BWW Interview: Ramin Karimloo on His Toronto Homecoming in LES MISERABLES in Fall of 2013
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by Kelly Cameron
Ramin Karimloo was first bitten by the theatre bug upon seeing Colm Wilkinson in the original production of The Phantom of the Opera in Toronto in the late 80s. Since then he has gone on to play the title role in both The Phantom and Love Never Dies in London's West End, and now will come home to Toronto for the first time in the Mirvish Production of LES MISERABLES which was just announced for their 2013-2014 season. BWW spoke with Ramin about how he feels about coming home, the pressures of the role of Jean Valjean, Sheytoons, the Academy Awards, his musical influences and more:
This will be your first time performing in a theatrical production in Toronto - are you excited to be returning 'home'?
I'm very excited to be a part of re-launching Les Miserables in Toronto. Toronto was a huge inspiration to me. I was introduced to theatre there and the roles I fell in love with and went on to play. 'Home' is a funny word for me these days because I'm traveling so much that I'm still figuring out what 'home' means. Some say it's where your heart is but for me, it's where my kids are. Sadly they won' be touring with me full-time on this trip but I will make sure they can get over to Toronto as much as possible. I want to show them my old stomping ground where it all began in Peterborough. Lace up the skates and get them out on the canal like their Dad did back in the day!
We've heard about how your love of the theatre was sparked after seeing the original Toronto production of The Phantom of the Opera - how does it feel to return to where it all started and take to the stage in this city?
I think I'm coming home with the perfect role. I had a blast in my stint as Jean Valjean in London's West End for four months. I definitely left wanting to explore the role more. I'm grateful to have been so busy since I left Les Miserables that I feel I've gained even more experience. Also, since this is the 'new' 25th Anniversary Production I'm looking forward to taking the show step by step with the new cast and seeing what we can create. The process/rehearsals are always so much fun when you come in with an empty page.
You've spent a lot of time working on Les Miserables in the West End - why do you think the show has endured and how do you see a Toronto audience responding to the new production?
I see the Toronto audience responding like most of the world has, with open arms and hearts and tear stained faces. The story continually picks you up and puts you down at will, and the music sings through tears. I love how it leaves you devastated but still can instill such a sense of hope. It takes you on an emotional rollercoaster yet leaves you invigorated after the two and a half hour journey. There are so many well written characters for everyone in the audience to relate to that I think all those who see it can connect with the story and empathize with the material.
You're one of the youngest actors to tackle the role of Jean Valjean - how did you prepare for the journey?
I prepared the same way I would any other role. I researched and used the rehearsals to play and understand the character. With Les Miserables you can and should start with Victor Hugo's novel. It's there for the taking. Thankfully it wasn't that long ago that I first read it and since I knew there was talk of me reprising the role I've saved that work and I can take what I need when I need it. Many parts of the novel jumped out at me as a conduit between myself and Jean Valjean and I've covered those parts with highlighter. I'll re-read them and let my imagination loose to see what happens.
As for the age, I try not to let that be too much of a concern. If I just focus on Valjean's story and where he is at in the moment and find his truth, then everything else tends to fall into place. If I try to 'play' old it can become a caricature. What's important is the journey of this man's heart, conscious, conviction, faith and all the struggles within that journey. Of course make-up helps as well since my character spans over forty years. With that said, technically at some point everyone is 'too young'.
The role is especially vocally demanding, and since the film we've heard a lot of talk about how Bring Him Home is one of the toughest songs in the musical theatre canon. How do you protect and preserve your voice when performing it night after night? Have you ever found it to be a particular struggle?
To be honest I don't find Bring Him Home necessarily that difficult of a song. It's a beautiful prayer and I don't feel that it's a struggle because I love that moment in the show. It's quite intimate. Then again, I'm not listening for vocal discrepancies. I don't think about the 'sing' that Valjean demands of an actor. Instead I try and focus on the story that I'm telling.
In a way, modern shows ask more from than voice than it is built for. Six to eight shows a week is a lot to ask of the vocal chords, but they are also more resilient than we give them credit for. On long runs a voice will never be one hundred percent every night, but it's not about that. As for preserving, every actor is different. For me I find that good diet, exercise and a decent amount of rest is essential. And eliminating stress trumps everything.
The Les Miserables journey has taken you many places and is now taking you to the Academy Awards - what has been the highlight for you so far?
The highlight will probably still be the 25th Anniversary Concert at the O2. It was the most fun I've ever had and was amazing to work with so many friends. All of us who were there were fans of the show and came together to celebrate a brilliant occasion and take a part in the show's history. To be asked to perform as Enjolras was a real honour. To sing live in an arena was such a rush and then when it streamed live around the world it was so powerful. It felt like everything was watching together and in that moment we were all doing something for the same reason - to celebrate a show we love.
You perform a lot of solo material as well as record music with your band Sheytoons, what is the biggest difference between being in a production like Les Miserables and doing your own music? How do you approach it differently as a performer?
I'm not really sure. When writing music you are telling a story. The tough part initially is coming to terms with the fact that the character in that story is me. Sharing things like that are not easy and putting it in front of people is quite daunting. That said, I've had a lot of fun and the tours have been going really well. I love the range of places I've been able to play, from the Royal Festival Hall to Little Lake in Peterborough, to BB Kin's in New York and the Pleasant Grove Performing High School in Texerkana. So eclectic. I wouldn't trade one for the other and all have had experiences I will never forget. But it all comes down to the same thing, whether as a character on stage or learning about myself in my songs, I always strive to find the truth and hope it lands.
Since you will be in Toronto for an extended period of time, is there a chance Torontonians will get to see some of your solo and Sheytoon material?
I sure hope so! The problem is the vocal demands of the role of Valjean which we discussed previously. As long as I stay healthy it should be fine, but I'm not sure I should empty the tank by putting on folk shows on the side. Maybe when my run as Valjean is over I'll book some venues and put on my new style of concerts which has adopted the music style called 'Broadgrass'. That name originated from the title of some of my concerts - Broadway to Bluegrass. It sounds as crazy as it is but it's so much fun. Nothing like kissing theatre songs with folk and bluegrass and then whispering some theatre into traditional folk music. It is wonderful to find a way to combine all that I've grown up with.
Were you aware of the social media 'campaign' which was circulating called #BringRaminHome? It was local fans who wanted to see you as Valjean. Do you think that social media has become an invaluable tool for marketing or more of a necessary evil?
That's funny and quite nice but I didn't know about it to be honest. I'm on twitter but a reluctant user most of the time. It can be evil if you allow it to be. I certainly don't think an artist has an obligation to be on twitter. People should like your work for what they see - so for that reason I try not to follow a lot of the actors that I respect and look up to. I'm not even sure if they are on social media. I figure, the less I know about them the better because I want to see and enjoy their films and the characters that they play. It's their talent that I'm interested in.
With that said I don't use twitter to tweet much more than showing my supporters my gratitude and as a way to keep those interested updated on tour or work info. And of course now I can use it to tell them about Les Miserables! Other than that, I try not to give much away on twitter. I like to keep things positive - life is hard enough and there are already enough critics out there! *laughs*
What role would be on your musical theatre bucket list? Is there one character you would like to tackle at some point in your career above all else?
I'd love to play 'Guido' in Nine in a couple of years and 'Guy' in Once would be a lot of fun and a big challenge. Other than that, as much as I look for new work because creating is fun, I just want to do roles that I know I will have fun doing. I don't try and strategize too much because I figure that if I'm having fun then I will probably do my best work - and that is a good place to be.
Who would you say have been your biggest musical influences?
The Tragically Hip without a doubt, The Avett Brothers, Johnny Cash, Mumford and Sons and I'm a big fan of Alison Krauss and Union Station. Colm Wilkinson was a big influence too. The most soulful and unique voice in musical theatre and he is a true gentleman who after meeting him and befriending him has not burst the bubble of being a role model for me. Just like when I met the Tragically Hip. It's nice to still remain a fan after all these years and have the perception and mystique stay the same.
Finally, what are most looking forward to about being back in Toronto?
Being able to readily see my friends and folks. It's been a while since I could just sit down whenever I can to have lunch with my Dad or Mom. Hopefully reconnect with my ol' high school pals like Scott McGillivray and play some shinny with my Brother, Constable Karimloo. Maybe finally teach him how to ride a Harley so he can join me on a ride up North or something!
For more information on the Toronto engagement of Les Miserables or to purchase a 2013-2014 subscription please visit www.mirvish.com or call 416-593-4225.