Ramin Karimloo has built a trans-Atlantic career for himself by reimagining the heroes of blockbuster musicals like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Misérables,” the latter of which nabbed him a Tony Award nomination.
But when the actor was tapped to play the dashing Julius Wilford “Nicky” Arnstein in Broadway’s first-ever revival of “Funny Girl,” he approached the project with little knowledge of its rich, and at times tangled, history.
“I didn’t know the story when I took the part, so I was very fresh coming into it,” said Karimloo, who lives in London with his wife, Mandy, and two teenage sons. “The idea of coming back to New York wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do. But as I started reading it, I was like, ‘This is going to be a great part.’ There was a lot of meat on the bones that I could get into.”
“Funny Girl,” which is directed by Michael Mayer and opened at New York’s August Wilson Theatre last month, stars Beanie Feldstein as real-life “Ziegfeld Follies” comedian Fanny Brice. The musical charts Brice’s rise to fame in the years shortly before World War I, as well as her tempestuous romance with Arnstein, a feckless gambler.
Feldstein faces the unenviable task of stepping into a role etched into the public’s memory by Barbra Streisand, who played Brice in the original stage production of “Funny Girl” in 1964 and won an Oscar for the movie adaptation four years later.
Thanks to Harvey Fierstein’s revisions to Isobel Lennart’s original book for the show, Karimloo is less restrained by the prior stage and screen incarnations of his role. The actor leans into the character’s sex appeal and, at a recent performance, drew whistles from the audience when he bared his chiseled torso at the start of the show’s second act. His Nicky gains two new solo numbers and is both a suave playboy and a tormented figure.
“In the end, Fanny and Nicky are not a great match,” he said. “But what Nicky sees in Fanny rocks his world and his perspective. He creates a facade for the world around him and has companions at the drop of a hat, but he’s not fulfilled. He wants something to protect, something deep. He’s genuinely in love.”
Born in Iran and raised in Canada, Karimloo caught the acting bug at age 12, when he was taken to see a production of “Phantom of the Opera” in Toronto. Though he’d already admired stars like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, seeing “Phantom” was “the first time I ever felt a lump in my throat,” he said.
Over the years, Karimloo returned to the theater to catch “Phantom of the Opera” a total of 25 times. At 16, he made a bet with a friend that he’d become the youngest actor to play the title role.
“In my mind, I was already daydreaming about that character, already developing how I would play him,” he recalled. “What if he was younger? How did he get like that? I had no skills, but I had a dream.” Luckily for Karimloo, he possessed a smooth and powerful baritone voice, honed by years of performing in cover bands and in Ontario bars. In 2007, his teen dream was fulfilled when he was cast as the Phantom in London when he was just 28, about 16 years younger than actor Michael Crawford when he originated the role.
Karimloo went onto play the Phantom again in the short-lived musical sequel “Love Never Dies,” and still carries his association with that character proudly. In 2019, he joined Streisand onstage at a concert in London’s Hyde Park to perform the “Phantom of the Opera” showstopper “Music of the Night” as a duet.
And later this month, he’ll release a new EP, “The Road to Find Out: North.” The collection embraces a sound he describes as “Broadgrass,” or a mix of Broadway and bluegrass, and features a new rendition of “Music of the Night” along with a cover of the Replacements’ “Androgynous.”
Looking ahead, Karimloo said he’s eager to pursue more television and film work in addition to maintaining a presence on Broadway. In England, he starred in the BBC One series “Holby City,” and though he’s yet to be offered a similar opportunity in the U.S., he has recently completed work on the musical film “Tomorrow Morning.”
“I was a daydreamer ― I still am, more than ever,” he said. “You can make plans, and then life will just go: ‘You’re doing this.’ All I can do is absorb, keep growing as an artist. Look at Sam Rockwell and the diversity he tackles. He’s a chameleon. If I could do a percentage of what he does, that would be amazing.”
As for “Funny Girl,” Karimloo believes Brice’s “trailblazing” story, as well as her ill-fated relationship with Arnstein, will speak to a 2022 audience the same way it did some 58 years ago. Feldstein, he said, is “a gift of a scene partner” and “the quickest and most seamless partnership that I’ve had.”
“Fanny Brice didn’t wait for anything. She was like: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So I think there’s a lot people from all walks of life, in all shapes and sizes, can take away from her story,” he explained.
“And people love complicated relationships. They like those highs and lows. Love burns more than anything, but why do we do it? Because it feels good when you’re in it and it’s worth the risk.”