Michael Burgess made you feel proud. Whether he was singing the national anthem, stirringly, for a Toronto Maple Leafs game or leading an exceptional cast as a mighty Jean Valjean in the landmark all-Canadian production of Les Misérables, Mr. Burgess knew how to pluck the national heartstrings. He was the world-class singer who chose to remain in Canada; the exquisite theatre artist whose biggest thrill was playing old timers' hockey with the NHL greats.
Mr. Burgess was also a man with a big heart to match his big voice, whose acts of generosity were legion. He continually lent his golden tenor and magnetic presence to charitable causes and was always there for his friends. Their appreciation was reflected in the huge outpouring of love and affection that swiftly followed the news of his death at the age of 70 on Sept. 28. Everyone from theatre impresario David Mirvish to hockey legend Bobby Orr expressed their sorrow via both traditional and social media. "Today, we have lost a great Canadian," Mr. Orr said in a statement – a sentiment few would dispute.
And yet Mr. Burgess's death from cancer in a Toronto hospice has left some of his friends angry, too. "Michael had a proclivity for not dealing with some of the personal things in his life," said David Warrack, his long-time friend and musical accompanist. And that included neglecting to seek medical help for his skin cancer until it was too late. "Combined with our sorrow is a lot of anger," Mr. Warrack said. "We think he'd still be with us if we'd ever been able to convince him to deal with it properly."
"We should have staged an intervention," said actor-producer Ross Petty, another old friend. "But I guess we thought that he would never listen to us. He always avoided discussing his health."
It would appear that if Mr. Burgess had a tragic flaw, it was an ironic one: The man who was always so happy to help others was strangely reluctant to help himself.
Mr. Burgess, known as Wally to his family, was born Walter Roy Burgess in Regina, on July 22, 1945. A Roman Catholic, his confirmation saint's name was Michael and he later adopted it as his professional name. He was the oldest child of William (Bill) Burgess and Dorothy (Dolly) Burgess (née Aldercotte), who would go on to provide him with six brothers and sisters.
Bill Burgess, an aspiring lawyer, moved the family to Toronto in 1946. Growing up in suburban Etobicoke, Wally began to embrace two of his lifelong passions at an early age. "He was an excellent hockey player," his brother Wayne recalled. "Every winter, between the ages of eight and 13, we created a hockey rink in our backyard and broke many a basement window with our unerringly accurate slap shots."
His true gift, however, began to emerge when he and Wayne were enrolled at St. Michael's Choir School. By the time he was a teenager, Wally Burgess was singing on CBC Television's Cross-Canada Hit Parade and Holiday Ranch as well as on the radio.
After briefly considering the priesthood and a career in law, he studied acting at the University of Ottawa, inevitably playing the lead roles in student and amateur productions.
It was back in Western Canada that Mr. Burgess made his professional debut with an Edmonton production of the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks at the Citadel Theatre in 1969. Mr. Petty first met him in 1972, when they were cast in the staging of another off-Broadway hit, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, at Theatre Calgary. Mr. Petty said in that show there were already intimations of Mr. Burgess's future Les Mis triumph.
"One of the most vivid memories I have is at the end of Act 1, when he sang [Jacques] Brel's Amsterdam," Mr. Petty recalled.
"It was searing, it was like an anthem, full of bitterness. One might even say his performance was a forerunner of his Jean Valjean. He had that power and intensity, even in the early seventies."
As his career progressed, Mr. Burgess began to shift away from musical theatre and into opera. It wasn't until the end of the 1980s that he found the perfect role that melded both art forms. When he landed the part of Jean Valjean in the first Canadian production of the London-New York hit Les Misérables, which opened in March, 1989, at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, he helped prove that his country had talent every bit as extraordinary as what could be found on West End and Broadway stages. And while Les Mis was an ensemble show with no official "stars," Mr. Burgess's performance soon became one of its major attractions.
Actor David Mucci, now an associate producer with Mirvish Productions, Les Mis's Toronto producer, was part of the ensemble and remembers understudying Mr. Burgess as Jean Valjean on tour. "I think the largest collective sigh of audience disappointment in the history of Canadian theatre happened at [Ottawa's] National Arts Centre, when I had to go on for Michael without a lot of notice," Mr. Mucci said. "People loved him."
During this period he also performed in various film and television productions, including the Canadian series Street Legal and E.N.G. He told The Globe and Mail in 1991 how he had recently been working 12-hour days on the set of his first feature film, called Entry in a Diary, and would then take a cab to the Royal Alex to star in the evening as Jean Valjean.
It was in the Les Mis cast that Mr. Burgess met his future wife, Susan Gilmour, who took over the role of the tragic prostitute Fantine (originally played by another girlfriend, Louise Pitre). Ms. Gilmour said she first fell for her co-star's "beautiful blue, kind eyes and voice of an angel." But his personality was what made him truly attractive. "Michael was a gentle, giving, loving man who would go out of his way to help a stranger on the street," she said, "an extremely intelligent and curious person that I learned so much from. And he had the ability to always make me laugh, even in the hardest of times." The two were married in 1994 and spent some very happy years together; they divorced in 2008 but remained friends.
After conquering audiences with Les Mis, Mr. Burgess's next logical step would have been to take on the lead role in the other long-running megamusical playing Toronto at the time, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. But to many fans' disappointment, he never donned the Phantom's mask. Rebecca Caine, who starred as Christine Daaé in the Toronto production, believed producer Garth Drabinsky's rivalry with the Mirvishes was to blame. "Drabinsky … saw Burgess as their man," Ms. Caine said. "It's a very poor thing that the best Canadian we had didn't play the role he was born for."
Instead, Mr. Burgess found other worthy stage projects, including an Edmonton-Toronto revival of Man of La Mancha, directed by Robin Phillips. He also took to the concert circuit with great success and recorded several albums. His celebrated sideline as an anthem singer reached its peak in 1992, when the Toronto Blue Jays advanced to the finals and he became the first singer to belt out O Canada at a World Series game.
Mr. Burgess himself was an all-around sportsman. Mr. Warrack remembers joining him for annual old timers' hockey events and watching him hold his own alongside legendary NHL players. "He could fly like the wind on the ice. And he was a phenomenal golfer, too." Mr. Warrack said the most fun he ever had with Mr. Burgess was joking and bantering on the golf course. "His sense of humour was absolutely wicked. That's where you saw the kid in him that never left."
Occasionally that kid would also emerge in the formal confines of the concert hall. Ms. Caine, who did a concert tour with Mr. Burgess in 2012-13, recalls that he once told an audience she'd had to stop and urinate in the forest on the way to the show. "We always said it wasn't a Canadian tour unless you peed behind a pine tree at least once. This with me standing up there in an evening gown, pretending to be a lady."
By then, Mr. Burgess was already suffering from the basal cell carcinoma that would gradually kill him. "Michael was obviously ill, though he sang beautifully," Ms. Caine said. "We never discussed it but it was so clear to see." The disease was facially disfiguring, which limited his public appearances toward the end of his life. Yet even as he was dying in the Dorothy Ley Hospice in Etobicoke, Mr. Burgess was thinking of others. "Last week," Mr. Warrack said, "when he was going through hell, he phoned me up and said, 'Give me Lona' – that's my wife – and he sang Happy Birthday to her. How he could think of someone's birthday in the midst of everything else, I don't know. But that's what he was like."
Mr. Burgess was recognized for his public service with a Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 – presented to him, fittingly, by former NHL star and Liberal senator, Frank Mahovlich – and he was named to the Order of Ontario in 2013.
He leaves his son, Jesse, from a first marriage; his mother, Dorothy, and his six siblings, Wayne, Missy, Cathy, Bill, Patty and Julie. A public funeral mass for Mr. Burgess will take place on Oct. 5 at noon at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Toronto.
While there was nobody like Mr. Burgess for making hearts swell at the singing of O Canada, his signature song remained the tear-inducing Bring Him Home from Les Mis. It's the hero Jean Valjean's aching plea to God to take him in exchange for sparing the life of the young man whom he considers a son. Perhaps the power of Mr. Burgess's rendition rests in the way that prayer seemed to come from his own heart, reflecting his own selfless nature. It will, of course, be sung at the funeral.
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