March 21, 2012
On Monday 19 March, Les Misérables, Love Never Dies and Phantom of the Opera star Ramin Karimloo held a small, secret gig to thank a sample of his loyal fans. The evening was an informal mix of tracks from his soon-to-be-released album, Ramin, and personal favourites, with a Greenday song and a folky hymn thrown in for good measure. WEG was lucky enough to be there and, having recently interviewed the actor for theatre website The Public Reviews, caught up with him afterwards (although he ended up quizzing me almost as much as I did him!) Here’s Ramin on nerves, song choices and hitting the road on tour in May….
Did you enjoy the gig?
I had a great time, I’m a bit tired… It hit me today, I thought I had it all together but then this morning I was like, oh crap, it’s tonight. You know, putting my own songs out there again. Some of them we orchestrated to give more of the album feel. But it went well.
Do you think everyone showed up?
I think so, I had two lovely friends help me run the door. Those who couldn’t come I think let me know.
How did you arrange the guestlist?
I basically said, anyone who has pre-ordered [the album], tell me when you pre-ordered it and your name. I put them all in the month that they ordered them, and then took 20 per cent from each one. I had to be fair – I didn’t want to make people think that just because people bought it in October they support me more. I thought it was fair. The venue was over capacity.
How did you choose the songs?
We did an album launch a few weeks ago, so I used the same album songs from that so the band didn’t have to rehearse more – because I did this off my own back. The rest was rehearsed by email sometimes! I would send them a song, have them give it a try… the drummer had never heard them until tonight, so he was just going with it. I wanted to see how the set flowed without any musical theatre. The one song we were arguing about was Bring Him Home; my guitarist Steve Young (who is Darren Hayes’ guitarist) loves to play it on classical guitar, but it would have just felt weird to do Bring Him Home then and there.
It is your night off as well! We loved the Muse cover (Guiding Light).
Great, well that’s on the album. How did you find the country stuff?
Really good – amazing work on the banjo.
Yeah, I love bluegrass and folk. I also thought that hymn would be fun to do. I enjoy it but my band are all professional musicians who play for people like KT Tunstall – they’ll be with me on tour.
What are you looking forward to most about being on the road?
It’s just about being a songwriter and a musician, and finding myself – I’m not a character for once. It will be interesting to see the Ramin that starts it and the Ramin who finishes. Tonight, I was surprised how comfortable I felt. When I did this for industry folks, I was so stiff. I think people when they come to see this stuff, they want to see the artists enjoying their own music. It’s not about performing a character, it’s like, ‘I would do this whether you were here or not’. I felt relaxed, I didn’t feel any nerves really. Did you enjoy it?
I really enjoyed it, the band were so slick – I thought it was going to feel more impromptu than this.
Did it look like I could play the piano?
Good, because when I was in rehearsal I was like, I wanna try the piano. But then up there, with the words…!
How do you feel about wrapping up Les Mis at the end of next week?
I need it, man, I need a break. I am tired. But I’m leaving wanting more.
Do you think you would go back to it?
I hope so – if they’ll have me and I had the time to do it, that would be great.
Thanks for inviting me, and good luck on tour!Were you at Ramin’s Thank You Gig? Share your thoughts on it in the comments box below…
November 11, 2011
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most over the past year is getting involved in great, fresh theatre website The Public Reviews, especially interviewing for them. I started out pretty much winging it; my first actor interview was with Phantom & Les Mis actor Earl Carpenter and luckily he was a perfect subject – great fun, full of enthusiasm for his work and not taking himself too seriously. Over the months that followed, I learned good interview technique partly through my journalism postgraduate course, and partly just by doing. I made countless notes on what to do and what to avoid, honed my research and preparation pre-interview, tried to go for original questions and have a clear idea of what I wanted to get out of the time slot available. But only so much of what you control at your end of the dictaphone goes towards the final product – a great interviewee is what makes an interview sparkle. One of my most-viewed articles on this blog, to this day, is my Rebecca Caine interview; the star soprano was witty, frank and completely open to different subjects – everything you need for a great read.
Unless you’re a big Hollywood star, chances are you don’t get prepped on your interviews too much. But some people seem to have a natural rapport with the press; frankness with a little splash of personal revelation is often all it takes to make a killer interview. I’m always surprised by celebrity interviews that are run despite the star clearly despising the process and giving nothing away. We’ve all read one (look out for the writer commenting on the subject’s behaviour on the day rather than quoting them – usually means not enough useable quotes) – Keira Knightley is a repeat offender, as Mr & Ms Miserable Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.
Until you’re Madonna or the Dalai Lama there’s no way all of the questions are going to be on your terms, so why not suck it up and just answer with as much or as little revelation as you can? The best interviews I’ve done have been with people who are relaxed, open and like to talk; now and again you get someone with a chip on their shoulder who comes across badly, but at least they’re coming across as something. People read interviews to learn something, not to have the same persona and quotes reiterated. One pet hate of mine is the American ‘I’m so blessed’ culture of gushing while saying, well, nothing.
Last month I got to interview a personal idol of mine, Idina Menzel. I was lucky enough to do this because she was about to do a phenomenal gig at the Royal Albert Hall, and I was nervous she would only want to talk on a very superficial level about the gig and the new season of Glee. The musical diva soon reassured me with her open, chatty nature, and despite sounding tired (she has a two-year-old and about three full-time jobs, so she’s forgiven) she happily mingled her personal life with her professional information from the beginning, saving me the awkward job of testing the waters with a tentative personal question. Idina got me thinking about what makes a great interviewee, and I think it comes down to a few basic things:
Americans are always better at this, but talking in the affirmative comes across far better on the page or screen than our apologetic British neuroses. If someone’s enjoying their job, you get great answers from them because they’re just bursting to share.
Actors generally have a bad record for intellect, but stage actors are very often knowledgable and analytical about their work and the industry in general. This is ideal, but you also want the balance between relatable chat about their personal perspective, and lofty talk about the state of modern theatre. Thoughtfulness is as important as academic intelligence when it comes to a good answer.
Most people will never be asked about themselves and have those words published. People who don’t do many interviews (especially directors and producers) are often great subjects because they’re insanely flattered to be asked. I remember always being nervous about interviewing people, until somebody pointed out to me that people love talking about themselves. Love it. So there’s hardly anything to lose in an interview situation. Of course there are the minority who buy into their own hype and get bored of ‘doing press’, but the savvy ones will learn to love promotion and use it to their advantage.
>> It’s good to (actually) talk
I often get asked about email interviews, and quite frankly, it’s not something I believe in. If you give someone the time and the blank page to talk about themselves, you’ll no doubt get a carefully manicured, PR-approved account of things – which may as well just be a copied-and-pasted press release. If someone who essentially could do with the exposure insists on email questions, I’ll usually say no – if you’re promoting something, it’s not hard to share a few thoughts via a 20-minute phone call (see again the Madonna/Dalai Lama exception).
Interviewers don’t want the interview to go badly. They pretty much have everything crossed for the opposite occuring. So if you go in there suspicious and guarded, the result will be an uncomfortable, stilted interview. Unless they work for a trashy rag (no names) or a brand that trades on sleazy gossip, they won’t be after the skeletons in your closet – just a nice, neat insight into your life and work.
>> Be aware (and beware)
If you are less than gracious, be prepared to see that in print. Maybe not explicitly, maybe not in expletives, but journalists are a crafty bunch. They can edit your words to ensure a certain overall tone – if you haven’t already set yourself up for that. An interview is a short blast of you; if you’re having a bad day you may want to be honest about it or simply reschedule because, especially in the age of the internet, that blast may be around for quite some time.
February 3, 2011
Original Cossette Rebecca Caine talks to WestEndGeek about floated notes, leading men and the endangered soprano.
Firstly, on Twitter you are a delightful dry wit in a sea of theatrical ego. Does it really bother you to still be thought of in terms of the Les Misérables original cast?
Oh no, I’m very proud of it. I’ve joked about it, as sometimes it’s very hard to deal with what it’s become; it’s so far away from the work we did 25 years ago, you know? How can I put this tactfully… it’s a musical about the poor and the dispossessed, and I think that gets forgotten. If you look at the writing they used for the DVD, it was sort of glittery silver. I think people forget what it was supposed to be about. We had three months rehearsing it, and a lot of that was studying the history, the social deprivation, all this kind of thing, and now it’s become something different. That said, it’s amazing to be part of something that became so loved. Of course, you have to remember at the time it was just another show. We didn’t know it was just going to build and build – I remember it being a huge hit at the box office, but it’s become something in 25 years that no one envisaged it was going to be.
You must accept that it’s a huge part of people’s lives though. I grew up listening to your voice. People feel like they know the original cast. Was the O2 concert good fun? You looked and sounded absolutely incredible.
Thank you. Well, it’s nice in some ways. It was kind of hard for us when we did the O2, because you’re very much made to feel that you are a very small part of it, and I think only the original cast knows what they actually contributed. I mean, all the moves that are being done to this day at the Queen’s were improvised 25 years ago. I put in all those high floated notes for Cossette, Michael [Ball] and Frances [Ruffelle] worked out the harmony that they did. Patti LuPone put that climbing scale into I Dreamed a Dream; I remember her coming in one afternoon and saying, ‘Can I do this?’, and they said yes. Certainly it was an amazing moment to step forward to those microphones and see the faces thinking, ‘I’ve spent years listening to the album, now I’m going to hear them live.’ That was very touching – but we did kind of have to fight for that. They weren’t paying us much to spend an entire day sitting backstage, then walk out and wave, you know? So we really felt that if we were going to be there we wanted to contribute something. It was wonderful, I watched both halves of the show from the front, but I did find it hard to relate it to what it had been 25 years ago.
Did you have any strong feelings on the casting choices?
I really liked Katie Hall very much, and I’m not just saying that because she played my part. I was really pleased with how she sang it and I was very, very glad that she did it. You want your role to be played well, and I think the slight problem with the juveniles is they’ve become lighter and lighter over the years. Originally Michael was a very strong Marius, and they don’t really cast them like that anymore, they cast them very, very ‘lite’. I thought Gareth [Gates] did a nice job, but I have seen others that just… It diminishes the show, because you don’t have all levels of the cast being strong. I think Michael is a one-off really. You had people like Graham Bickley initially, and Simon Bowman, they were much more manly, they were less poppy. It’s kind of a shame. But I teach singing as well, so I do know that the sound is headed that way a little bit, you get a lot of boys that sing like that. But I was very pleased with Katie, and I thought Lea Salonga was stunning as well, I thought she did a beautiful job. I also loved Samantha Barks.
You’re very diplomatic. Last year you worked on Intolerance, by Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell, which sounds fascinating. It was an ‘operatic monologue’, wasn’t it?
It was a monologue that Mark had written for Harriet Walter. A couple of summers ago I went up to Edinburgh, and did a piece by Conor Mitchell, who writes opera and musical theatre, and Conor really liked my work, so he said he’d write me an opera. People very often say they’ll do things, but this time, an opera arrived in the post! So we did it last summer down at the Riverside Studios; it was very difficult piece about a woman who thinks she has food intolerances, but actually she’s a racist bitch and that’s what’s giving her a stomach ache. And it looks like it’s being developed into a proper, full-length opera with other characters, which is great. Monologues are fabulous to do, but actually it’s deeply scary standing on stage completely on your own. I’m also doing another project with Mark, coming up in a couple of months – at the Kings Head, we’re going to do a jazz fusion version of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. So a jazz fusion version of a baroque opera, and that should be extremely funky, I’m really looking forward to that.
“It’s hard because you are very much made to feel you are a very small part of it. Only the original Les Mis cast knows what they actually contributed.”
And more recently you’ve been in Salad Days, also at Riverside Studios. What attracted you to that project?
I’m doing Salad Days now, which is a huge hit. I think they’d like to extend it but I don’t think we’re free, which is a real shame. I really enjoy it because I can walk to work, which is great, because since I became an opera singer I’m used to getting on planes to go places. It’s a wonderful young cast, because they had to get triple threats who could sing without mics and dance as well, so it was very difficult to cast, but I’m absolutely blown away by the level of talent. It’s the first time I’ve done eight shows a week since Les Mis, because after I left that I did Phantom for several years, but six times a week. So I haven’t done it for about 24 years, and that’s a bit of a shocker, but I enjoy it hugely. It was the longest-running British musical before Oliver. It’s got slightly a naff reputation because it’s quite a light piece; if it’s a bad production it’s appalling, but this is a good production, and it makes people happy. We dance around between them – Tête-á-Tête [the company] is great for involving the audience – and we pull people on to the stage to dance, and we sing to people. I don’t think I’ve ever found such a joyful experience. Sometimes it reminds you what one sings and dances and acts for; it’s to entertain people. It’s to make people happy.
As well as your most famous role, you’ve also been a leading lady in Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. Did you prefer those kind of gutsy soprano roles, or the dainty ones like Cossette and Christine?
I would say that my Christine was never a damsel. She was a little bit confused. I struggled with Christine because I found it very difficult to play the slightly vacuous character in her. I enjoyed it, but I do remember, very early on in the production in Canada, Gillian Lynne coming up to me and waving her hand in front of my eyes and saying, ‘Darling, you’re looking a bit too intelligent’! So I did struggle with that. Also the early Christines really sang out, and now they like much lighter, more pop voices. We were much more full-on singers and we were also a bit older. This ‘let’s cast 19-year-olds in the role,’ nowadays I think is a bit of a shame, because you’ve got to have people with the stamina, and the experience and also the colour in the voice to really bring it out. I think the girls should be mid-to-late twenties playing that role. I would rather, if I’m paying that kind of money, have somebody who can really sing their pants off. Because I left musical theatre for about 17 years, the stuff that I’m very proud of is what I’ve done in between. I did all the big parts in opera that my voice does – La Traviata, Marguerite, and an amazing modern opera I did, Lulu. But I’m just proud to be working 31 years after having started. I think that’s what people forget; it’s not about being a name or a star, it’s about consistently working and having something to offer.
“I would rather, if I’m paying that kind of money, have somebody who can really sing their pants off.”
Do you think with opera it’s less about names than musical theatre, and more about the music?
Everything has become about branding and names now, all of the arts. If you see the way they’re advertising Alfie Boe going into La Bohéme now after Les Mis – it’s about branding. You won’t ever see a musical like Les Mis happen without a name going into it, it won’t happen anymore. I think in opera, it depends where you’re singing; in certain houses they will want the big names, obviously. I’ve never really differentiated between all the different forms of theatre I’ve done. From my point of view it’s just about good acting and good singing, working with people I respect , and being in a creative, happy atmosphere. That’s what I try to focus on now. I feel very strongly how difficult it is for the kids starting out. I teach on the musical theatre course at Trinity College of Music, and now we have a million schools churning out a million fabulous kids. I actually think some of the most interesting stuff is happening on the fringe, and I know it’s really hard for people just starting out to afford to work there. But that’s where the great stuff is happening, and the experimental stuff. It’s good that some shows like Les Mis go on, because it gives people a chance to go through it. It’s kind of like the musical theatre version of The Bill, they go in and find out what it’s like to do eight shows a week and to have to fit in with a product that’s already made.
I interviewed Earl Carpenter a couple of months ago and he was telling me about the ‘Three Phantoms’ concerts, which you’ve also appeared in. Do you enjoy working with the guys and singing the material again?
It’s fabulous fun. When I started out, we didn’t really have men like that, great British men. But now we grow these great big butch British men with powerful voices. What soprano would not be thrilled to be working with those three guys? [Earl Carpenter, John Owen-Jones and Matthew Cammelle.] It’s a great laugh, we have a shriek offstage. I think we’ve got three this month and some more to be announced. I met Earl doing Friday Night is Music Night. It’s lovely because I’ve got big-girl chops, so it’s great to have good people to sing with.
Who do you admire in acting or singing?
As a child I was inspired by Lynn Seymour who was a Canadian ballet dancer and wonderful actress. Nowadays I like to see people like Kristin Scott Thomas; I want to see women my own age doing valid work, which starts to disappear. They either start playing mums or their stories aren’t being told anymore. Obviously Helen Mirren. Musically, I adored Leontyne Price as a child. With musical theatre, it was more shows than individual people. I was hooked on West Side Story and Candide – anything that had a good soprano line to sing.
You teach as well as your theatre work. What do you enjoy most about that?
They say that the next step is to teach, because it makes you a better singer. You have to explain things that come easily to you and you don’t know why, so you have to break down that process, and you also have to put yourself into their bodies and sort their problems out, so it’s a real learning process. I like to teach with a lot of love and encouragement, and a lot of support, because I don’t think I was taught that way. Singing is something that makes you feel very vulnerable and you have to be in a safe place to do it. I’m very interested in maintaining what I think to be a good soprano sound in musicals, because I think that’s being lost. It’s partly due to something called the Estill technique, which has its uses, but it’s making everybody sound a bit the same. Everybody is now taught to belt and to use a legitimate soprano voice, so consequently you don’t get what has always been featured in musical theatre, which is Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide, Maria and Anita, Cossette and Eponine. You don’t get the two different colours. It’s important to keep that soprano sound because it says something, whether it’s a certain refinement, or a different kind of purity, or a virginity. Whatever you read into that sound, it’s important that we don’t lose it and that it all doesn’t become a little bit too chesty, a little bit too belty, a little bit too twangy, and sound like everybody else. So that’s why I’ve been doing a bit of singing with people like Gina Beck and Annalene Beechey, because I think those girls epitomise the next generation of keeping that voice really pure.
It’s great that you think about the future of the industry as well as your own work.
It means a lot to me, and in teaching I hope maybe I can help maintain and safeguard that sound. You need to think about new composers; where is the new Les Mis going to come from? Who is the next Andrew Lloyd Webber, where are they? Are we just going to have adaptations of movies? It’s about looking after people’s voices, maintaining a sound and finding new composers. If we don’t have composers, the whole art form is dead anyway. If you’re able to make a living in this business, you should be incredibly grateful, and never be complacent for a day. Just be thankful you get to go to work and make people happy – that’s an amazing thing to be able to do with one’s life. I know when I was younger I was complacent. Now when I hear people going ‘Oh God, a two-show day,’ I’m thinking, ‘Yay, lucky me.’
January 11, 2011
[Written for The Public Reviews]
Helena Blackman, runner-up in 2006’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and former star of South Pacific, is releasing an album, The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The CD features songs from Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and The King and I, as well as duets with classical singer Jonathan Ansell and West Ender Daniel Boys. I caught up with her to chat about her musical life, drama school and having confidence in you…
Congratulations on the album. Have you always been a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or have you just found your career has led to that style of musical theatre?
Yes, I’ve always been a fan – I remember watching the musicals on television when I was little. I can’t remember a musical theatre life without Rodgers and Hammerstein being a part of it, actually! I think we’re sort of part of that era; before Wicked, and before Avenue Q and before any of that, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Do you have a favourite track?
I have lots of favourite ones in very different ways. I think Love, Look Away [from Flower Drum Song] is becoming one. It’s a song that I wasn’t familiar with, and we completely rearranged it, so I don’t really know the original and decided not to listen to it. We aimed to do a sort of Michael Bublé thing with it, so that’s quite exciting, to do something very different. There’s only so far you can change Rodgers and Hammerstein, but we’ve tried to make it fresh where we can.
You’re best known for reaching the final of the BBC’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? What did you learn from doing the show?
It completely changed me as a person, actually. I think it made me much more self-aware, it made me stronger in some respects, it made me weaker in some respects – and just a lot more knowing, probably, than I was ready for. It certainly made me realise I can go through most things and come out the other end OK.
You must have made some great contacts though?
You know, I don’t think I was as good at that then. I was young and a bit naïve, and it was the first show. It’s not like doing it now; we had no idea what to expect, so it was very much like being at school – if someone said ‘You, dance now,’ you’d dance. I thought, if anything, we might come out failing miserably. So it was actually very surprising eventually that we all did so well, and that’s nothing to do with any of our talents, we were all very talented girls, but you never know how a show like that will come out. You think, ‘I might never work again!’
Did you keep in touch with any of the other girls or judges?
Yes I do, I’m in touch with most of the girls – one of them, Laura, is one of my best friends now, she lives round the corner from me. I’m still in touch with Zoe [Tyler] and Craig Revel-Horwood, who was actually the choreographer. I keep in touch with him a little bit too. So it’s wonderful.
You trained at GSA before auditioning for Maria. How important do you think drama school is as a foundation?
I can’t imagine doing it any other way; I absolutely adored drama school. I was finally in a situation where I was with so many people like me, and I was thrilled by that. I can’t speak for other drama schools, and I can’t speak for how training has changed, but I found it really liberating. It was basically about ourselves and less about how talented we were – it was about how to breathe through the process, and to cope with things and know ourselves better, ultimately. It’s now that I think back to training and think I’m a better actress and singer because of that. Also, you get a sense of stability and a sense of passion, and you realise how much you love it, I think.
You recently tweeted that one of your New Year’s resolutions is ‘to remember that my life isn’t actually that bad.’ Do you have any others?
Eat better. Because I go through things where I binge and want to eat lots of rubbish, and actually it’s not good for me physically or vocally. I’m a much better person when I’ve slept, too. It’s more about looking after my temple, that’s what I feel this year, looking after the inside. And really just to go for it – I spend a lot of time worrying about certain situations, career wise, and I’m constantly aware that life is short, and this career is complete ups and downs. I just think, keep going for it, and to have the resolution, ‘life is too short.’ I’m constantly aware of that to push me forward.
The album’s out on Valentine’s Day. As a single girl, I was worried it might be full of schmaltz, but in actual fact there’s a streak of girl power with I Enjoy Being a Girl and I Have Confidence on the list.
I didn’t think about it that way but yes, I think it’s a mantra for me, being a single lady at present, about having confidence and feeling good about yourself. It’s coming through whatever journey you’re on and still having faith in love and life and happiness. I think subconsciously I did pick songs that meant something to me, and they’re great songs; they can mean anything to anybody. That’s why I love Rodgers and Hammerstein.
What’s been your favourite role to perform so far?
Show wise, still Saturday Night. I absolutely adored singing it; So Many People is my ultimate favourite Sondheim song, so to sing that was a little bit of a dream come true. We did a concert with Michael Bruce, and singing that sort of material was amazing, because I don’t often get to sing modern stuff. So for me that’s really exciting, and I’m less inhibited by it. I don’t have to step into anybody else’s shoes.
Do you have an ultimate dream role?
Do you know what, I spoke to George Stiles about doing Mary Poppins actually, and he said he thinks I’d make a great Mary Poppins. So I’d love to do that at some point. I love Stiles and Drewe – they’re my sort of music, epic, not trying to be too different but just writing what they love – it’s a bit magical, and I like that. Also, I’d love to be Eliza Doolittle, I really would. And Gypsy, I’d like to do that again! Any of the classics.