Globe And Mail

Escaping The Phantom's Shadow

After years of playing the leads in Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera,
Colm Wilkinson is ecstatic to be doing his own thing.

Michael Posner

The central question posed by the release of Colm Wilkinson's new CD, Some of My Best Friends Are Songs, is whether there is life after Jean Valjean. Or more accurately, perhaps - what kind of life?

It's a valid question because when you've spent as many years as Wilkinson has identified as the lead character in Les Misérables, the musical -- and after that as the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera -- you may justifiably wonder whether the public will embrace you as anything other than a musical stage performer.

He's about to find out. This weekend, he takes to the stage at Toronto's Massey Hall to perform a show based on the album (his son, Aaron, a singer and composer, is the opening act). He's got a couple of gigs in Buffalo later this month and will tour his native Ireland in the spring. More concert dates will follow.

Of course, Some of My Best Friends is hardly Wilkinson's first encounter with non-Broadway material. In a musical family of 10 children in Dublin, he grew up on jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll, and was the lead singer in a couple of popular Irish bands in the 1960s, the Action and the Witnesses, that released several albums. He also had a No. 1 solo album on the Irish charts in 1977 and took his own song, Born to Sing, to the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest in Paris, finishing fifth.

But it's been more than two decades since Wilkinson earned any serious money singing anything but the music of Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schonberg (Les Miz). Now, at 59, he's not only justifiably tired of the role and the music -- he's tired of the grind, the demanding eight-show-a week regimen.

"Basically," he said the other day, "I'm trying to take more control of my life and do the concert circuit."

Wilkinson certainly isn't complaining about his 4½ years in Phantom, a hit show that earned him recognition and a substantial chunk of financial independence.

"That was a great part of my life and I enjoyed it. It's a tough gig, but I put my head down and decided I'll do this for as long as I can. The business is inconsistent, so you have to take an opportunity when it comes. But a show takes over your life. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you think about is what is the throat like? How do I feel?"

"And I got to the point where I wanted to be able to say, 'I can take a holiday next month,' without people screaming 'You can't do that. It's not in the contract.'"

The new album, produced by Danny Greenspoon, and using some of Toronto's finest studio musicians (John Sheard on piano, Rob Piltch on guitar, Kevin Breit on guitar), was recorded a year ago.

Most of the tracks "are songs I've wanted to sing for 30 or 40 years," Wilkinson says, a mix of standards and his own material. The covers include Jimmy Kennedy's Red Sails in the Sunset, Willie Nelson's Funny How Time Slips Away, Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, Eddy Arnold's classic You Don't Know Me, and Cat Stevens's Father and Son. That last song which Wilkinson sings with Aaron, is a powerful statement of generational conflict.

"It was my son's idea and I don't think anybody has ever sung the song that way."

Red Sails has more than a little importance to Wilkinson. It was the song that brought his parents together -- and the album is dedicated to them. His mother was working as a nurse in Brighton, England, and was told she should meet the young Irishman playing the piano downstairs. That was the song he ws playing. Wilkinson senior was a pretty decent amateur musician - the banjo was his favourite instrument -- but he made his living running a successful asphalt business.

"I worked with him for five years, from 17 till about 22," Wilkinson says, "and then I just couldn't take it anymore. My heart wasn't in it. But in our family, music had always been just a sideline, a hobby. Believe me, there were far better singers in my family than me. But I was the only one who wanted to make it a profession."

In fact, it wasn't until Wilkinson landed the plum role of Jean Valjean in the original 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Misérables that his father stopped asking: "When is that guy going to get a real job?" Showered with awards, he led the show from the Barbican to sold-out runs in the West End and then New York. "That was probably the greatest role of my life," he says.

Later, of course, he became the first Phantom. Stage folk called Wilkinson a tenor, but he has always regarded the term as somewhat gratuitous. "I'm a singer. The label never interested me. Let's just sing."

It was Garth Drabinsky who brought Wilkinson to Toronto to play the Phantom in the newly restored Pantages Theatre. "'Toronto is not a backwater,'" Wilkinson growls, lapsing into a spot-on Drabinsky imitation. "'In five or six yers, this is going to be the place to be theatrically. It's going to be spectacular....' Garth brought me over to see the theatre under reconstruction and all I could see what concrete blocks and scaffolding. But he had the vision. When I came back and saw it finished, I nearly genuflected."

Wilkinson did Phantom for 4½ years (almost 1700 performances) and, although he later toured in Lloyd Webber's Music of the Night and Les Miz including six weeks in Shanghai last year -- Toronto has been home ever since. He and his wife, Deirdre, whom he calls his inspiration and the most important part of his life, have four children -- in addition to Aaron, daughters Judith (doing a PhD in London) and Sarah (studying at the Parsons School of Design in New York), and son Simon (a graphic designer -- he worked on the new CD). Their house in Toronto's verdant Rosedale comes complete with music studio and swimming pool.

"I found what I came for in Toronto," he explains. "Good work and a good standard of living." Indeed when he finally resolved to stay, he took his green card down to the U.S. consulate and formally surrendered it to a stunned consulate staffer.

Wilkinson says he's lately been thinking about writing his memoirs. He's worked with and met some of show business's biggest names, including Elvis, Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles.

But for now, the focus is on the new concert career. The songs on the album may come from various musical genres, but their arrangements have a certain country and western sensibility. Perhaps Wilkinson could call his tour Phantom of the Opry.

Colm Wilkinson performs at Massey Hall in Toronto on Saturday at 8 p.m. (416-872-4255).

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