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Ramin Karimloo rocking the house as Jean Valjean

NEW YORK -- When Ramin Karimloo was 16, he made a foolish bet with a friend — foolish, that is, for a teenager in Canada who played ice hockey and had no training in either acting or singing.

“I'm going to be the Phantom in 'Phantom of the Opera,'” Karimloo told his friend, “and I'm going to be the youngest one to do it.”

As he walked away, Karimloo says now, he felt ridiculous. But a decade later, he signed a contract to play the Phantom in London's West End — indeed, the youngest to do it.

Now 35, Karimloo is playing another iconic character, again at a young age for the part: Jean Valjean in Broadway's “Les Miserables.” Though he's not nearly as famous as another recent Valjean — Hugh Jackman, in the film — he's getting Jackman-worthy cheers each night, especially after the famed falsetto number, “Bring Him Home.” And, in his Broadway debut, he's nominated for best actor in a musical at Sunday's Tony Awards. He sat down with The Associated Press last week to reflect on how he got there.

The journey started with a revolution — not in France, as in “Les Miz,” but in Iran, where Karimloo was born in September 1978, only a few months before the Shah was forced into exile. His family needed to leave the country quickly for political reasons, and went first to Italy and then Ontario, Canada, where Karimloo was raised. “We had no choice,” he says.

Like most small-town Canadian boys, Karimloo favored hockey, but at age 12 he discovered a different passion, while watching a performance of “Phantom” in Toronto, starring a man who would later become a friend: Colm Wilkinson.

“My hair was on end, and it's the first time I remember having a lump in my throat,” Karimloo says. “Just to be moved by art like that.”

But, he adds: “You're not going to tell an Iranian dad that you want to be an actor. He wanted me to be a doctor, or engineer. I said, come on, look at my grades.”

It wasn't until he was about 18 — and working low-end restaurant jobs in Toronto — that he got his first job singing professionally on a stage. And it was a floating one. “I auditioned to perform on a cruise ship,” he says. “They hired me first as a dancer, though I'd never danced before.” But the main singer's job opened up, and because it didn't involve dancing, Karimloo grabbed it.

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This image released by The Publicity Office shows Ramin Karimloo during a performance of the musical “Les Miserables.” (AP)

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