The Guardian

Musical theatre icon to play Charlottetown
Colm Wilkinson, star of Phantom, Les Miserables, brings concert tour here


Colm Wilkinson has long been regarded as one of the greatest leading men in contemporary musical theatre.

And with good reason.

During the past four decades the Dublin-born Wilkinson has given voice to some of the greatest music ever composed for the stage, placing his indelible stamp on songs like Music Of The Night from Phantom of the Opera, Bring Him Home from Les Miserables and a host of others.

His performances on Broadway, in London's West End and in his adopted home of Toronto where he starred in the Canadian productions of both The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables have inspired critics to reach for new superlatives to describe his work.

Wilkinson will recreate some of that magic in Charlottetown next month when he brings his first-ever national concert tour to the stage of Confederation Centre of the Arts.

Charlottetown is one of just three stops for Colm Wilkinson: Broadway & Beyond in Atlantic Canada.

The tour opens in Halifax with performances Oct. 6th and 7th, plays Charlottetown Oct. 9th and St. John's Oct. 11th before heading to central Canada.

Broadway & Beyond will give audiences a rare opportunity to experience an intimate showcase with Wilkinson as he performs a selection of his favourite songs from the world of theatre and popular music.

Speaking from his home in Toronto Wilkinson said he's very excited about the coming tour.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," Wilkinson said. "I've done a number of concerts over the years but nothing like this."

One reason Wilkinson opted to do this tour is the amount of control it gives him over his life.

"Touring a show like this is far easier for me than doing eight shows a week in a huge musical like Phantom of the Opera. I'm so grateful to my producers, Garth Drabinsky and Robert Topol for giving me the opportunity to do this."

Wilkinson is currently rehearsing Broadway & Beyond in Toronto with music director Steve Hunter, a hand-picked group of musicians and two special guest vocalists, Susan Gilmour, an alumnus of the Charlottetown Festival who played Fantine alongside Wilkinson in the Toronto production of Les Miserables and Gretha Boston who won a Tony Award on Broadway for her performance in Showboat.

"They're amazing women and I'm delighted to have them with me on this tour. We've had a wonderful time in rehearsals working our way through the material for the show. I cannot wait for you to hear these ladies sing. I've also added another wonderful woman to the show, cellist Amy Lang. She's an exceptional musician."

Wilkinson said the show would feature solo pieces, duets and trios.

For his part Wilkinson said he would sing the classic Broadway songs from The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and other musicals plus material from the country, Irish and pop songbooks.

He stressed that the shows on this tour will not be formal, stuffy, hi-brow affairs.

"I want people to relax and enjoy themselves, to sing-a-long. I'll even have a request box in the foyer so people can ask for their favourite songs. I'll check that box at intermission and try to do as many as I can. People ask for a lot of different things. I got a request one night for Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody."

Wilkinson said the audience can expect to hear everything and anything, from Bring Him Home from Les Miserables and Anthem from Chess to Tennessee Waltz, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, House of the Rising Sun and the Muddy Waters' blues classic I Got My Mojo Workin'.

You may also hear Wilkinson sing an Irish song or two.

"I love to sing songs like Danny Boy, Whisky In The Jar, Raglan Road, Fields of Athenry."

His fans love to hear those songs, though once in awhile it prompts an aside from the gallery.

"I was doing a concert one night when I announced I was going to sing a couple of Irish drinking songs. Some clever arsed punter in the crowd shouts out "is there any other kind of Irish song?"

The diversity of the music in Wilkinson's repertoire should come as no surprise given his history.

Wilkinson grew up in a very creative environment.

"There were only 10 of us, small for an Irish family, and there was always music at home. Mom was a singer and an actress, dad was a banjo player and a piano player. Everybody sang. One of my sisters was an actress in an Irish TV series called the Reardons. My sister Collette was in a rock band, my sister Joan sang with the Dublin Grand Opera. Three of my sisters used to morph into the Andrew Sisters. At family gatherings we all sang and everybody did their party piece."

Wilkinson himself started out as a rock singer, first making a name for himself in the early 1970's as a singer-songwriter with his band The Action. He also recorded as a solo artist as C.T. Wilkinson.

In 1972 he made the transition to the theatre, appearing as Judas in a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar in Dublin.

He went on to reprise the role in London's West End and on the British national tour of that production.

He found the transition to the theatre an easy one.

"I was a rock and roll singer and this was a role in a rock musical. The transition to the stage was not difficult."

After Judas, Wilkinson took on the role of Che for the legendary concept recording of Evita.

When the show developed into a full-fledged musical for the stage he was asked to join the company but declined.

After all, he still had a successful solo singing career.

In 1977 his self-titled solo record shot to #1 in the Irish charts and stayed there for eight weeks. His composition, There Was a Dream, went on to become a chart-topping hit in Ireland.

He focused intensely on composing and competed in numerous song contests, achieving a great deal of success.

In 1978 he represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in Paris singing Born to Sing.

His theatrical career shifted into high gear in 1985.

That year there were two major developments.

One saw him collaborate once more with Andrew Lloyd Webber, originating the role of the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera at workshop in Sydmonton.

The second saw him originate the role of Jean Valjean for composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and librettist Alain Boublil's production of Les Miserables in London.

Two years later he reprised that role on Broadway.

His performance won the Helen Hayes Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Theatre World Award. He was also nominated for the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for best actor in a musical.

Wilkinson recalls his initial talks with the producers for the role of Valjean, the role with which he is most frequently identified with no small amount of humour.

"They asked me if I was familiar with the book. I lied through my teeth and said I was. I knew about Victor Hugo but I hadn't read Les Miserables. I soon read it."

His work in Les Miserables proved to be one of the highlights of his career.

He became particularly associated with the song Bring Him Home as a result of that production.

Ironically it wasn't in the show when they began rehearsals.

Who Am I was thought to be Wilkinson's big number but Schonberg decided he wanted at least one other big number for him.

"One weekend during rehearsals he went off by himself and came back with Bring Him Home. At the 10th anniversary concert of Les Miserables Schonberg made a point of standing up and telling the audience it was the only song he had ever specifically written for just one person. It was a little embarrassing."

Wilkinson did not foresee the overwhelming universal success of Les Miserables or the impact it would have on his life.

"I don't think anybody in the cast did. At the first rehearsal he (Schonberg) played us the French version and brought an album that he had made in a big arena. We practically fell asleep listening to it. He practically re-wrote the whole show after that."

When the cast began major rehearsals for the revised version of the show people began to think they were indeed involved in something serious.

"It was a very spiritual show, very serious, I began to think of it more as a play with music. I still didn't know how the audience would react. The critics in London were not that kind when it opened but a year later when the show opened on Broadway it began breaking records. After that I never read a review."

The Phantom of the Opera will likely go down as the most commercially successful production Wilkinson starred in but the role of Valjean in Les Miserables remains his favourite.

Wilkinson said there are a number of other roles he would like to have done but does not know if they will ever come to pass at this point in his career.

"I don't really want to do eight shows a week any more."

Although not currently involved in a major musical, Wilkinson said he still takes care of himself as if he was.

"When your voice is your instrument you have to treat your body with respect. If you stay out late drinking and smoke cigarettes you're not going to last very long."

Tickets for the Charlottetown performance of Colm Wilkinson: Broadway & Beyond are priced at $59.50 and $69.50, with a limited number of premium seats at $125.

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