It would take a lot to crack the mystique of singer Colm Wilkinson, the Irish-Canadian tenor best-known for his towering stage performances in Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.
After all, this is the man who originated the musical role of Jean Valjean, the virtuous and physically imposing protagonist of Victor Hugo’s sprawling epic about justice, suffering and redemption. He was Canada’s first Phantom, the shadowy and ominous force lurking below the Opera Populaire.
But Wilkinson, it seems, isn’t adverse to having a bit of fun with himself.
Take the following behind-the-scenes yarn about Phantom, which involves a less-than-graceful move that found him stuck face-first to a makeup table.
“This girl who does my makeup reminded me the other day that I was reading a letter once and she had put this glue on my face to put this prosthetic mask on,” says the amiable singer, in an interview from his home in Toronto. “I leaned down to pick up the letter up off the floor and somehow my face came in contact with the table and I got stuck. It was probably so embarrassing that I tried to forget about it. But she said ‘It took me about half-an-hour to get your face off.’”
Whether or not this self-deflating tale will be rolled out Tuesday when Wilkinson’s touring Broadway, Christmas and Beyond show comes to the Jack Singer Concert Hall in unclear. But the Irish-born singer will likely be filling the night not only with his soaring takes on Broadway songs, Christmas carols and other favourites, but between-song anecdotes as well. It doesn’t take long into a conversation with Wilkinson for his fondness for storytelling to shine through.
It all ups the intimacy for the show, which will mix the expected and unexpected when it comes to song choice.
Obviously, the Irish-born singer could not get away with abandoning the showtune staples he is known for — Les Miserables’ Bring Him Home, Phantom’s Music of the Night, Jekyll & Hyde’s This is the Moment — but he sprinkles in some unexpected treats as well.
For this tour, those include runs through Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make it Through the Night, the Bee Gees obscurity First of May, Muddy Waters’ Mojo Working and Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. The latter, in which the narrator shoots a man in Reno “just to watch him die,” may not be the first song that springs to mind when thinking of Christmas cheer. But there’s a story behind that too.
“Our (last Irish) president, Mary McAleese, was a big fan of his and was a fan of me and she used to come to my concerts,” he says. “I found out through a guy she was a big Johnny Cash fan so I did that song for her that night and it went a storm. The crowd just loves it and I like doing it, strangely enough. So we kept it in.”
Actually, the song choices aren’t as strange as they might initially seem. While Wilkinson is best known for his powerful theatrical roles, he got his start as a teenager playing in bands.
“I came from a jazz and blues and rock ’n’ roll background initially,” he says. “I was in America playing in bands when I was 16 years of age.”
Wilkinson made the switch to theatre in 1972, when he was cast as Judas Iscariot in a Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a role he would eventually take to London. What followed was a mix of stage roles and his own recording career, which included an eponymous debut that stayed No. 1 on the Irish charts for eight weeks.
But in 1985, he originated the role of Jean Valjean on the West End in London and later on Broadway. It was his most famous role until Andrew Lloyd Webber tapped him for the lead in the Toronto production of Phantom of the Opera in 1989. He moved to Toronto and stayed on the production for four-and-a-half years, turning in 1,700 performances.
On Christmas Day, Les Miserable will be released as a big-budget Hollywood musical with Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Russell Crowe as his relentless pursuer, Javert.
Wilkinson appears as well, playing the kindly Bishop of Digne who helps put Valjean on a more virtuous path. In the story, Valjean robs him after being taken in. When caught, he is brought back to the church. But in an act of kindness, the Bishop tells the police that he had given the stolen items to Valjean. He then gives him some silver candlesticks as well, allowing Valjean to turn his life around.
Now 68, Wilkinson says it is unlikely he ever will reprise the role of Valjean.
“When I handed the candlesticks to Hugh Jackman, I was handing the baton to someone else,” he says. “That was it. It was over for me and I had come full circle.”
Colm Wilkinson plays the Jack Singer Concert Hall On Tuesday.
The Colm Wilkinson Fan Club
Canadian Premiere Tour
"Broadway And Beyond The Concert