I was looking through some of the photographs on my phone the other day and I stumbled upon the one on the right, which was taken just this past December. With all the hype surrounding the latest film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s play, it’s not that unusual to find members of the younger generation who have never heard of Les Misérables, the musical from whence iconic songs like “On My Own”, “I Dreamed A Dream”, and “Bring Him Home” hail. I would also be far from surprised if, when asked about the actor who played Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman’s name is the only one to come to mind. But I’d like to change that. And although the range of my influence extends only so far as to the poor, unsuspecting souls in my classroom and the handful of friends whose daily lives fill up my newsfeed on Facebook, I will do my small part to make sure those around me know Colm Wilkinson, the legend.
Wilkinson was born on 5 June 1944 in Drimnagh, a suburb of Dublin, Ireland. He is one of 10 children born to a very musical family. Although he worked for the family business for a while, after visiting the US on tour when he was 16, Wilkinson decided that devoting his time to music was more his calling. He was part of a few Irish bands before being cast as Judas Iscariot in the Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Some of his other roles and singing parts included Che in the Evita concept album, Dr. Jekyll in the Jekyll and Hyde concept album, and the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera at the Sydmonton Festival on Webber’s estate.
Perhaps the role for which he is rightfully most recognized is that of Jean Valjean in the original London production of Les Misérables. Wilkinson played the ex-con in England’s capital for two years until—after a stand-off between the American Actors’ Equity Association and Les Mis producer, Cameron Mackintosh—he and the show moved to Broadway in the spring of 1987. In 1989, Wilkinson relocated with his entire family to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, upon being offered the titular role in the original Toronto production of The Phantom. In 1995, Wilkinson was part of an all-star cast that celebrated the 10th anniversary of Les Mis. Fellow castmates included Phillip Quast, Michael Ball, Judy Kuhn, and Lea Salonga.
In recent years, Wilkinson has been touring in concerts around the world, many of which are held in Canada and the UK. He appeared on the small screen as Lord Darcy in The Tudors, and he was part of US Senator Ted Kennedy’s birthday celebration and memorial service in 2009. He celebrated the 25th anniversary of Les Mis, held at the O2 arena in London in 2010, with a special appearance and performance at the end of the show. And to bring his Valjean role to full circle, Wilkinson played the Bishop of Digne in the 2012 movie (yes, the one with Hugh Jackman). There was an especially poignant moment at the end of the movie when Wilkinson’s Bishop offers his hand to Jackman’s Valjean, which was a very gracious and noble nod to Wilkinson’s contribution to the musical’s success.
If you have never had the opportunity to hear Colm Wilkinson live, I highly suggest you do so. Tickets are not cheap, but venues sell out quickly, which clearly demonstrates that the tickets are more than worth it. Moreover, his CDs, all of which he graciously autographs beforehand, are available for sale during the event. Wilkinson will entertain you with his humorous anecdotes and touching tributes. And of course, you will be mesmerized by the range and calibre of his voice: You will walk away from the concert marvelling at the notion that you were just in the same room as such an esteemed and talented artist. At the concert that we attended, Wilkinson wowed us with choices from his latest album, “Broadway and Beyond: The Concert Songs”. His songs ranged from renowned classics like “Music of the Night” and “This is the Moment” to memorable melodies such as “Hallelujah” and “Whiskey in the Jar”. The audience collectively held its breath (and let tears fall) during his touching rendition of “Danny Boy”, which he sung with such lyrical emotion that it almost felt like we had all just lost a loved one. Such is the magic of Colm Wilkinson.