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Ramin Karimloo rocking the house as Jean Valjean

This image released by The Publicity Office shows Ramin Karimloo during a performance of the musical "Les Miserables." Karinloo is nominated for a Tony Award for best actor in a musical. The Tony Awards will be held on Sunday, June 8. (AP Photo/The Publicity Office, Matthew Murphy)

NEW YORK: When Ramin Karimloo was 16, he made a foolish bet with a friend - foolish, that is, for a teenager in Canada who played ice hockey and had no training in either acting or singing.

"I'm going to be the Phantom in 'Phantom of the Opera,'" Karimloo told his friend, "and I'm going to be the youngest one to do it."

As he walked away, Karimloo says now, he felt ridiculous. But a decade later, he signed a contract to play the Phantom in London's West End - indeed, the youngest to do it.

Now 35, Karimloo is playing another iconic character, again at a young age for the part: Jean Valjean in Broadway's "Les Miserables." Though he's not nearly as famous as another recent Valjean - Hugh Jackman, in the film - he's getting Jackman-worthy cheers each night, especially after the famed falsetto number, "Bring Him Home." And, in his Broadway debut, he's nominated for best actor in a musical at Sunday's Tony Awards. He sat down with The Associated Press last week to reflect on how he got there.

The journey started with a revolution - not in France, as in "Les Miz," but in Iran, where Karimloo was born in September 1978, only a few months before the Shah was forced into exile. His family needed to leave the country quickly for political reasons, and went first to Italy and then Ontario, Canada, where Karimloo was raised. "We had no choice," he says.

Like most small-town Canadian boys, Karimloo favored hockey, but at age 12 he discovered a different passion, while watching a performance of "Phantom" in Toronto, starring a man who would later become a friend: Colm Wilkinson.

"My hair was on end, and it's the first time I remember having a lump in my throat," Karimloo says. "Just to be moved by art like that."

But, he adds: "You're not going to tell an Iranian dad that you want to be an actor. He wanted me to be a doctor, or engineer. I said, come on, look at my grades."

It wasn't until he was about 18 - and working low-end restaurant jobs in Toronto - that he got his first job singing professionally on a stage. And it was a floating one. "I auditioned to perform on a cruise ship," he says. "They hired me first as a dancer, though I'd never danced before." But the main singer's job opened up, and because it didn't involve dancing, Karimloo grabbed it.

Determined to make it in London, he soon moved there, slept in a friend's spare room, and supported himself with a menial job making motors for washroom hand-dryers. He found a voice teacher, who in turn invited a friend to hear him sing - an agent, who promised to get him auditions. Soon he was in an ensemble of "The Pirates of Penzance." An early break came when he went on as an understudy for the Pirate King.

That led to better roles, and ultimately to "Phantom," where he first played the young lover, Raoul. He also played the student revolutionary Enjolras in "Les Miz," and Chris in "Miss Saigon." When the producer of all of these, Cameron Mackintosh, asked him what he wanted to do next, his answer was the Phantom. "I signed that contract when I was 26," Karimloo says with a grin. "I won the bet." (His friend's answer was succinct, admiring and mildly unprintable.)

Karimloo also played the role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom" sequel, "Love Never Dies." But as for Jean Valjean, he had to be cajoled into that one. Mackintosh asked him to do it as a favor: "I've come for my pound of flesh," he said.

"I told him, 'Let me come back in 10 days and sing it,'" he says now. "'If you like what you hear, I'll do it.'" That bought some time. He read Victor Hugo's novel again. And now, as a young father, the part spoke to him like it hadn't before. He even changed his physical appearance to fit his view of Valjean, gaining 20 pounds of muscle. (He can now lift 415 pounds.)

After a run of only four months - Karimloo was also touring with his own music at the time - he wanted more. The chance came when the revival opened in Toronto. But even then, Broadway wasn't in the plans. The fact that a Broadway run came along - and now, a Tony nomination - has reinforced an important lesson for Karimloo, who'd been planning to pursue film and TV work.

"You know, every time I try to say, 'That's what I'm doing next,' life just goes, 'No, you're doing this,'" he says. "So I think the lesson is to enjoy what I'm doing now."

 

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