After Les Miz and Phantom, he swore never to commit to another musical. Then, he tells Richard Ouzounian came The Pirate Queen
Catch him while you can.
When Colm Wilkinson takes the stage at Roy Thomson Hall this Friday for a concert called Some of My Best Friends are Songs, it might be the last chance Toronto will have to hear him sing for quite a while. It looks like Broadway's calling him once again.
The 61-year-old Dublin-born performer is best known for having created the role of Jean Valjean in the giant hit Les Miserables. Now the authors of that show, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, have offered Wilkinson the male lead in their latest work, The Pirate Queen, which is slated to open in New York next season.
"Don't worry," jokes Wilkinson, "I'm not playing the title role. I told them I wouldn't shave the beard off."
The marquee character in the show is the larger-than-life historical figure, Grace O'Malley, who cut a swath in the history of 16th-century Ireland and England with her swashbuckling activities.
"She was an amazing character," enthuses Wilkinson from his comfortable Rosedale home. "At a point in time when women were being relegated to the domestic front, she took to the sea and proved herself as bold and successful a brigand as any man of the period."
If everything works out as all the parties concerned are hoping, Wilkinson will be playing O'Malley's father.
"He wasn't a plunderer himself as such," explains Wilkinson, "he was the chieftain of his clan during that time when it was impossible to rule Ireland. The forests were impassable, the sea was the highway and the bravest sailor was the obvious leader."
Hearing Wilkinson's enthusiasm for the project, it's easy to understand how he'd put aside his oft-stated vow "to never again get involved with one of those giant musicals that devour your life."
He knows what he's talking about. After a peripatetic career that saw him doing everything from hard-driving rock 'n' roll to Andrew Lloyd Webber concept albums, he found himself in a whole new world when Les Miserables opened in 1985.
"You feel like you're carrying the show on your shoulders," he recalls, "and no matter how much you enjoy the work, it eventually gets to be like banging your head against a wall every night."
But after all those years with Les Miz in London and New York, Wilkinson still hadn't had his quota of mega-musical stardom.
Garth Drabinsky asked him to headline the Toronto company of The Phantom of the Opera and Wilkinson agreed to come here for six months.
"That was 16 years ago," he laughs, "and I'm still around. Do you have any doubts how much I like this city?"
After his multi-year stint in Phantom, Wilkinson tended to stay away from the stage, favouring the concert circuit instead. He was coaxed back to play Jean Valjean on several occasions, most notably during the memorable 2002 Shanghai production, but he said no to dozens of musical theatre opportunities, including the lead role in the long-running Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde.
"People think you're a nut if you keep turning down offers," he concedes, "but you've only got a certain amount of time in your life and so much you want to do. You waste a year with a show you didn't really want to do and then you think `That's 12 months I could have spent seeing the world.'"
Wilkinson's itch for travel was fanned by his brief visit to China in 2002 and he admits that "I'd like to go back there, to discover how the people live throughout the country, not just in the cities. I'd like to visit India. So many different cultures to see, to experience."
But despite all that, he had several strong impulses tugging him back into the world of musical theatre.
"The Pirate Queen is being directed and produced by the team of John McColgan and Moya Doherty, the duo who made Riverdance such a world success. I first met them back in Ireland nearly 40 years ago, so when they asked me to take a look at their show, I couldn't say no."
The other powerful force was that of Boublil and Schonberg, who had provided Wilkinson with his signature hit, "Bring Him Home."
"It's a funny thing about that song," muses Wilkinson. "Over the years, I'd almost come to take it for granted. Then, a few months ago, I went down to New York to hear the music for The Pirate Queen and Claude-Michel played it for me once again.
"Hearing him perform it at the piano brought it all back to me again. He's so passionate about his music, you can't help but get drawn in by the emotion."
Wilkinson has always been partial to songs with deep levels of personal meaning and his program on Friday will reflect that. Besides the expected selections from the shows that made him famous, he'll be singing old standards like "Red Sails in the Sunset," which he loves because "it's the tune my father used to woo my mother."
A medley of Ray Charles hits will pay tribute to the influence the late great artist had on Wilkinson's work and serve as a memory of the time they met in 1986 at that year's Kennedy Center Honors gala.
And of course, as a nod to his Irish heritage, there'll be poetry from W.B. Yeats and a floor-stomping rendition of "Whiskey in the Jar."
Wilkinson admits the hardest part of a live performance like this is that "people still want you to sound like you did 20 years ago and like the song says, `It's funny how time slips away.'"
But whether it's on Broadway or in Roy Thomson Hall, there's one thing Wilkinson is sure of.
"I love singing and I love music. I'd never want to leave them. I couldn't. They're a part of me."
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