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Art and graft: Ramin Karimloo

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Despite a troubled first year marked by negative reviews and rewrites, Ramin Karimloo has decided to stay on in the lead role as the Phantom in Love Never Dies. He tells Jonathan Watson why he wants to see the job through, despite other members of the cast choosing to leave the production

It’s 5.30pm on the Strand in London, mid-March. Up and down the road, herds of elderly matinee-goers are filing out of theatres and on to coaches. By the stage door at the back of the Adelphi, chorus members guzzle coffee in the sunshine. Inside the theatre, the newest incarnation of Love Never Dies’ Christine, Celia Graham, is signing the out sheet before strolling up to Covent Garden Market.

Upstairs, Ramin Karimloo strikes a different figure. He’s sitting down to an unhappy- looking jacket potato with tuna. He’ll be stuck indoors for the next two hours and will be hiding the ostentatiously vulgar stage make-up of the Phantom from tourists until taking to the boards for the evening’s performance.

Morphing into the iconic protagonist – the protruding sinews on his cheekbone, the bulbous skin, exposed eye socket, swollen lips and ravaged right ear – is a gruelling exercise. In the morning he was strapped into the make-up artist’s chair for an hour. The silicone prosthetics were cemented to his face using an adhesive more commonly used to glue medical prostheses to patients’ skin in hospitals.

He says the make-up takes half an hour to take off after every show, and it looks restricting: “My ear’s glued to my head and I have a fake ear on top, so it cuts the natural acoustics. If they glue it half a centimetre off, you can’t hear how you’d like to. With this make-up on my face, it’s like a sound barrier. Then you add a mask.”

Transformation is the topic of the conversation. The cast of Love Never Dies has just seen a major overhaul, with many of the main players – including Joseph Millson as Raoul, and Sierra Boggess as Christine – having departed. Yet, while he’s the only lead to stay on and is regularly trapped in his spacious Georgian dressing room, he’s not morose. He’s visibly upbeat about the show’s new direction.

On the first night of the cast change, March 7, Graham as Christine captured the dewy-eyed beauty with pitch perfection, the repartee with David Thaxton’s Raoul during Devil Take the Hindmost was wickedly funny, and Karimloo delivered the kind of professional stature he’s careful to remind me he expects of himself: “Maybe now I can have six months of really playing it and really enjoying it, without the bullshit I’ve gone through to get here.”

The show has finally come to some semblance of continuity after a well-documented year of rewrites, scathing reviews and the wrath of near-puritanical Phantom of the Opera fans.

“The original ensemble had been rehearsing for 11 months, so of course they were tired. It was time for them to have a break,” he says. “This cast is reaping the benefits of all the paving that was laid in that first year and those hardships.

“I saw the negativity as obstacles and as inspiration. The good side is that I feel I’ve played two or three different Phantoms of this incarnation in one year. Now I’ve got the fourth one that I feel I’m living the most. I’m most inspired now.”

For musical-lovers used to Michael Crawford’s Phantom, Karimloo marks a departure. He’s handsome, but deep-set and troubling, like Brando in On the Waterfront. He’s intense as he roams around on stage and his presence is physical, menacing even. Backstage, he spends time perusing the minutiae of every performance with a tattered list of thousands of adjectives – to stay focused on the role and what he’s achieving. He also stares at you when he talks – all the more unnerving when he’s wearing that make-up.

Born in revolutionary Iran and relocating to Canada after a stint in Italy, his does not read like a typical West End lead’s biography. After Crawford’s compelling mix of grace and originality in the first ever production, after the endurance of record-breaking performer Howard McGillin, Karimloo has followed a different path. He fell in love with the Phantom as a child, but never went to stage school to pursue the role. Then, off the cuff, he served a makeshift tutelage working as a singer on a cruise ship, moving on to bit parts in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in the shadow of Benedict Cumberbatch, before securing major roles in Les Miserables, then Phantom, then Love Never Dies.

But despite the constant love affair – a proven affiliation with the character since childhood, starring as the lead in both productions – he says rejecting connotations of a forced singing style in musical theatre has always been paramount: “One thing I was very picky about from the start was the sound of the voice. I hate people singing by numbers, when it’s just complete technique. It should run in the background – I want to hear heart and soul, not effortless stuff.”

That reference to the overdone technique is pointed. Apparently he’s one of the riskiest singers the show’s music director David Charles Abell has ever known. Why? In modern performances, Karimloo explains in a soft, but focused, urgent manner, basic training is no longer enough. There needs to be a soulful, genuine connection to every role. Actors should follow the lead of Daniel Day-Lewis or Robert De Niro – obsessed with method and the craft of every detail. Singers should follow the lead of Joe Cocker’s Many Rivers to Cross or Judi Dench’s Send in the Clowns – imperfect, off-key or gruff, but stiflingly emotional. And heaping praise on his new acting coach Dee Cannon, he senses he might be getting there: “Technique and training are vital, but then you have to have the wherewithal to put all that in the background and run itself so you can put your passion on it.

“People are scared to just live it and take the risk. I worry so much about that. If my voice hurts, I go out there and do whatever it takes to live that lyric.”

But that connectivity might be hard to achieve in a genre that depends on an element of box-ticking night after night, a servant to audience’s expectations of a character, especially when it’s all part of the development of the world-famous Phantom. Is it hard to keep meeting the mark when opinion is so regularly split or when diehards think he’s taking it the wrong way?

“I’m here to fill a role, serve a show, and that’s all I set out to do as a kid. I set out to be an actor, I didn’t dream of people writing blogs about me, or getting reviewed,” he says with a surge of defiance lifting in his voice. “I’m here to serve the director and producers as truthfully and as creatively as I can. If you try and appease everyone, you’re just setting yourself up for failure because everyone has an interpretation – what are you going to do? You’ll be schizo by the end of the show.”

As a relatively reclusive man who has avoided the glare of the tabloid press, Karimloo has no blots on his copybook to hold him back from future projects. He’ll finish his run in Love Never Dies in September, then play the masked man for the 25th anniversary of the Phantom of the Opera in October, but that will be the end of the relationship, and he will move on.

“This character, because of my physicality for it, just beats me up,” he says. “I want to keep evolving my craft. It’s time to move on from this character and that concert is going to be my last Phantom.

“I need time to get geared up for other things. My rule is no more eight shows a week or year-long contracts because I want to live a life as well. I don’t want to wake up every morning feeling like a truck hit me.”

And the next step? He only hints that a musical about a megastar is in the offing for the start of next year and he’ll play the lead, before waving the idea away as he returns to his cold potato: “I made a list of criteria – is the character real and is there craft – and this project has come up and checked all those boxes. If this happens, it will be the most challenging thing yet.”

Love Never Dies is at the Adelphi, London, booking until January 14, 2012

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