, he says, “it’s a fantastic bonus to have this recognition. Had someone said that I’d be up for a Tony back in Toronto, I would’ve most likely said, ‘Yeah right — thank you for your faith in me... but you’re crazy.’”
Then again, he would’ve said the same thing about dead-lifting 405 pounds. Never say never — right, Mr. Karimloo?