Back in the mid 1980s, Colm Wilkinson found himself facing a major musical theatre dilemma – should he take the part of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables or play the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera? Both parts had been offered to him (the latter after he workshopped the show at Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival in 1985) and both shows offered good reasons for appearing in them.
One was a new musical penned by the man who had already had successes with shows such as Starlight Express, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, the other had the clout of Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Shakespeare Company behind it and was the work of two promising, but then unknown, French writers.
As it happens, however, Wilkinson had already signed to appear in Les Miserables, and was persuaded by Mackintosh not to break that contract.
“A lot of people don’t know that,” Wilkinson explains. “I did the workshop of Phantom and Andrew asked me to do the musical in London, but I was contracted to Les Mis. And Cameron never refers to this, but on the way back from Sydmonton he said, ‘I think they are both fantastic roles. I don’t know how successful they will be, but you have to do Les Mis first’.”
Mackintosh may not have had any idea how successful either of the shows would be, but as we now know, both productions went on to be – and remain – incredibly popular. But there must have a time, you suspect, when Wilkinson wondered whether he had made the right decision. Because as we also now know, Les Miserables was panned by the critics when it opened (with the exception of The Stage’s critic Peter Hepple).
Wilkinson says he was “dismayed” by this reaction, adding: “They did not attack anyone personally, but they attacked the piece. They called it The Glums and I could not understand that, as, when it was at the Barbican, people were going bananas about it. In the end, people voted with their feet. And it was the English people who created that musical. They came, voted with their feet and they made that musical. Because then it transferred to the West End and it made history.”
To this day, Wilkinson considers Les Miserables the “most dramatic musical” out there. He says that purists may look upon Les Mis and Phantom as lighter fare when compared to other productions, such as Porgy and Bess, but he argues that Valjean and the Phantom are two of the best roles ever written for a singer and an actor.
“The test for me was doing these shows over a long period of time,” he adds. “I could go away, come back and do the shows again, and the music would always take me again. People ask me how I sang the role of the Phantom 1,700 times. And I say that it’s down to good material. If it did not have good material, I would have had a major problem doing it for that length of time.”
Given his connection to both shows (he also appeared in the original Broadway production of Les Mis in 1987 and appeared as the Bishop in last year’s film version), it’s no surprise he continues to perform numbers from the musical in his solo concerts.
His latest solo tour, Broadway and Beyond, will include numbers from Les Mis and Phantom – partly because he loves to sing them, and partly because he knows there will be uproar from some members of the audience if he doesn’t.
“You do get a lot of people complaining if you don’t do songs they have come to expect,” he says laughing. “I have to be careful about fulfilling that side of things and keeping it fresh for other people who have come to see the show.”
With this in mind, alongside the musical theatre songs he’s obliged to do, Wilkinson will sing country and western numbers such as Help Me Make It Through the Night, as well as some Beatles songs, and Imagine by John Lennon. In honour of his Irish roots, he says he has to sing Danny Boy, too. And if that’s not enough, he will also take requests.
“Because it’s all about having fun,” he adds. “There’s nothing formal, or stagey, or shaped about it. I just want people to enjoy themselves and have a good time, basically.”
It’s hard to believe – given how long he has been in the industry and how many shows he has appeared in – that this tour marks the first time he has ever performed in the UK with a solo concert. By contrast, he has performed many solo shows in Ireland, the country he is from. It was in Ireland where Wilkinson’s career began, appearing from a young age with bands, singing what he describes as “rock’n’roll, and jazz and blues”. At the age of 16 he went to New York, to work with a band there, but it was in 1972 when Wilkinson made the transition to musical theatre. He was asked to appear as Judas in Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, first in Ireland, and later in London.
“The part of Judas was to me a rock’n’roll thing,” he explains. “I thought it fitted me well. And it got me noticed by people like Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, but after Jesus Christ Superstar in London, I went back to Ireland. I then did various things in the West End, but I was based in Ireland.”
Despite having worked with Lloyd Webber on Jesus Christ Superstar, and having appeared on the concept album of Evita in 1976, Wilkinson decided not to audition for the role of Che in the original stage production of Evita. Instead, he concentrated on his solo career, but was reunited with Lloyd Webber in 1985 – working with the composer on The Phantom of the Opera at Sydmonton. And although he didn’t take the role of the Phantom when the show went to London, Wilkinson did take it up when it ran in Toronto in 1989. He moved his family to Canada for that, and still lives there today.
Although he admits that he does miss Ireland, and has a longing to return. “I want to go back,” he says. “I want to be with the people I started out with basically.”
He may want to be nearer to those he started out with, but what about those starting out today? With all his experience in the theatre, he has plenty of advice for aspiring performers.
Wilkinson, who had a brief period at RADA, says: “It’s called showbusiness, and the business end of it is very important, especially now. You have to learn the business end of it, otherwise you get ripped off left, right and centre. You have to learn how to read contracts, how to position yourself and about marketing. That is why you find the most successful artists are the ones who can mix creativity with business.”
He reveals that around 80% of his own time is spent “talking about contracts, venues and musicians”, while the other 20% is about music and singing.
Even though only 20% of his time is spent actually singing, Wilkinson knows he has to take care of his voice and his general health. This is something he says young performers should be doing too.
“I tell kids, if you don’t look after your body, your body won’t look after you,” he says. “If you want to stay in this business a long time, you must look after it. If you don’t feel good you don’t sound good. I look after myself – I try to sleep well, and dairy is not good for your voice.”
He adds: “I indulge every now and then. But generally, I work with my body and my voice, so I look after it. I think it’s common sense.”
Colm Wilkinson brings his Broadway and Beyond tour to the Edinburgh Playhouse on June 20, the Lyceum Theatre in London on June 24, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, June 29 and Belfast’s Grand Opera House on July 10. Tour details can be found at www.colmwilkinson.com