For Irish-Canadian tenor Colm Wilkinson, this festive season has already been more festive than most.
On Tuesday, his daughter Judith earned her doctorate in the U.K. for a thesis on Samuel Beckett that one juror called the best dissertation he’d ever read.
“I told her, ‘You’re the real Dr. Wilkinson,’” he jokes, alluding to the honourary doctor of laws degree conferred on him in October by Ryerson University for his signal contribution to the arts.
Meanwhile, he’s about to wrap up his fall concert tour, a program of Broadway, country, gospel and Christmas tunes with Susan Gilmour and Patricia O’Callaghan that has played to sold-out auditoria.
And this week, he’s attending a screening of the new Tom Hooper-directed film, Les Miserables, based on the long-running stage production in which Wilkinson, playing the lead role of Jean Valjean, became an international star.
Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name, the big-budget film version of the musical by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer) opens Christmas day across the country.
For Wilkinson, watching the film may be a bittersweet occasion. Had it been made a decade ago, he – instead of Australian hunk Hugh Jackman – would likely have been invited to recreate his stage Valjean. After all, he originated the role in London’s West End in 1985, then moved with it to Broadway in 1987 (where it played for six years).
At 68, however, Wilkinson was a shade too senior for the role and doesn’t have the presumed box-office appeal of Jackman, a former People magazine Sexiest Man Alive and bankable X-Men star.
Instead, Hooper, director of the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, offered him a cameo – as Bishop Myriel, the sympathetic priest who helps steer Valjean on the path of righteousness. He spent about two weeks in England for the shoot “in miserable cold” – a climate warmed, he says, by the welcome he received from the cast and crew.
Although the stage version of Les Mis is still running in the West End – it’s the second-longest-running musical after The Fantasticks – and another company is on the road in the U.S., the show received poor reviews initially, Wilkinson recalls, “but audiences voted with their feet.”
Its longevity is all the more remarkable because, as musicals go, “it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs,” he says. It has endured, he suggests, because its themes and its story remain topical and relevant.
“We still have the haves and the have-nots, poverty and degradation, and people protesting in the streets,” he says. “And it’s very spiritual. It’s about sin and redemption, and conquering adversity. I think there’s a real hunger for that material.”
One of 10 children born to working-class parents in Dublin – his father was an asphalt contractor – Wilkinson says his home was constantly alive with music. “My dad played piano and banjo. My mom performed in operetta, as did several of my sisters. One sister is a successful actress in Ireland.”
By the time he was 15, Wilkinson was excelling in music and failing as a student. The following year, pronounced incorrigible, he was effectively thrown out of school for “singing and acting like an idjit in class.” He embarked soon after with his band on a tour of Irish pubs in America.
Although he worked in his father’s business for five years, “I couldn’t hack it. I just had to get out.” His parents had encouraged his early musical endeavours – but only as a hobby. They doubted whether he could support a family on earnings derived from band gigs. Only after he scored in Les Mis, he says, was his father reconciled to the fact that “I wasn’t ever going to get a day job.”
His professional fortunes began to change in 1972, when Wilkinson won the part of Judas Iscariot in the Dublin production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. He later joined the London cast and appeared in the show’s British national tour.
In 1985, after working as a singer-songwriter in the U.K. under the name T.C. Wilkinson, he originated the title role in Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera at the Sydmonton workshop. Four years later, impresario Garth Drabinsky brought him to Toronto to recreate the role. That experience proved so positive that Wilkinson moved with his wife and four children to the city.
The Valjean role in Les Mis was originally written for a baritone. “So when I went in to audition, I started jumping octaves,” he says. He won the part the same day. “Then they rewrote it for a tenor and added the powerful ballad Bring Him Home for me. I was so fortunate.”
In recent years, Wilkinson has concentrated on recording and touring, sometimes performing with his singer-songwriter son, Aaron.
His own professional durability, Wilkinson says, comes from protecting the asset. As he told the Ryerson grads in October, “look after your body and your body will look after you. That means proper sleep, no partying, no drugs, no drinking.” His only indulgence is a very occasional glass of red wine.
He would like to spend more time with his family, but there are no plans for retirement any time soon. There’s at least one film offer pending and a concert tour of China in development. As long as the equipment holds out, he’ll keep singing. And so far, he says, the pipes are still robust. “I tell ya,” he says with a laugh, “I listen to what’s coming out of my mouth, and even I am amazed.”