Interview With Colm Wilkinson

By Robert Diamond

There have been many firsts in Colm Wilkinson's career, from being the first actor to don a Phantom's mask and to sing Music of the Night, to being the original and quintessential Jean Valjean in Les Miz, to being the first to record songs from shows like Evita and Jekyll & Hyde. Now, Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson is focusing mainly on concerts, and the release of his newest CD - Some of My Best Friends Are Songs.

The CD is called 'Some of My Best Friends are Songs' and in the case of the various inspirations for the tracks on this album, it's certainly the case. "It's not Broadway, but it's something that I've always wanted to do, and that's to get back to my roots," said Colm. "It's a departure really, for something new. I love singing the musical theatre songs, but at the same time I also just like great songs and I think that on this CD, they're just great songs."

His musical tastes vary in many directions, so it's no wonder the CD features a few different styles of music. "I listen to all kinds of music myself, it can range from practically anything; Opera, Jazz, to Blues, good Pop, just about anything. When talking about my favorite kind of music, I always quote Duke Ellington, who said 'There's only one kind of music, and that's good music.' To me, that can come from any genre, anything that touches your heart, and touches you emotionally. That's what I react to, and I like to record songs that touch me. My favorites are songs that I get an emotional charge from, whatever genre they're in."

A father of four, it's no wonder that family plays a factor both in his life, and as an inspiration for the album. "The catalyst for a lot of the songs on the album is that it's dedicated to my mother and father, who were both quite musical. My mom was sort of involved in amateur dramatics like Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and played the violin. My dad played banjo, and piano and sang as well so there was all this music in my childhood."

"I'm from a small Irish family of 10, so there always was music in the house. Growing up, my older sisters had things like South Pacific, and opera on. They got into opera very early, and were always doing things. I had six sisters, and three of them became the Andrews Sisters; they morphed into the Andrews Sisters doing harmonies and stuff like that. It was a real mix of music that I grew up listening to, from Irish ballads and traditional songs right through to whatever was on the radio."

His specific musical favorites, and early influences cover a wide range as well. "I remember Caruso, and John McCormack, and Gigli were all favorites. I remember there was an old, probably now defunct radio station called Radio Luxemberg that had 'The Hit Parade' so I'd end up listening to Cochran, Elvis, and all the hits of the day. I moved gradually sort of I'd have to say, and musically towards black singers like Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, the blues, cause I felt myself that it's where it all came from - and it did as I found out later on. That music just seemed to have a lot more soul, and Little Richard, Chuck Berry, people like that were just doing it so well."

Playing the guitar in local bands was his first performing experience, and he even played in an Irish dance band that visited New York at age 16. It wasn't until later that he developed a loved for theatre. "It wasn't until the early 1970s when I got involved in musical theater, and that's when I played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar in Ireland and the West End. That was really my introduction to the musical theatre. I listened to things like South Pacific, things that my sisters were playing, that was closest I got to it. I knew that it was there, but I wasn't quite interested in it, until I got to the stage when I did Judas. It was then that I began to see and learn a lot more, especially when I went to the West End, I got to learn about other shows in the 70s."

It was from this combination, of family, and his musical roots that he picked the tracks for the album. "'Red Sails in the Sunset' for example, was written by an Irish guy called Jimmy Kennedy, he wrote the lyrics, and he's actually very famous if you look him up on the Internet. He's written all sorts of songs you'd think were written by American composers, but are actually Jimmy's. My mom was a nurse that emigrated from the west of Ireland to the south of England to Brighton and she was looking after a woman called Lady Fowler in a place called Faring Range. This woman was quite lonely, and one day this woman said to her that there's an Irish guy downstairs and he's working there, and that maybe she should go down and meet him, that there might be some companionship for her. So my mother went downstairs to the drawing room of this mansion place, and he was in the drawing room playing the piano, and the song he was playing was 'Red Sails in the Sunset' and that's how my mom and dad met. I went to see the house actually later on, which was great, and that's why I included that track on there."

He dedicated the CD to his parents as well. "I felt that I had to, because that's where I got my music from. I found it to be quite normal, and felt that we were a normal family with all the music in the house. It was only later when I went to other homes, and found them so quiet in comparison that I realized we were not. In my house, there was always somebody playing an instrument, or somebody singing in the house, so it was quite normal for me. People always ask me 'did you go to Drama school?' The answer is no, but I was in song contests in schools at an early age, and while I had no real formal training, just sort of my upbringing prepared me. I never really planned to be on stage really, until I was."

"I think it's the catapult there that put me there showed me it was ok to just stand-up and sing. Even though, I'm still very nervous about performing, and I have that within me, but it was quite normal for us to sing. As you know, the Irish are great storytellers, and singers, and raconteurs, whatever else you want to call them. So I had no sort of problem, going into that kind of scene."

Aside from dedicating the CD to his parents, Colm found a way to integrate the new generation as well, singing with his son Aaron. "He's a great singer, and songwriter as well and he tours in the concerts with me when he's free. We do both the 'Father and Son' Cat Stevens duet from the CD, and another Irish duet as well called 'She Moves Through the Fair'."

After a few decades on stage, it's his concert roots that Colm's returned to as of late, but naturally the theatrical material is there as well. "The concerts basically start from Phantom, and go through Les Miserables, and Man of La Mancha as well. If you're familiar with my Stage Heroes album, I do some of that as well. Then the second half is songs from the new album, along with some of my favorite rock and roll. The evening is very informal, it's a very sort of sing along, clap your hands, have a great time sort of show, and I like that. I like that kind of communication with the audience, and I like them participating. Of course not during the serious stuff, but I just like the mix. It can be quite dangerous to mix genres of music because people have this expectation of you. They'd like you to do the first half Les Miz, and the second half Phantom. I'm known up here for doing the Phantom because I spent four and a half years in the role here. That's what I came to Toronto to do, on a 6 month contract, with an option for another 3 and I'm still here 15 years later."

Canada as his new home, holds a special place in his heart. "I've become a Canadian citizen now as well. It's a great city, hurting at the moment due to various reasons in terms of musical theatre. Wicked's starting here, and I think that's going to be a good thing. I did a gig last Saturday for the Children's AIDS foundation, and was talking to the Mayor, David Miller about this. I was saying that the arts are always the first thing to get cut because people look at it as a luxury item, but you know what, at the bottom end of it, what they should be looking at is the bottom line. The amount of money that the Phantom brought in its 4.5 years in terms of tourist money, and box office money was just phenomenal, and they're missing that, the city is missing that big time."

The Phantom is what he's known for in Toronto, but what many don't know is that he was the first person to sing some of that music in the show's first workshop at composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's yearly Sydmonton Festival. "I created the role of the Phantom, and was the first person to sing that music. I'm very fortunate in my career in that way, I was the first person to sing the Evita music on the original album, the first person to sing the Les Miserables stuff, the first person to sing Jekyll and Hyde. I've been there really at the start of some of the most successful musicals around, which is really fantastic to have been a part of, and I feel very fortunate, very very fortunate."

"The first Phantom workshop was just one act, some of the tunes were in there, but it was substantially changed between that and what wound up on stage as they got the conception of what it was. Maria Bjornson, (designer on the show) she was a genius that woman. She just designed the whole thing, with that black box sort of look from the back in, and it was brilliant. I thought the opening scenes in the Phantom of the Opera, the clothes, the swades of cloth coming in from the sides, it was fantastic how she designed that, it was amazing."

"I actually wore, believe it or not, a complete silver mask, a shiny silver mask that Maria had picked out for me. It wasn't a half-sized, half-faced mask, it was a full face mask. I remember Music of the Night, when I first heard it, and just being the first to sing it, it just knocked me out. I just thought it was amazing, and it was such an emotional song. I actually asked Andrew to take Music of the Night up, he had it in D-flat, and I thought it was a bit low for me. I asked him to take it up to D, up the semi-tone, because I sort of thought it would suit me a little better. He said no, he wanted the black notes, the D-Flat black notes in there. He liked that 'black note' sound, and I remember him saying that, that the song needed the black notes of the piano."

After the workshop came a moment that put Colm Wilkinson in one of the most enviable positions in theatrical history. "Andrew asked me to do the show, but I was already contracted to do Les Miserables at that stage. This was all back in 1985 and I was in rehearsals for Les Miz, while at the same time working on the workshop of Phantom. I remember the conversation, as I was going back in the car from Sydmonton with Cameron Mackintosh. He said 'I know Andrew Lloyd Webber's asked you to play the Phantom, and you are in a very enviable position here. You have an offer to play both roles, but you have to play Les Miserables, you have to play Les Miserables.' They were for a long time looking for someone to play Valjean before they found me, but what he said to me, was if, IF Les Miz doesn't work, then you can do the Phantom."

Les Miz of course did work, and it's naturally a role he loved playing which is why he's returned to it so many times. "I love Les Mis as a piece, and that Valjean role for me was just incredible to do. I was so fortunate to be able to create that role, and to be the first person there with the tune."

His most recent turn singing a couple of those songs was at the big Showstoppers benefit concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall to benefit the Gay Men's Health Crises this fall. "The Showstoppers concert was quite emotional. I was just gobsmacked by it all, because I had no idea, I had no time to check to see who I was performing with until I got down there, and then it was just - wow. To me, the people from the Les Miserables cast, and especially some of the original cast that I worked with were there and that was a real thrill for me. I just loved that, because that cast, was just so special. If you talk about casts, that original cast of Les Miz, on Broadway was just an amazing bunch of people. I have so many fond memories of that, and a lot of the reason that I went down there was because I had a dresser called Alan Lee Kowlski who looked after me in such a great way, and Alan died from AIDS. I didn't say that to anybody, I'm saying it to you now, but that's what was in the back of my mind during the entire concert. I did this for Alan, and I did this for Alan's memory basically."

That wasn't the only thing that made it a nerve-wracking night. "The other part was, I didn't get a chance to rehearse with the orchestra on stage before I went on. Just with the timing, we didn't have a chance to go through it. That made it really mind-blowing to go on and to try and do that because I hadn't got a clue as to what was going on with the sounds. It was sort of like a nightmare for me going out to do that song without having the sound of the orchestra in my head, and to know what to expect from the monitors. I had no balance in my head before I went on. Anyway, it worked out very well from what I hear; I'm not too aware of those things myself but I hear it went well. It was great to be there, and it was great to do it for that cause. All the other talent there that night was just incredible. George Hearn is one of my big heroes, and all of them, it was just great to watch."

Though he's booked up with concerts at the moment, the desire to take back to the stage is definitely still there, should the right part come along. "Right now there are two Irish shows, and one American show that people are talking to me about. You know though, what the theater world is like in terms of funding and finance. So really, I don't take them seriously, I just get on with doing my concerts, which is what I'm doing now, creating the concert circuit. When it comes to the stage (no pun intended) where they have the financing and that they really get serious about it, and they want to talk contracts, then you start taking real interest."

"I have interest in it, absolutely. If there was a role that suited me, and suited me at where I am in my career, that would be terrific, I'd love to."

One of the themes in his career with the roles he's been most known for is a longevity in playing a part. "I found, when I did Phantom for four and a half years, 7-800 performances that it takes a lot out of you. I'm absolutely not knocking it, but I sat down after two years because it was sort of driving me crazy. They looked after me very well, giving me long breaks, etc. but I decided that I would just sit down, in the business of inconsistencies, and decided I would try to make some money. I stayed with it for another two years, and they were happy me to have me, and I was happy to be here in this city which is my home now. I just stayed."

"Obviously, doing a thing for that length of time, no matter what you're doing, there's going to be a certain amount of duress involved. It was a great piece, and was packing-out, doing so well, that it was a great piece to stay in, if you wanted to stay a long time. I decided that I would do that, and it took over my life, really. Every morning you wake up, wondering how your throat is because you've got to do 7, 8 shows a week, you very rarely see your family, because you have to look after yourself very well to stay consistent. That's one big word that a lot of people don't think about, you have to be consistently good. You can't just be good one night. When kids ask me what the one big thing about being an actor is, I think that consistency is the word. Consistency is what you have to have. You can't just be good for the opening night, you have to be good for the next 6 months or the year, and you have to be consistent, or try to be as consistent as possible in your performance."

If another role is out there though, Colm will by there. "Some people say that no one's writing anything anymore, which feels like it's true to a point. I do see a lot of stuff happening though, just looking at your web site, in terms of workshops and things going on, so maybe there's hope. It's great to hear that there's still people writing, and they'll hopefully get financing which is a big problem these days. It's all down to the bottom line, the dollar, and people willing to take a chance is harder to find these days."

In the meantime, both the album and the concerts are selling well and taking up the majority of his time. Look for the album to be released soon in the United States. "I'm shopping around the record for a distribution deal in the US. I'm doing it as a self-produced album, because all the record companies that I went around said that they wanted me to do a Broadway album, and I said that I'd like to do a Broadway album some other time, but right now I want to do this album. They resisted, so I said ok, I'll do it myself. I produced it, put up all the money myself, so EMI did a deal with me here in Canada to get it in the shops. I'm looking for that down in America now, but basically I'm doing all the promotion on it. I'm hoping to recoup, and when I do, I'm going to go back in to do another one."

Sounds good to us! For more information on Colm Wilkinson, visit his official web site at, and to order the incredible Some of My Best Friends are Songs, click here.

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