“Funny Girl” returns to Broadway with a new Nicky Arnstein. His name is Ramin Karimloo.


NEW YORK – The date: July 7, 2019. The scene: London’s Hyde Park, where Barbra Streisand performs in front of tens of thousands. Ramin Karimloo, a Broadway and West End actor, was 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 go out, you turn to me and say, ‘Hello, beautiful!'” Karimloo recalled Streisand telling him. “So I say, ‘Hello, gorgeous!’ Big laughter from the audience, and what I’m thinking is, ‘This must be from one of his movies.’ It must be a famous line. But I’m like, ‘What’s that from? You blow me away. , but I’m too embarrassed to ask you!”

One would assume that a guy who 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 comedy history. But no, Karimloo, he with the chiseled magnetism of the foreground and the voice of a celestial choir, did not know that Streisand said these words in “Funny Girl”, the 1964 Broadway musical and 1968 film that made her a star.

Wonder of wonders, irony of ironies! It wouldn’t be long before Iranian-born, Canadian-raised Karimloo was offered a starring role in “Funny Girl,” in her first non-Streisand 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 which officially opens on April 24. Which also happens to be Streisand’s 80th birthday.

Welcoming a visitor on his day off to an apartment he’s staying in that’s so close to the August Wilson theater from ‘Funny Girl’ he could probably parachute off its roof, Karimloo doesn’t hide his love of being in musicals that do not extend to the encyclopedia knowledge of them. “I still feel so green,” says the 43-year-old actor-singer. “But I like it, because I’m constantly hungry. I don’t let doubt drive me, but I let it in, so I can continue to question myself, either to reinforce my conviction about what I’m doing, or to keep digging.

This philosophy has led him into what amounts to the most publicized stage assignment he has had to dig into to date: the role of the dapper player who seduces and marries the actress-star of the Ziegfeld Follies, her from humble beginnings, gargantuan dynamism and aversion to the bad weather of the show. The public’s eyes will of course be fixed more intently on 28-year-old Feldstein, playing a huge musical theater role that perhaps no other star has kept as his crown, in the unforgettable fashion of Streisand, who won an Oscar for the screen performance when she was only 26 years old.

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 film he was most famously played by Omar Sharif. In the current “Funny Girl”, a version of which aired in London in 2015 with a UK cast and a book edited by Harvey Fierstein, Karimloo has two duets with Feldstein. But also two new solos, including “Temporary Arrangement,” salvaged from songs taken 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 written for Nicky that was never used,” says director Michael Mayer, who directed “Funny Girl in 2015 at the Menier Chocolate Factory in the West End. , and opens the show on Broadway with a new creative team (it retains orchestrator Chris Walker). “One of the problems with the show and maybe even more so with the movie is that she’s the only one who sings,” Mayer added. “Act 2 of the Broadway show was basically a Barbra Streisand concert. If you tell the story of Fanny Brice, you have to tell the story of Nicky Arnstein too. Otherwise, he’s just eye candy and he has no agency.

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 away,” Mayer recalled, “‘If ‘Funny Girl’ ever comes to New York, you’ll be Nicky Arnstein.” Bette Midler’s cover of “Hello, Dolly!”, films like “Lady Bird” and last year as Monica Lewinsky in FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” — neither she nor Karimloo probably mean quite as much to the box office. The biggest name in the show for most theatergoers is comedy film actress and “Glee” alum Jane Lynch, who plays Fanny’s mother.

“He’s one of the people I’ve worked with the most,” said Feldstein, who had never been in a room with Karimloo until the first day of rehearsals. “All of our auditions together were on Zoom,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s a story of a real marriage. There’s a real trust and a connection that we have to build. Then you have to meet him – and any thoughts or anxiety disappear.

“Honestly,” she added, “it’s the easiest thing in the world to look at Ramin and say ‘beautiful’.”

Karimloo admits that he is a singer somewhat by accident. A rough-and-ready kid and hockey player in a family of three boys, he was 12 years old and living in Peterborough, Ontario, when the theater took hold of his imagination. (His father, Kami, a factory manager who had been in the Shah’s Imperial Guard, and his mother, Pari, a local charity volunteer, fled Iran when he was a child.) He has was taken to the “Phantom of the Opera” in Toronto and, well, kaboom. “What was going through my mind wasn’t that I needed to sing like the Phantom – I wanted cheek the Phantom,” he said. The obsession was such that as a teenager he skipped school to go see “Phantom” over and over again. During his high school years, he had been there 25 times.

One day in music class, Karimloo was “having fun playing the piano” and to impress a classmate, started singing “Masquerade” from “Phantom”.

“It was up to me to show that I had learned it on the piano,” he recalls. “And she goes, ‘Oh, you have a good voice.’ I said, ‘Do I? Okay.’ It’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 towards your goal. I didn’t think I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be the Phantom.

If you’ve heard Karimloo’s creamy baritone, you might assume that his formative years were filled with arduous study at a conservatory. But his training actually took place in Ontario bars and a cover band for 1980s and 1990s Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip. Eventually he will travel to the UK, where he will audition with a summary of his 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, but also a marriage: the cast of one of his auditions was his future wife, Mandy, with whom he lives outside of London, along with their two children. At 26, Karimloo, strangely, achieved what he had always dreamed of: taking on the title role in “Phantom” in London. Before his first performance, he sat in front of his dressing room mirror, trying to capture the moment.

“I remember doing my makeup on and I couldn’t stop laughing because obviously you were looking at each other. I’m like, ‘Now what?’ And then I remember all these thoughts going through my head, like, you’ve achieved it. This is what you set out to do.

The Phantom, of course, is a fantastic figure; Nicky, who makes a living by bluffing others at the poker table, is a character based on a real person, a romantic partner who lives with growing restlessness in the shadow of a star. Karimloo sees him as faithful, even disinterested, in his imperfect way, to Fanny. “I think he certainly likes Fanny,” he says. “She is his true love. She’s everything he doesn’t have in life. Its facade is there, but it can be its foundation.

The actor is asked about the authenticity with which an audience must feel the connection between Nicky and Fanny. “It’s such a big word, authenticity,” says Karimloo. “And I think that’s what Nick finds in Fanny, it’s an authenticity that he doesn’t have. I like that. That’s what I’m looking for too.”

funny girl, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, libretto by Isobel Lennart and Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Mayer. Opens April 24 at the August Wilson Theater, 245 W. 52nd St., New York. funnygirlonbroadway.com.

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