The Chronicle Herald

Tenor Wilkinson brings seven-piece orchestra, special guests for intimate show
in Halifax to begin his Canadian tour

Arts Reporter

ANSWERING AN unflattering job description gave musical theatre star Colm Wilkinson his big break.

Trevor Nunn was looking for someone to play Jean Valjean and talking to director Tim Rice.

As Wilkinson tells it, Nunn told Rice he needed "someone who looks like a convict, can carry a man on his back of about 120 pounds and can sing like an angel."

"You want Colm Wilkinson," said Rice, who knew Wilkinson as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Best known in Canada as the Phantom, a role he played for four and a half years at the Toronto's Pantages Theatre, Wilkinson has been at the centre of some of the hottest mega-musicals of the late 20th century.

He created the role of Jean Valjean in the original London and Broadway productions of Les Miserables, and was first to sing the music for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, for Evita, for Les Miserables and for Jekyll and Hyde.

Yet sitting in the lobby of Halifax's Harbourfront Marriott to promote his first national concert tour in Canada, this consummate and gracious performer remembers the hard work more than the fame.

"I met a lot of very famous people at the time but at the same time you're so focused on the work. What you're focused on is learning the stuff. I'd be up at 6 a.m. singing and learning this stuff and then they'd cut it! Les Mis was originally three and a half hours long. They cut one hour and a half out of it so I lost a lot of great stuff."

What the tenor didn't lose was his signature song Bring Him Home, written for him by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg. "Trevor told him we needed a song for the barricades. It had to be like a prayer and he came back with the melody and played it on the piano. We put the lyrics to it and we sang it for the cast and it worked well."

It's a song he'll sing during his intimate show, Colm Wilkinson: Broadway & Beyond, in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium Oct. 6 and 7. The show, produced by Garth Drabinsky and Robert Topol and going from St. John's to Victoria, will be 70 per cent Broadway. "I came from jazz and blues so I will be doing a little bit of rock 'n' roll, a little bit of country, one or two songs and we'll do some Irish, Danny Boy and Whisky in the Jar."

Coming with him are a seven-piece orchestra, Susan Gilmour, who played Fantine in Les Mis "she's a fantastic singer", and Gretha Boston, who won a Tony Award for her role in Showboat on Broadway.

"We'll do the Hallelujah song, the Leonard Cohen song, as a trio. I'm very conscious of peace and we're doing Imagine by John Lennon as well as a song called Peace by Tom Paxton.

"You know what I want to emphasize it's a very informal evening. I like people to sing along and clap their hands." He also will perform some requests left in a request box at intermission.

Wilkinson did a version of Broadway & Beyond as an outdoor show in his native Dublin on July 22 with a 53-piece orchestra for an audience of 3,000.

"It had showered for 55 days before we arrived. It was Sunday, it came down in buckets. My sisters, who are devout Catholics, were praying like mad it wouldn't rain. I was going on at 7:30 p.m. and at 6.55 p.m. it stopped."

Wilkinson grew up in Dublin in a family of 10; his mother played the violin and was involved in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; his father played banjo and sang. "Music in the home is fantastic," he says. "It was great in our home."

He never set out to be a musical theatre actor. "Just to sing that's all I wanted to do."

In the 1970s Wilkinson toured with the Irish soul band the Action, as well as with the jazz-styled Jim Doherty Quartet and such show bands as the Chris Lambe Showband and the Witnesses.

He met Elvis Presley when he was in the Witnesses and playing the Bahamas. "He came to see the show because Priscilla was there and her friends. It was a place called Paradise Island. That night he was there I sang I'll take You Home Again Kathleen. He was literally six feet from the stage.

"The next morning I was coming down and he was in the foyer and he came over to me and told me how much he enjoyed my singing and I had a long chat with him about Vegas. He was a very nice guy. He had a great sense of humour."

Wilkinson's leap into theatre began when he played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar in Dublin and London in the mid-1970's. After two and a half years in London the father of four moved back to Ireland. "I wanted the kids to be raised where they were born. Then in 1985 I got a call to come and audition for Les Miserables."

Before he started rehearsing Les Miserables, produced by Cameron Macintosh, he was asked to do a workshop for Phantom "and I was subsequently asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to play the Phantom."

"Cameron said, "Look, if Les Mis doesn't work you can do the Phantom. It worked and it worked well."

Wilkinson, who lives in Toronto, first came to Canada in 1989 to star in Garth Drabinsky's production of the Phantom of the Opera at the newly renovated Pantages Theatre. His initial contract was for six months.

"It was just such a huge hit. We opened in advance of $28 million in 1989. That's a lot of money and we were the biggest grossing musical in the world. We were grossing $1.2 million U.S.; it was hugely successful.

"Each time I wanted to leave he said, "Why don't you stay," and he'd give me more money. The kids were at school and I still had a green card. Eventually I surrendered it.

"I got an offer from America to do Man of La Mancha. I'd love to do that musical. Again it's got a great death scene at the end like Jean Valjean."

However, Drabinsky matched the Man of La Mancha offer. "I stayed. Toronto is a good city for kids and it's relatively safe."

Wilkinson, who loves to read and golf, thinks the music business is tougher for kids today than when he was young.

"If you're absolutely passionate about what you do and you can do absolutely nothing else, get involved. You'll need that motivation because it's one of the most inconsistent, ruthless businesses around."

Whether people succeed or not as professional performers, it's important to keep making music, he says. "I advise everybody to sing for the profound joy of singing."

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