Irish Independant
07/22/2007


A Natural Story Teller



Last November, when Colm Wilkinson bounded onto the stage as part of the National Concert Hall's Ireland's Finest evening , it was clear that the audience was in for a treat. Looking fit and extremely trim in a black suit, here was some serious razzle-dazzle.

Wilkinson sang only three songs, including the famous Bring Him Home from Les Miserables, but such was the high energy and emotion of his performance that, for many, he was the highlight of the evening. He threw in a few gags, showing that he was still the same down-to-earth Dubliner but there was no getting away from one simple fact -- Colm Wilkinson left everybody spellbound, as the standing ovation testified.

So, no wonder the Toronto-based singer is back. This evening ,he will perform in the National Concert Hall Summer Proms -- Colm Wilkinson on Broadway. Not surprisingly, the concert is sold out. But I predict a queue for cancellations; this man holds a special place in many Irish people's hearts.

Whether it was singing in the Eurovision Song Contest, performing in Noel Pearson's production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Gaiety, or doing James Brown songs in the group The Action, C.T. Wilkinson (as he was once called), was always there, grafting away. That was before he hit the big time with Jesus Christ Superstar in London, in 1974 and 10 years later he starred as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in the West End and on Broadway.

After that he did The Phantom of the Opera in Toronto for four and a half years. These days, he is busy doing concerts -- Broadway and Beyond -- and there is a new musical in the pipeline. This is typical Colm Wilkinson, I learn. Yes, he is a success, but he has never lost the run of himself. How could he, with a family who were always honest with him. When he first got the part in Jesus Christ Superstar in the Gaiety his mother refused to see it. "She wouldn't talk to me for six months afterwards, all because I was playing the part of Judas. She said, 'Colm, any part but that. Do you know what he did to our Lord ?'" He laughs as he tells me that she eventually softened and saw him in the show in London. She loved it.

He is modest about his huge success in the musicals but he tells me a story about his final night on Broadway in 'Les Mis'.

"They were actually exchanging tickets for my last night for five thousand dollars each. When I heard, I said. 'Sh*t, why didn't you tell me ? I would have bought 20 and flogged them myself.,This is typical Colm Wilkinson, I learn. Yes, he is a success but he has never lost the run of himself. He has met real royalty, musical royalty, presidents and so many stars, but at the end of the day, he tells me that he thinks that "people are just people".

There is something endearingly genuine about Wilkinson and his willingness to tell stories against himself is very healthy for a man of his stature.

He recalls the time he was in the line up to meet President Reagan some years back, when the American president was goggle-eyed in the middle of fresh world conflicts. Colm asked , "When are you coming in to see the show?" to which Reagan replied, "I'm kind of tied up right now, but I'll try.,When Colm met Prince Charles, and was again in line for the allowed six seconds, Colm asked him if he ever thought of doing a bit of acting.

And he sounds like an excited schoolboy when he remembers meeting Sammy Davis Junior. I said to him, "Mr. Davis, it's an honour to meet you . . . and he said 'Call me Sammy.',Wilkinson is no bragger but he has met many big names along the way, and I demanded that he tell me some tales about them. As he talks about his idols, he sounds star-struck, and again, there is his refreshing take on things. Who else would tell you that Frank Sinatra seemed a little henpecked by his wife Barbara -- "She roared at him 'Frank, your friends are here' and he tottered out, all apologies" -- or that Ray Charles had lovely smooth hands.

But enough about the lives of others, Wilkinson's own story is a good one too. From singing at tennis club hops to slogging through noisy cabarets, here is a man who has done his time before he reached the summit.

"People ask me if I had a plan", he tells me, "I didn't, I just went where the work was." But what he forgets to add is, boy, did he work.

On the day I meet him, I find it hard to believe that he is now 63. Such is the force of his energy, that when he whizzes into the Carolan room in the Concert Hall, the air almost combusts. He is an entertainer down to his very fingertips -- he doesn't so much answer my questions as perform, telling story after story, doing all the voices and accents. "I know I'm rapping on . . . but I love this," he says.

He is almost apologetic about it until I tell him that he has my full permission to talk about himself; what is an interview if not that.

"My kids are always saying -- 'Give us a break, Dad, it's back to me again.' It's like the old saying. 'Well, enough talk about me, let's talk about you. What do you think of me ?' When singers warm up it's 'me, me me.' They say that people in the business, once they stop talking about themselves, a glazed look comes over their eyes.,Is it true, Colm? Do you plead guilty? "Yeah, I plead guilty. I love bullsh*tting about different things.

But Wilkinson sells himself short by regarding his tales as waffle. What he is, is a natural- born storyteller. When he sings, he tells me that he pictures the song, all the scenes are in his head. It shows. "When I do master-classes, I say to kids, 'You don't have to sound like Pavarotti or Ray Charles. Sound like yourself but tell the story, tell it emotionally, truthfully and if you're sincere, people will recognise that. People are touched by truth.',And so, in recounting his own story, Colm tells it truthfully. OK, there may be some embellishments along the way for comic effect --and he even admits to these -- but he is very honest about his life, the struggles and the success.

"Isn't it funny, the harder you work the luckier you get?" he says. "Consistency, that's the key in this business.,Born in Drimnagh, Dublin, Colm was the fifth child in a family of ten. Music was always in his home on Mangerton Road. His mother would sing around the house -- 'Lavender's Blue, dilly dilly' and the first time she met her husband, he was playing Red Sails in the Sunset on the piano. There were sing-songs in their house and on those evenings, his sisters often morphed into the Andrew Sisters.

"I had an in-built R.A.D.A. at home," Colm says, as he remembers his father clowning around on the banjo or playing the piano with the window wide open, for all the neighbours to hear. The Christian Brothers picked Colm out of the school choir and entered him in the Feis Maitiu, singing Irish songs, but he didn't come home with medals. "My mother used to keep on buying me these new shirts which choked me and I couldn't sing properly." But the hunger to perform was still there.

At the age of 14, Colm borrowed his sister's boyfriend's jacket and headed off to Perky Hop to sing, with his pal Tony Purcell, during the interval. It's hard to believe that when he got up on stage, singing Blue Suede Shoes and Come on Everybody, he was so nervous he had his back to the audience. How times have changed. He's come a long way since then, sucking the audience in straightaway, but still suffers from stage nerves.

He says he couldn't do what he does without his wife Deirdre. She is his rock and an "incredible person".

"She has the patience of Job to live with me. I get into funks before I do a gig. I get all tense. I'd say I'm not the easiest to live with. But Deirdre talks me through it, she's great.,Deirdre and their four children give him stability and prevent him from disappearing up his rear end.

He says that he wouldn't be where he is today without his Deirdre and tells a tale to illustrate this.

When Colm was in rehearsals for Jesus Christ Superstar in London, he came back to his flat and phoned Deirdre. She was back in Dublin with their two young kids. It was two weeks to opening night and he was lonely and scared. They were changing the script every few days and he was starting to panic.

"I said -- 'This is too much for me. I've got to get out of here. I can't hack it. I'll either be in the chorus or I'll quit the gig.' She said 'Colm, do what you want to do, but you've always done lead roles ... You don't belong in the chorus.,He repeats the line, "You don't belong in the chorus", then covers his face with his hands, apologising for getting emotional.

She never said a truer word. If ever there was a man born for the spotlight, it is he.

"I love applause. Any performer who tells you they don't like applause is lying.,After purgatorial years of singing in noisy cabarets, he finally got to be centre stage by graft ing like hell and he is still slogging, swimming for an hour every morning and watching what he eats. He might have a glass of red wine every six months, but none at all if he is working. Now that's discipline and dedication.

"You really have to be driven in this business, obsessed almost", he says and so he is... See him for yourself tonight. The boy from Drimnagh still dazzles.

Colm Wilkinson on Broadway with special guest Rebecca Storm in the National Concert Hall Summer Proms in the Iveagh Gardens this evening at 7.30pm. Phone 01-4170000 or www.nch.ie www.colmwilkinson.com



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