NEW YORK — The date: July 7, 2019. The scene: London’s Hyde Park, where Barbra Streisand is performing before tens of thousands. Ramin Karimloo, a Broadway and West End actor, has been invited by Streisand to sing a duet with her, a number from the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in which he appeared, “Love Never Dies.”
“ 'When I come out, you turn to me and you go, “Hello, gorgeous!” ' “ Karimloo recalls Streisand telling him. “So I say, ‘Hello, gorgeous!’ Big laugh from the audience, and what I’m thinking is, ‘This must be from one of her films. This must be a famous line.’ But I wonder, ‘What is this from? You’re blowing my mind, but I’m too embarrassed to ask!’ ”
One might assume that a guy who’s played the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera” in London, and Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, would recognize this most sacred greeting from musical-theater history. But no, Karimloo, he of the chiseled, leading-man magnetism and voice out of a heavenly choir, didn’t know that Streisand uttered these words in “Funny Girl,” the 1964 Broadway musical and 1968 movie that made her a star.
Wonder of wonders, irony of ironies! It wouldn’t be too long before Karimloo, Iran-born and Canada-raised, would be offered a lead in “Funny Girl,” in its first Streisand-less incarnation on Broadway in 58 years. He’s the new Nicky Arnstein — as in “Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein, what a beautiful, beautiful name!” — opposite Beanie Feldstein’s Fanny Brice in the revamped version that has its official opening on April 24. Which also happens to be Streisand’s 80th birthday.
Welcoming a visitor on his day off into an apartment he’s staying in that’s so close to “Funny Girl’s” August Wilson Theatre he could probably parachute onto its roof, Karimloo makes no bones about a love of being in musicals that doesn’t extend to encyclopedic knowledge of them. “I still feel so green,” the 43-year-old actor-singer says. “But I like that, because I’m constantly hungry. I don’t let doubt drive me, but I do let it in, so I can keep questioning myself, to either strengthen my conviction about what I’m doing or keep digging.”
That ethos has landed him in what amounts to the highest-profile stage assignment he’s had to dig into yet: the role of the dapper gambler who seduces and weds the comedian-star of the Ziegfeld Follies, she of the humble beginnings, gargantuan drive and aversion to inclement parade weather. The public’s eyes will of course be fixed most intensely on the 28-year-old Feldstein, playing a huge musical-theater part that perhaps no other star has held onto as a crown in quite the unforgettable manner of Streisand, who won an Oscar for the on-screen performance when she was a mere 26.
But Karimloo has his own heavy load, certainly heavier than the Nickys before him; the original Broadway Nicky was Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie, and in the movie, he was played more famously by Omar Sharif. In the current “Funny Girl,” a version of which ran in London in 2015 with a British cast and revised book by Harvey Fierstein, Karimloo has two duets with Feldstein. But also two new solos of his own, including “Temporary Arrangement,” retrieved from among songs cut from the original show by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill.
“One of the things we found working on it in London, was finding a lot of material that was written for Nicky that was never used,” says director Michael Mayer, who staged the 2015 “Funny Girl” at the West End’s Menier Chocolate Factory, and is ushering the show to Broadway with a new creative team (it retains orchestrator Chris Walker). “One of the issues with the show and with the movie possibly even more so, is she’s the only one who sings,” Mayer added. “Act 2 of the Broadway show was basically a Barbra Streisand concert. If you’re telling Fanny Brice’s story, you have to tell Nicky Arnstein’s story, too. Otherwise, he’s just eye candy and he has no agency whatsoever.”
Karimloo was actually signed before Feldstein; Mayer directed him in a well-received concert version of the musical “Chess” in 2018 at the Kennedy Center. “I said right then,” Mayer remembers, “ ‘If “Funny Girl” ever gets to New York, you’re going to be Nicky Arnstein.’ “ Though Feldstein has garnered showbiz momentum — in the Bette Midler revival of “Hello, Dolly!”, movies like “Lady Bird” and last year as Monica Lewinsky in FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” — neither she nor Karimloo probably means all that much at the box office. The show’s biggest name to most theatergoers is comic movie actress and “Glee” alum Jane Lynch, who plays Fanny’s mother.
“He is one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked with,” said Feldstein, who had never been in a room with Karimloo until the first day of rehearsals. “All of our auditions together were over Zoom,” she recounted, in a phone interview. “This is a story of a real marriage. There’s a real trust and connection that we have to build. Then you have to meet him — and any thought or anxiety melts.”
“Honestly,” she added, “It’s the easiest thing in the world to look at Ramin and say ‘gorgeous.’ ”
Karimloo confesses he’s a singer sort of by accident. The roughhousing, hockey-playing middle son in a family of three boys, he was 12 and living in Peterborough, Ontario, when theater seized his imagination. (His father, Kami, a factory manager who had been in the Shah’s imperial guard, and mother, Pari, a volunteer at local charities, fled Iran when he was an infant.) He was taken to “The Phantom of the Opera” in Toronto and, well, kaboom. “What was going through my mind wasn’t I need to sing like the Phantom — I wanted to play the Phantom,” he said. The obsession was such that as a teenager he skipped school to go see “Phantom” again and again. By his high school years, he’d been to it 25 times.
One day in music class, Karimloo was “messing around at the piano” and to impress a classmate, started to sing “Masquerade” from “Phantom.”
“It was for me to show I learned it on piano,” he recalled. “And she goes, ‘Oh, you’ve got a good voice.’ I said, ‘Do I? Okay.’ That’s the only seed that was dropped. It didn’t make me think I was a good singer. It just made me think, keep going toward your goal. I didn’t think I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be the Phantom.”
If you have heard Karimloo’s creamy baritone, you might assume his formative years were filled with arduous study in a conservatory. But his training actually occurred in Ontario bars and a cover band for the Canadian rock group of the 1980s and ’90s, the Tragically Hip. Eventually, he would make his way to the United Kingdom, where he auditioned with a résumé of made-up work experience and an a cappella version of “Anthem,” the song he would sing years later for Mayer, in his Kennedy Center “Chess.”
It not only led to a career, it also led to marriage: The casting person at one of his auditions was his future wife, Mandy, with whom he lives outside London, with their two children. At 26, Karimloo, uncannily, achieved what he’d always fantasized about: assuming the title role in “Phantom” in London. Before his first performance, he sat at his dressing room mirror, trying to take in the moment.
“I remember getting the makeup on and I couldn’t stop laughing because obviously you’re looking at yourself. I’m like, ‘Now what?’ And then I remember all these thoughts are going through my head of, like, you reached it. This is what you set out to do.”
The Phantom, of course, is a fantasy figure; Nicky, who makes his living bluffing others at the poker table, is a character based on a real person, a romantic partner who lives with increasing restlessness in the shadow of a star. Karimloo sees him as faithful, even selfless, in his flawed way, to Fanny. “I think he certainly loves Fanny,” he says. “She’s his true love. She’s everything he doesn’t have in life. His facade is there, but she can be his foundation.”
The actor is asked about how authentically an audience has to feel the connection between Nicky and Fanny. “That is such a great word, authenticity,” Karimloo says. “And I think that’s what Nick finds in Fanny, is an authenticity that he doesn’t have. I love that. That’s what I’m searching for, as well.”
Funny Girl, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Isobel Lennart and Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Mayer. Opens April 24 at August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., New York. funnygirlonbroadway.com.