Colm Wilkinson is nothing short of a Broadway legend.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. If Colm Wilkinson needed to temind anyone of his singing talents, he took the most opportune time by delivering a show-stopping performance during RTE's recent Easter Monday Centenary concert which transfixed the nation.
His bravura version of the U2's One stood out on a night onf stellar showings by the great and the good of Irish music.
And the man himself was more than happy with his contribution and with the concert itself. "I think the Centenary show went well and I was delighted to be part of it." he says modestly looking much younger than his 71 years when we met in the hotel across from the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, the day after his latest triumph.
"The arrangement they did for me of One just made it something that I felt I could do justice to. It brought home to me again how just good U2's lyrics and music are. I don't think they are given enough credit for what they've done for this country. We are fortunate to have them as ambassadors."
Wilkinson performs a similar ambassadorial role himself. He is the definitive Jean Valjean on Les Miserables, equally so, many would contend, as the lead in Phantom Of The Opera and his recording of This Is The Moment from Jekyll/Hyde is the most celebrated. But it was his casting in a shoestring 1973 Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar which catapulted the Drimnagh-born star to fame.
"Jesus Christ Superstar in Dublin wasn't so much a low budget show as a no budget," he recalls.
"I played Judas and when it came to hanging him, they used to wire up a mannequin with a wig on. I would be singing 'you have murdered me, murdered me', the crowd would be moved, then they'd see the dummy and convulse with laughter."
Noel Pearson's show also featured Tony Kenny as Jesus and bizarrely Luke Kelly as King Herod. Wilkinson recalls this camaraderie with the legendary Dubliner, On the opening night, I was throwing up because I was so nervous. Luke was standing there watching me. Then when it was my cue he said, "right, you're on now!" and pushed me on stage and I just started singing. I loved Luke he was just a lovely man.
And thus a talent was born. The producers of the London production were casting a replacement for Judas and in Colm's words 'there was a reasonable on performing in Dublin'
'As Anthony Bowles, the musical director of the London show said, 'Good Judases don't grow on trees, you know dear!" he laughs.
"It was difficult at first. Everybody expected the understudy to get the role and then this Irish guy comes over. It was the time when IRA bombs were going off in England; there was a lot of anti-Irish feeling. You had to prove that you could do it, being Irish you also had to prove you weren't a drunken Mick and it is a difficult enough role without people hoping you will fail.
It was Tim Rice,, co-writer of Superstar with Andrew Lloyd Webber who tipped off Trever Nunn about Colm's qualities.
Nunn was in the process of casting the lead in Les Miserables for the RSC. "Tim asked him what he was looking for and he said he needed someone who looked like a convict, who could carry a man on his back but can sing like an angel. Tim said "oh you need Colm Wilkinson". I auditioned and got the job.
It meant turning down the lead in the original West End production of Phantom of the Opera but has no regrets, especially given the fact that Les Mis made his career and he made his home in Canada after being cast as the Phantom in the Toronto production of the show in 1989.
He will be 72 by the time he returns home to perform at the National Concert Hall and in Limerick and Corkin series of concerts but he can still reall when he first felt the magic of performing.
'It was the celebration of the Republic being declared in 1948,' he says. 'They put up a platform where I lived and rigged up lights. Anybody who could sing could just get up and do it. My father got up with a banjo and started to play and sing. I looked at him and looked at the crowd all watching him and I just thought "wow look at all the attention he is getting". Even at four years of age, I could see that people like to look at you when you can sing a song." Colm Wilkinson plays the NCH Dublin September 22, 24, 27 and 30;UCH Limerick Oct.2 and Cork Opera House Oct. 3
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