That first step on stage

Ramin Karimloo on his journey to Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand, and the actors he admires

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ziegfeld Girls (Leslie Flesner and Afra Hines) warn Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) about Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo)
Ziegfeld Girls (Leslie Flesner and Afra Hines) warn Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) about Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo) Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

Not only is Ramin Karimloo co-starring with Beanie Feldstein, Jared Grimes (Tony nominated for his Eddie Ryan), and Jane Lynch in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl, directed by Michael Mayer, with revisions by Harvey Fierstein, he has two movies coming out. Starring opposite Samantha Barks in Nick Winston’s Tomorrow Morning, screenplay by Laurence Mark Wythe and in Isaac Hirotsu Woofter’s Bound.

Ramin Karimloo with Anne-Katrin Titze: “When Michael offered me Nicky Arnstein in 2019, I had just finished singing with Barbra Streisand in London in Hyde Park.”
Ramin Karimloo with Anne-Katrin Titze: “When Michael offered me Nicky Arnstein in 2019, I had just finished singing with Barbra Streisand in London in Hyde Park.”

Ramin told me that Marlon Brando’s performance with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Antonio Banderas in Arne Glimcher’s The Mambo Kings, and Kathy Bates in anything mean a great deal to him. He makes a Nicky Arnstein connection to Martin Scorsese’s Casino and Goodfellas. Ramin had not seen William Wyler’s Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif, before performing in London with Barbra in 2019. He received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Jean Valjean in the Broadway revival of Les Misérables, has a clothing line called 8X, and would love to play a villain in one of the Marvel films, possibly Spider-Man or Iron Man. Ramin could be called a modern day Renaissance man.

Ramin Karimloo plays Nicky Arnstein, professional gambler, backstage heartthrob of 1924, and husband of Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) in this very first Broadway revival of Funny Girl. In this production the transatlantic casinos stay in the background, but we more than ever get an idea what kind of man would find himself in his position.

“To tell the truth, it hurt my pride, the groom was prettier than the bride,” sings Beanie’s Fanny as she falls for his looks, charm, and here also the goodness hidden underneath slickness and all that societal macho behaviour demands. Ramin adds a fine melancholy to the swashbuckling surface, a truthfulness and vulnerability to the comedy that might be frightening to some who are eager to dismiss anything that doesn’t fulfil preconceived expectations.

From New York last week (while in self-quarantine due to a positive COVID test), Ramin Karimloo joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on the remarkable journey he took that led him to being cast in Funny Girl.

Ramin Karimloo on Nicky Arnstein: “He sees authentic community, authentic family! Authenticity that he doesn’t have, that you can’t buy.”
Ramin Karimloo on Nicky Arnstein: “He sees authentic community, authentic family! Authenticity that he doesn’t have, that you can’t buy.” Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, how are you? How is COVID treating you?

Ramin Karimloo: Hi! It’s totally fine; there’s no nothing.

AKT: That’s good to hear. When are you coming back to Funny Girl?

RK: Hopefully Saturday.

AKT: When I spoke with Michael [Mayer, the director] he told me that he offered Nicky Arnstein to you when you had no idea who Nicky Arnstein was. You hadn’t seen the film and had absolutely no clue about any of it.

RK: That’s right. With my upbringing, in a weird way I almost shouldn’t be in musical theater. I still haven’t seen The Wizard Of Oz, Sound Of Music, those sort of movies. It’s just crazy to be in this industry, my interests were in other genres. The weird thing was when Michael offered me Nicky Arnstein in 2019, I had just finished singing with Barbra Streisand in London in Hyde Park.

I remember we duetted together and she was talking about and showing me pictures with Omar Sharif - that was part of the concert. That was Funny Girl - so I was, alright, I should watch that film! Everyone talks about it, it’s a classic. Obviously we know the legend that is Barbra Streisand. Then two, three weeks later this offer comes in, which I found pretty amazing. But I knew nothing of it.

Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein and Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in William Wyler’s Funny Girl
Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein and Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in William Wyler’s Funny Girl

AKT: That’s when you’re doing the right thing. Somehow the universe is giving you those hints. What did you think of the movie when you first watched it?

RK: We probably watched it a few months later - no, it was a lot later when COVID really hit and shut everything down and we had so much time. When COVID hit, I stopped thinking about Funny Girl because I thought it wouldn’t be happening anymore. Then during COVID there were a couple of times when we thought the show would happen and it got delayed. The first time I was watching the movie, I thought it was incredible! It made me realize that they don’t make films like that anymore.

AKT: There’s a glamour, a kind of over-the-top-ness in these films that is very grand, simply the colors. I did like very much what happened to the characters in the production now. There is a different kind of depth you bring to this character. He is becoming quite vulnerable.

RK: Yeah, I remember a lot of people, even now, people write about the character and they are like he’s sneaky or snaky and this and that. And I’m like, the real Nicky Arnstein, yeah, but we’re not playing that. People need to stop putting in stories that they think they know. That’s not what the audience is seeing.

Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo) woos Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein)
Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo) woos Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

The Nicky Arnstein in this version is actually a good man, as far as I’m concerned. We’re all flawed. If people want to write about our flaws, especially in this “cancel culture world,’ okay. But we also have to be humanity that has grace, passion, patience, forgiveness. And I think Nicky Arnstein was doing the best he could with what he knew, you know?

AKT: Absolutely. And so does Fanny in this production. I invited my friend Gay Talese, who turned 90 this year, to be my plus-one for the press preview and he loved it too. Funny Girl here is the story of two people who try their best and it doesn’t work out. People who need people, to be really on the nose, is what we are dealing with here. I think many critics missed that or didn’t want to see it.

RK: I wouldn’t know about what the critics think, but all I know is what’s important is every night you see that reaction. I still sometimes think, really? Wow! Whether it’s nostalgia, or someone like yourself who comes with a history of the film and the story and comes to see it and hopefully gain more insight into the relationship.

Relationships are complicated in the best of times and sometimes relationships are seasonal. That’s what’s heartbreaking, they left loving each other; there was no love lost. It’s quite mature; for me the ending was heartbreaking because it would be easy if they hated each other.

Ramin Karimloo on Marlon Brando with Al Pacino in The Godfather: “The things I heard he would do, like putting a little bit of wax in his ears, which made him have to listen harder?”
Ramin Karimloo on Marlon Brando with Al Pacino in The Godfather: “The things I heard he would do, like putting a little bit of wax in his ears, which made him have to listen harder?”

AKT: They don’t because both realize that they helped each other so much on the way to finding themselves, finding their self-esteem. I liked the moments with you, Nicky Arnstein, on the sidelines, simply looking, as in oh, she has a family! We have no idea about his family, there is nothing there as far as the audience is concerned. And then the only way he can really bond is by gambling with Fanny’s mother’s girlfriends. It’s great. This is who he is!

RK: That’s amazing that you picked that up because it’s not in the story and doesn’t get expanded on. But I remember thinking when I’m in Henry Street for the first time, you could stand there like a guest and do nothing, or, what is it that Nicky wants to stay more for? He sees authentic community, authentic family! Authenticity that he doesn’t have, that you can’t buy. It’s so great, I’m so glad you picked that up. It’s such a small thing that only I can think about. At least it’s something for me to play, but I didn’t even know if it’s going to translate. But you picked it up, it’s great.

AKT: It did translate from the stage. I picked that up, and you actually threw some of the money in my lap!

RK: The amount of rehearsing we had to do for that! They were like - can you throw it farther? I’m like, I’m not a Yankees’ pitcher! Plus it’s paper! Come this summertime when the air conditioning is on, that money is going to go this way and come back!

Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) and the ensemble applaud Tony nominee Jared Grimes’ performance as Eddie Ryan
Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) and the ensemble applaud Tony nominee Jared Grimes’ performance as Eddie Ryan Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

AKT: Another scene that is quite revealing is when Fanny tries to trick Nicky and he knows she does it to help him. It’s beautifully acted.

RK: Oh thank you, that’s such a gift for me to play as well, because after I do “Temporary Arrangement” and they do “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”, I come back, after a few drinks we have the argument, the duet, straight into that scene and then into me singing “Funny Girl” - that’s almost a ten-minute stage time, with two massive scenes, two beautiful songs. You never get that in musical theatre! I’ve never had that before. What a gift!

AKT: How did you work with Michael? What were your discussions like on the character?

RK: It was a slow progress. This was the most rehearsal I had ever done for a show. Every day we would chip away at it. One thing would lead to another and another and then we would take what we liked from before and some things we would leave behind. For me, as artists you get insecure, you think, oh I’m not doing this right or I’m not the right Nicky Arnstein, because you feel you have a flow and you change it. That’s what rehearsals are for, you see what sticks. That’s what I liked.

Ramin Karimloo: “I loved Antonio Banderas back in The Mambo Kings.”
Ramin Karimloo: “I loved Antonio Banderas back in The Mambo Kings.”

As artists you are grinding sometimes, but that’s because we’re both trying to go in the same direction. And what I loved about Michael is this sense of freedom to play. Even my physical comedy wasn’t really part of the show until maybe three shows into preview.

Or that bit on the couch in the hotel scene! I always wanted to do some physical comedy but Michael said “keep it suave!” But the producers said “why don’t you try and be a bit more flustered?” I said “Can I do what I want?” Great! Now that jump has happened, even my wife said “How do you do that?” I don’t know actually.

AKT: That’s the magic of theater when it all comes together somehow. You said earlier that you weren’t interested in films like The Wizard of Oz, which you should actually watch at some point because it deserves the place it has in history. But what films were you actually interested in growing up?

RK: I grew up with the old school studio actors, Brando. Pacino, De Niro, Kathy Bates - I love watching her films. For me it was Goodfellas - ironically, because that fits pretty well with Nicky Arnstein. Casino. I loved Antonio Banderas back in The Mambo Kings [directed by Arne Glimcher].

Ramin Karimloo stars opposite Samantha Barks in Nick Winston’s Tomorrow Morning
Ramin Karimloo stars opposite Samantha Barks in Nick Winston’s Tomorrow Morning

AKT: What’s you favourite Brando performance?

RK: It’s hard to choose.

AKT: The Godfather?

RK: I have to go with The Godfather, come on! The things I heard he would do, like putting a little bit of wax in his ears, which made him have to listen harder? Little tricks like that. The music, the film, young Pacino, then he brings in De Niro, come on!

AKT: Your background is international, your family fled Iran, then moved to Italy, yes?

RK: Yes, outside of Rome. I was only months old when we escaped and then I was there for about two or three years before we took refuge in Canada.

AKT: Do you have remembrances? Refugees are so much on everybody’s mind at the moment. We see images of Ukraine and the fleeing children. Do you see yourself in a way in them?

RK: Absolutely. And it makes me angry. I don’t think politics looks after us. It’s horrific seeing what’s happening in Ukraine, because that’s not even a war, that’s a genocide. Then Afghanistan still has a lot of help needed. That was when, five months ago? And nobody’s talking about that. It’s heartbreaking to see that. I’m not a political man, never talk politics as I don’t believe any of them. All I want is I try and make sure that my boys are good men in this world. Lead with kindness.

AKT: How old are your boys?

RK: Jaiden is almost 18 and Hadley is almost 15 this year.

AKT: Big boys!

Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theatre before the preview
Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theatre before the preview Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RK: Yeah, that’s why I get worried to be away now because it’s been such a weird time. They lost two good years of their formative lives, especially Jaiden. Because Hadley was just at the right age, where he’s been out playing, playing games, but from 15 and a half to 17 and a half you should be out making mistakes, not stuck in a house or within your garden or neighbourhood. You should be out doing things and learning from mistakes.

AKT: Do they have any links to Iranian culture, do you cultivate that? Are you familiar with the work of Shirin Neshat, the artist?

RK: No.

AKT: She has a film in Tribeca called Land Of Dreams which is very interesting. Do you feel you transmit the culture of your parents to your sons?

RK: I think that’s innately passed down to my boys. But they’re British boys ultimately. We don’t get back to Canada as much as I wanted to, especially the past three years have been very difficult to do that. It’s funny with Iranian culture, it’s something that I’m more in a rediscovery with and I’m finding I’m more connected to Iranian artists now. Like going to see the play English [by Sanaz Toossi] here a few months ago was an incredible experience for me.

I found myself overemotional at times. Thankfully we had to wear masks so I could hide because I was like: I don’t understand what I’m feeling right now! It’s important. I don’t know, it’s something I had never really thought about because I’ve always been Iranian and now everyone wants to talk about it.

Ramin Karimloo’s leisurewear line 8X can be found in his Playbill bio
Ramin Karimloo’s leisurewear line 8X can be found in his Playbill bio Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And I’m like why didn’t you want to talk about it then? I was Iranian doing Phantom, or when I was Valjean. Now it’s become hip to talk about it. It’s great to see so many Iranians in this industry, especially in New York. But it really hit me when I did Rumi: The Musical, working with a Middle-Eastern cast.

AKT: Thankfully we are culturally at a point where people have more interest in a diversity of backgrounds. On a personal level, I think this reconnection to family, or traditions, comes in waves in life. I just found out two days ago that I have an ancestor named John Barth, who founded a bank and a county in Western Missouri in the 19th century. I had no idea.

RK: Wow.

AKT: Are there any parts to play that you dream about?

RK: As artists, you’re always looking for the new thing, you always want to create. As a father, I told my boy, “Okay, I’m going to get into Marvel films for you, I promise!” Because my youngest loves Marvel films, so, okay, I got to do it for you son. Even if I’m a baddie. They need an Iranian superhero or an Iranian villain! I got to do it, just for my boy.

AKT: Any particular favourites?

RK: I don’t know, he loves his Spider-Man and Iron Man. So maybe I could be their enemy, you know.

AKT: It’s coming! With the help of Nicky Arnstein. By the way, I looked him up and found that he was born in 1879, German born Julius Wilford Arndstein. There is already a good combination of villain and hero and vulnerability.

RK: Yeah, my villain could be like a chameleon.

Anne-Katrin Titze's Funny Girl press ticket
Anne-Katrin Titze's Funny Girl press ticket Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Chameleon-Man, definitely. I saw the article in The New York Times about stage superstitions [Break A Leg But Never Whistle: How Stage Superstitions Live On]. You went far away from the supernatural and into dental floss and purity!

RK: I think I might have misread what they were really looking for. But I don’t have routines like that because I like change. My whole life I’ve lived like a nomad. I went to England, I made a bet that I was going to become the Phantom, that’s the only reason I went. I’ve never trained a day in my life, I barely finished high school. I don’t even know if I did.

My whole life I’ve been bouncing here and there. It’s thankfully been working, why would I try and stick to a routine now? Even Beanie is sometimes like “Aren’t you going to get ready?” And I’m like “I am ready!” All I need to prepare is that first step on stage. The rest, let’s see what happens! She’s like “You don’t even warm up your voice!” I’m like “It’s Nicky Arnstein, he doesn’t have to sound pretty!”

AKT: It’s not about perfection. Perfection is boring.

RK: Perfection is boring!

AKT: Imperfection is often much more appealing. Hence people who need people … To round this out, you have some films coming up?

Ramin Karimloo on Anne-Katrin Titze with Nicky Arnstein's money: "The amount of rehearsing we had to do for that! They were like - can you throw it farther? I’m like, I’m not a Yankees’ pitcher!"
Ramin Karimloo on Anne-Katrin Titze with Nicky Arnstein's money: "The amount of rehearsing we had to do for that! They were like - can you throw it farther? I’m like, I’m not a Yankees’ pitcher!"

RK: We did a film called Bound [directed by Isaac Hirotsu Woofter], that I shot in New York and New Jersey. And a musical film called Tomorrow Morning [directed by Nick Winston, screenplay Laurence Mark Wythe] that I shot with Sam Barks, that was so much fun to shoot. So was Bound, two great different experiences.

AKT: I wish you a wonderful return to the stage and to Nicky Arnstein! You also have a clothing line?

RK: Oh yeah, 8X it’s called. It’s all word of mouth right now. New products are coming out soon. It’s something I have fun doing. 8X - the story of what that means is on the website.

AKT: Referring to eight performances a week?

RK: Eight shows a week, yes. And I’ve learned, it’s actually a powerful number in my numerology. I just spoke to someone, I’m open to anything, so I said yeah, you can talk to me about it. And my master number is 44. But she goes “you run your life through the number eight, because four plus four.” I was like hm, maybe she googled me, but I’ll take it [the name of Ramin’s leisurewear line can also be found in his Playbill bio].

AKT: It’s funny, just recently I saw in a movie a character who made up that the number 44 is the luckiest number of them all.

RK: That’s my master number! Hopefully I’ll do good things with it. So nice talking to you!

Ramin Karimloo returned to the Broadway stage as Nicky Arnstein on Saturday, May 7, after a ten day absence due to the COVID protocol in place for theatrical productions.

Funny Girl opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Sunday, April 24.

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