Ramin Karimloo, Michael Lee want you to fall in love with theater again

Musical actors Michael K. Lee, left, and Ramin Karimloo, during their duo concert in Korea in 2019. The two artists will hold a three-day concert together from Aug. 27 at the Goyang Aram Nuri Arts Center in Gyeonggi. [LIMAH PRODUCTIONS]

Two internationally celebrated musical stars — Ramin Karimloo and Michael K. Lee — are coming together on one stage for a three-day concert in Korea, a rare event especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The upcoming “2021 Michael Lee & Ramin Karimloo Concert,” which will be held from Aug. 27 at the Goyang Aram Nuri Arts Center in Gyeonggi, will be Lee’s first show in Korea as a producer. It's happening because Lee “creates his own destiny,” said Karimloo.

Lee made both his Broadway debut and his Korean debut with “Miss Saigon," in 1995 and 2006, respectively. Since then he appeared in numerous hit shows, as well as feature as a judge on a number of TV music programs such as “Phantom Singer” and “Musical Star.”

Karimloo, who is mostly active on the West End, is recognized for his role of the Phantom during “The Phantom of the Opera” musical’s 25th anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall. He made his Broadway debut as Jean Valjean in the 2014 revival production of “Les Misérables,” for which he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

In 2019, the two held their first duo concert in Korea. Lee said Karimloo was the first artist he wanted to bring on to stage and also perform together with for his debut show as a producer.

“It would be irresponsible as a producer not to bring such an artist on stage,” said Lee.

The two stars will not be performing a musical together, but rather showcasing an array of songs including numbers popular among musical fans, as well as introducing a few songs that will be unfamiliar to most. They’ll also be singing pop hits by artists well-known by Koreans like Michael Bublé and Celine Dion. Lee described the show as “more than a concert, more than just singing.”

“Our audience members will be coming to see a full production, a full show,” said Lee.

Prior to the concert, the two actors, who were performing the concert version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” together in Japan, sat down for an online interview with local press last week. The following are edited excerpts.

Q. What is the highlight of the upcoming concert?

A. Karimloo:There’s one song that the fans will love to hear. It’s not something that I always sing, but I’m looking forward to doing it. I’m going to sing “Til I Hear You Sing,” from “Love Never Dies.” It’s such a beautiful song and it’s a song that I do adore and love performing. While doing “Jesus Christ Superstar” here [in Japan], I feel my energy is renewed, my voice is renewed and my passion has renewed so what better way to throw all that new-found energy into a passionate song like “Till I Hear You Sing” among all the other songs we have.

Lee: We have a section in our show where we introduce numbers in new musicals that actually a lot of our audience members won’t know. Ramin will be also introducing a new musical called “Rumi,” which has some of the most intoxicating music that I’ve heard in a long time. The musical is actually specifically Middle Eastern and very accessible. Ramin is going to be singing a song called “Lightening.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber has a new musical coming out based on the Cinderella story that is opening on Aug. 25 as well. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we can share a number called “Only You, Lonely You” from that show with Korean audiences. I think it’s one of Andrew’s best new songs.

Can you give us more details about the new musical “Rumi”?

Karimloo: I’ll be playing one of the characters called Shams Tabrizi. It’s a new musical by Dana Al Fardan, who is one of the Middle East’s leading contemporary composers and West End star Nadim Naaman. It’s their second major stage musical after debuting “Broken Wings” (2018) together.

I have to say, it’s probably the best new music I’ve heard probably since “Love Never Dies.” It’s epic. It’s authentic. It’s very passionate. It has this great Middle Eastern feel, but is also accessible to a general audience. I’m going to sing a song called “Lightening” in the upcoming concert. I think even bringing it here just as a concert version first so people can get to know the music will be great. There’s really not a single bad song on the original concept recording album, which was released in June. I never really listen to music theater albums but I keep putting that one back on because the music is stunning. I don’t know how much longer I want to do musicals and I don’t know how much longer I want to sing, but that excites me.

Iranian-Canadian actor Ramin Karimloo [LIMAH PRODUCTIONS]

Is there a specific reason for you Lee, to take on the new role of a producer?

Lee: It’s my 15th anniversary [since debuting] in Korea. It’s been more than 25 years since I started my career in the U.S. So I believe that if you grow up in this industry as an actor, it’s a natural progression. There’s a natural evolution toward wanting to be on the creative side. From an actor to a director, to a creative director to a producer. I’ve jumped directly from an actor to a producer. But the reason for that is because through all these years, I started feeling more emotions and more creative energy outside the boundaries of my part in a show. Then I found that my emotions were going not just within acting but also within the creative aspect, the sound, the set and the costume design. I felt that I wanted to start making things from the top down rather than from the actor’s perspective. And having that creative control, and creating something out of nothing really excited me. And so it just begins with a desire to do more than act and that’s where my heart has been for the past four or five years actually.

What you two have in common is the fact that you are musical actors. Even though you are of different nationalities, having that common denominator of music seems to have made it possible for the two of you to perform together. What power do you think music has?

Karimloo: For me, it was initially a way to escape. It was a way to be entertained and also to entertain. There’s a lot of power in a story to help create dialogue, to create community and to educate. Music is like a magic and what sort of magic it creates is down to who is presenting it and who is receiving it. I think there's a unique reaction per person because everyone comes to the theater for their own reason.

Lee: There’s something very unique when you combine senses together. We attach our music to emotionality and anytime you can attach one of your senses to your emotions, that makes magic. The device we use, the instrument that we are using here is music. But when you connect that music to an emotion, to an experience, which is what we are trying to control by using lights and sound and staging, that’s what the magic of theater is. That's why this concert is so important to me. I don't know where people are right now in the world and where their hearts are but if something that we sing connects them to an experience that they've had that can take them outside of where they are in their immediate space at the moment [...] That's why we do theater and that's why I'm doing this. Seeing what their new experiences are and what new connections happen through something that I love, is a reminder to me of why I do what I do. And as a producer, I’m bringing one of the people who does it the best.

It’s not the first time you two are performing together. What’s it like to work with the other person?

Karimloo: Michael is one of the hardest working people I know. I find his passion, his ethic, his drive very inspiring because like Michael, I’ve started to look at other ways. I like to be a creative entrepreneur, whether it’s with the clothing company I’ve just launched or with producing my own production company. I love learning from him as well as performing with him. I think his talent and his craft speaks for itself but from what I see behind the scenes, I’m baffled at how he does it. He’s always creating. I think one thing we’ve learnt over the last 18 months during the pandemic is, if you want a seat at the table, you have to build your own table, and that’s what he’s doing. He’s not waiting for things to happen. He’s creating things to happen. I find that absolutely inspiring, that he creates his own destiny.

Lee: Starting from 2018 when I first met Ramin, I think I experienced the same thing that his fans all over the world did. He’s an innately natural performer. I don’t know what his process is, but what he does definitively comes from his heart. There’s nothing fake. There’s nothing made up about what he does. He finds the connection to the song he’s singing or the words that he sings and he delivers it and there’s something incredibly exciting about that. There’s nothing manufactured about what you experience with him as a performer and him as a character on stage.

We know so many performers these days who we know what to expect. That’s not what Ramin does. He did it with “The Phantom of the Opera,” he did it with “Les Misérables.” He does it with every piece and he is doing it now as Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I never know what to expect and neither does the audience and that’s what makes it exciting to bring that energy to Korea.

Korean-American actor and producer Michael K. Lee [LIMAH PRODUCTIONS]

You’ll be presenting an array of songs but what will be the overriding theme of the upcoming concert?

Lee: When I started this project, the idea that we wanted to share with this concert was the idea of love. When you immediately say love, people think romantic love. There are aspects of the show where we are going to be singing romantic love songs from musicals like “Notre-Dame de Paris." But there are many forms of love across the musical canon. But we also will talk about love of the theater, love of our work, and family love. There’s going to be a very special number that I get to share with a member of my family on stage. So I think the overriding theme of this show is the love of art.

One song in particular addresses how special the theater is to people who perform it. So, I would like to say to the Korean audiences for the upcoming concert, “get ready.” Get ready for not just a concert but get ready for a show and get ready to fall in love with the theater again. I think it’s been so long since we’ve been able to do that. I am really excited to be able to present and to produce that opportunity for us all to fall in love with the theater again.