Ramin Karimloo is without a doubt the best male singer on Broadway.
The 38-year-old actor has an incomparable talent that has made anything he does the “must-see” musical event of whatever season it falls in. After attending a production of The Phantom of the Opera when he was 12, Karimloo discovered his passion for musical theater. In 2007, his journey came full circle when he played The Phantom in the iconic show’s West End production. He then went on to be hand-picked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to originate the role of The Phantom in Love Never Dies, the composer’s sequel to his original classic.
Amongst his illustrious stage credits, Karimloo is best known for his Tony-nominated starring turn in the 2014 revival of Les Miserables. His unprecedented, gritty, and raw take on his character became instantly unforgettable as he redefined and reinvented who Jean Valjean was.
Now, fresh off his West End run in the U.K. premiere of Murder Ballad, Karimloo has returned to Broadway. Starring as Gleb in Anastasia, the actor is going from playing a hero to a villain. I spoke with him about this latest venture, his solo music, being an Iranian-born actor in the age of Trump, and much more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: You have two children, Hadley and Jaiden. Are they fans of the movie Anastasia? If so, how much “cool cred” did doing this show give you at home?
RAMIN KARIMLOO: To be honest, we didn’t grow up with the film and it’s not something we’ve seen. They’ve seen the show and loved it though. I’m lucky to have already accumulated “cool cred” with them thus far.
Gleb is not a character featured in the movie. Did you find this to be freeing or more of a challenge when bringing him to life for this adaptation?
I guess since I didn’t watch the film it was even more freeing as you say. Thing is, it’s Terrance McNally’s book that I wanted to play in. So I sort of just used my imagination based off what Terrance wrote and then used some historical references that I felt helped me. What I really wanted to do is just find the guy within the uniform and play around with the conflict he has to deal with – father, job and heart.
How do Gleb’s feelings for Anya conflict with his duties as a general for the Bolsheviks?
Whether its feelings specifically for Anya or what Anya represents for him, it serves as a major conflict. Gleb believes in his cause and “a new Russia” but well … he’s progressive … a bit. He’s trying to figure things out. And something he says in the song “Neva Flows” says a lot of how they feel of how things actually went down with the Romanovs: “My Mother said he died of shame.” It wasn’t supposed to have gone down like it did.
One of the central themes of this show is the importance of family. Gleb’s father was one of the Bolsheviks who assassinated the Romanovs. How did who Gleb’s father was shape who he is?
Well his father was in the military of, by nature, a stoic and strong culture. With Gleb following in his father’s military footsteps, he was of course very much shaped by his father and environment.
You also played Gleb in the 2015 workshop of this show. How have both the show and your character evolved from then until now?
When I signed onto the Broadway production, “Still” was written, which I was very pleased about. What we found in the workshop were the stakes that were created by his attraction to Anya. That put many things into question for Gleb and what he stood for – or what he thought he stood for. Like I said, he believes in his cause. But he also believe it’s better for Russia, for the people and for their futures.
In the show’s Playbill is a postcard that reads, “Tell us about your dreams & what you’d like to achieve on your journey below.” Underneath that text is a header that says, “On my journey I will …” followed by a blank space for each audience member to fill in their answer(s). If you were filling out this postcard, what would yours say?
Either “win” or “learn.”
You led the world premiere of Prince of Broadway when it debuted in Japan. Now that it’s coming to Broadway this fall, do you have any future plans to join the cast of that show when your run in Anastasia is over?
After Anastasia, I’m planning to take some much needed time in England with my family. But I had a blast doing Prince of Broadway in Japan. What a great experience! I’m happy to hang onto that memory.
You’ve coined the term “broadgrass” to identify the genre of your solo music. Can you please elaborate a bit about what this means?
Really that term was a throwaway remark I made one day and it stuck. We are at a point now that we just play and perform what we want to perform. It’s amazing the following our concerts have created. It’s a group of friends every time coming along to join in. It was really a development of a live sound that organically found its feet from our love of the theater songs from shows I’m known for to songs I’ve written and of course to covers I love. I love the “grassroots” sound that comes from country, folk and bluegrass. So it was a way to coin a live sound the still incorporated our passion for theater songs. Broadway to bluegrass is broadgrass. We just love to play and sing songs that tell great stories. There’s a wide scope for songs like that.
What can your fans expect from your upcoming solo concerts at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York on July 23 and 24?
I guess I would direct folks to my previous answer. More of that. We did a tour earlier this year and whenever that happens, more songs get added to our set list. So there are songs we’ve never done at BB King’s and this gives us a chance to do them. More theater songs and of course some of the fan favorites!
You’ve collaborated several times with Sierra Boggess on projects ranging from The Phantom of The Opera to Love Never Dies to The Secret Garden. Why do you think you two work so well together and what’s a favorite memory you have from any of these productions together?
I always love working with friends. She’s been a family friend for a long time now. So when you have friends like that, there’s a shorthand that goes with that. A trust. She’s a lot of fun to work with. I really loved doing The Secret Garden with Sierra. That was a big discovery for me and to work on that show and book at the Lincoln Center was a real treat.
As an Iranian-Canadian actor, what are thoughts on the current administration’s attempted ban against Iranian citizens? And how do you think Americans can show the rest of the world that the prejudices of this administration do not reflect the views of this country as a whole?
You know, I have spent 15 minutes writing this answer then deleting. Then writing and deleting again. I’ll just say its fear-mongering bullshit, and I think it’s important to accept everyone, no matter their beliefs or where they come from.
As a seasoned stage actor, do you have a preference when it comes to working on a revival of a classic or working on a new musical? If so, why?
I’m not fussed. Both can be exciting. A great show is a great show. It can be great to revisit a role or revive a hit from before. And it’s so exciting to create something from scratch. But you can approach anything from a blank sheet and have fun with your imagination and create.
For years now, you’ve alternated between performing on the West End and on Broadway. What do you find to be the biggest differences between working in these two iconic theater communities?
They both have their charms. England is home, obviously, but I do like being able to swap back and forth. I’m very grateful that has been happening. There’s a great sense of community for theater over here. There’s so much history in London and a great buzz in the West End as well. Support is great on both sides of the Atlantic.
What’s your musical theater dream role?
I’m not sure! Maybe it hasn’t been written for me yet. But that being said, everything I have done so far has turned out to be a fantastic opportunity and ride. So I don’t really think about what’s a dream role. I wouldn’t want to just pin one. I just want to keep playing.