“To love another person is to see the face of God,” is the message that Jean Valjean takes away from Les Misérables and after so many years of playing the role in London, New York, Toronto and around the world, it’s a lesson that Colm Wilkinson has also learned well.
On Saturday, Jan. 11, he’ll appear on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre, returning to the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg musical that made him famous. Only this time, he’s not playing the central role of Valjean but the minor (yet tremendously important) part of the Bishop of Digne, which he created in 2012 in the film adaptation.
He’s not doing it as a publicity stunt or because he misses the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. Wilkinson seized the opportunity when it was offered on one condition: that the evening be a benefit performance and that the proceeds go to whatever charities he picked.
That’s the kind of thing you might expect the warm-hearted Wilkinson to do.
The recipients of Jan. 11’s largesse will be Casey House, Covenant House, Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa and Theatre 20.
None of those charities are exactly household names and even the better known ones operate within a limited range of awareness, which is why Wilkinson picked all of them.
“This all began when (producer) Cameron Mackintosh was in town just before this revival of Les Miz opened,” Wilkinson says from the Rosedale home he’s owned for nearly 25 years, ever since Garth Drabinsky brought him here to star in The Phantom of the Opera.
“He took me to lunch and suggested I join the show for one night as the Bishop and do it as a benefit night. I was wavering a bit until he told me I could designate the charities and that clinched the deal.”
Casey House occurred to him first because “basically, they look after people living with AIDS. It’s a wonderful facility and I lost a lot of great friends through AIDS and I do this in their memory.”
Next on his list was Covenant House, known for their work with street kids, because “I have children and the work they do strikes a note with me.”
Ernestine’s is a women’s shelter “and the amount of spousal abuse out there is a frightening thing, which we’ve got to combat in whatever way we can.”
Wilkinson’s wife, Deirdre, “has an aunt who’s been doing missionary work in Africa for 60 years,” which is why the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa is on the list, and Theatre 20 makes the cut because Wilkinson is one of its founding members and “one of the things they’re doing is giving a leg up to young artists who are struggling and fearful of getting into the business.”
Though Wilkinson liked Mackintosh’s idea, he was worried about flinging it together quickly enough. “I’ve done lots of benefits like this before and they usually take six months or a year to get off the ground.
“But I asked David Mirvish, he said, ‘Of course!’ and this whole organization got on board to make it happen.”
The added kick of the evening isn’t just seeing Wilkinson onstage in a musical again, even though it’s his first appearance in a scripted show since his 2002 stint as Jean Valjean in Shanghai.
What makes this evening special is that it puts Wilkinson onstage with Ramin Karimloo, the Iranian-born, Richmond Hill-raised performer whose life was changed forever when, at 12 years of age, he saw Wilkinson play the Phantom on a school trip in 1990.
Karimloo became so obsessed with Wilkinson and with the show that by Dec. 1, 1994, the Star printed a story about a “Grade 11 student from Alexander Mackenzie High School who has seen The Phantom of the Opera 10 times.”
Karimloo went backstage at the Pantages as part of his school’s job shadowing program, where Wilkinson treated his dreams seriously and gave him advice on how to get ahead in the world of rock musicals.
Those words bore fruit, because the 35-year-old Karimloo was starring in London’s West End by his mid-20s, played the Phantom for three years in London and created the role in the sequel, Love Never Dies. Then he moved on to Les Misérables and is drawing cheers in Toronto just like Wilkinson did, with a Broadway debut following in just a few months.
“What Ramin has done feels sort of amazing to me,” says Wilkinson. “I’m also humbled by it. Over the years, I’ve gotten hundreds of requests for advice and I try to help when I can. But to see a talent like his come up through the ranks to the top so quickly is amazing. He’s the real deal. He doesn’t just have the voice and the stage presence. It’s something more than that and I don’t know what it is.”
Mackintosh does. As he told the Star just before Karimloo opened last year, “All the best Jean Valjeans have an element of spirituality about them. Colm certainly had it. And Hugh (Jackman). And Ramin. If there’s any hint of selfishness in the person playing Valjean, it just doesn’t work.”
Which brings us back to Wilkinson’s charitable gift.
“Les Misérables has given so much to me over the years,” he says. “Why not give a little of it back? Don’t paint me as a saint. I just saw an opportunity that was heaven sent.”
Wilkinson has been devoted to Toronto since it embraced him as the Phantom in 1989 and it became his home. He still thinks about that show and its influence frequently.
“I think that Phantom had a huge hold on this city. What Garth and the cast did with it was amazing. It represented a special kind of thing in the growth of this city that no one will ever forget.”
When reminded of the recent death of his co-star in that production, Byron Nease, Wilkinson says, “Byron was a truly good man and he’s one of the reasons I’m doing this event. He suffered with AIDS for many years and dealt with it most of his life. Eventually he couldn’t carry on. People living with AIDS are never cured and they always need help. Until the end.”
He pauses for a moment and speaks more quietly when he continues.
“Back in 1999 we did a benefit for AIDS at the Princess of Wales. I just came across a bag of ribbons like the French flag we all wore that evening 14 years ago. I’m going to give them to all of us onstage to wear next week.”
FIVE FAVE PEOPLE WHO MADE THIS EVENT POSSIBLE
“He asked me to play the Bishop in the movie and I said yes. Then he asked me to play it onstage. You don’t say no to Cameron.”
“He’s turning over a sold-out Saturday night performance to five charities I picked. That’s generosity.”
BOUBLIL AND SCHÖNBERG
“Every time I hear those songs, I get chills. To this day.”
“At any point in my journey with Les Miz, if I had ever had doubts about what to do, I’d read the book again.”
“When I see him play Jean Valjean onstage, I forget that I ever did it. He’s absolutely amazing.”
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