When Jean Valjean, musical theater's most lovable bread thief, takes shelter with the Bishop of Digne in the new movie "Les Misérables," a select group of audience members applaud.
Not because the emaciated Valjean (a very thin Hugh Jackman) is finally getting a proper meal—they're applauding Colm Wilkinson, who plays the Bishop, and who originated the role of Valjean in London and on Broadway.
"I thought it was a lovely way to say goodbye to the show and the part," says Mr. Wilkinson, whose role in the movie is small but pivotal: He gives the thieving Valjean a pair of silver candlesticks, thereby setting him on the path of righteousness.
Mr. Wilkinson, now 68, was 41 when he was cast as "Prisoner 24601" in London. At the time, director Trevor Nunn was complaining to lyricist Tim Rice that he couldn't find anyone to play Valjean, who serves 19 years on a chain gang after stealing a loaf of bread, breaks parole, and is hounded relentlessly by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe in the movie version).
"I need someone who looks like a convict, can carry a man on his back, and who sings like an angel," Mr. Nunn told Mr. Rice. "Oh, that's Colm Wilkinson," Mr. Rice said.
The musical opened at London's Barbican Theatre on Oct. 8, 1985, to uneven reviews. Some found it "sentimental" and "middlebrow"; others thought it was the best musical of the year, writes Jessica Sternfeld in "The Megamusical: Profiles in Popular Music." In the end, it didn't matter what the critics thought—audiences loved it. The show sold out the next day, and moved to the West End, where it is still playing today, and then to Broadway, where Mr. Wilkinson became a sensation, winning rave reviews and a slew of awards.
Mr. Wilkinson also recorded both the original British and American cast recordings, along with the 10th-anniversary recording, making his dramatic tenor synonymous with the saintly parolee's, says Ms. Sternfeld. The musical is now the third-longest-running Broadway show, behind "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera," and has grossed more than $2.5 billion since opening.
Mr. Wilkinson says he didn't offer Mr. Jackman any advice for the movie. "Hugh knows exactly what he's doing," says the singer. Still, Mr. Jackman and others would joke, "Here comes the boss!" when Mr. Wilkinson arrived on set. The actor has read Victor Hugo's book so many time he refers to it as his "bible."
Mr. Wilkinson, who hasn't seen the film because he's busy on a holiday concert tour, says it was his idea to play the Bishop in the movie, and he approached producer Cameron Mackintosh about it years ago. "I thought it would be a nice way to hand over the candlesticks to someone else."
The Colm Wilkinson Fan Club
Canadian Premiere Tour
"Broadway And Beyond The Concert