InDepth InterView Exclusive: Colm Wilkinson Talks LES MISERABLES, PHANTOM, EVITA, Concerts & A Return to the Stage?
Today we are talking to the originator of Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES onstage and a preeminent Phantom (and the first to actually play the role in the workshop) in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA who has clearly made a major mark with his performances in the theatre - not to mention his work on the original concept albums of EVITA and JEKYLL & HYDE - and who now makes the leap to the big screen in his featured part in the super-successful feature film iteration of the Claude-Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil musical based on the Victor Hugo novel - the titanically talented Colm Wilkinson. Opening up about his work in the original Royal Shakespeare Company production of LES MISERABLES and his collaboration with the creative team and cast of actors as well as his association with producer Cameron Mackintosh, director Trevor Nunn and more, Wilkinson details the finer points of creating one of the modern musical theatre's most memorable characters, from his first audition through to the West End, Broadway and beyond. Additionally, Wilkinson reveals all about shooting the feature film version, with Broadway/Hollywood superstar Hugh Jackman taking over the leading role and whether he would consider playing another character in the show after having essayed Jean Valjean onstage and the Monsignor onscreen - maybe Javert someday? Plus, Wilkinson shares backstage stories involving fellow theatrical luminaries like Trevor Nunn, Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Hal Prince and more in this career-spanning conversation with one of the mega-musical era's most major of stars - all of that and much, much more awaits!
LES MISERABLES is now available on DVD/Blu-ray. More information is available here.
More information on Colm Wilkinson is available at his official site here.
The Guy's Got Potential
PC: "The Lady's Got Potential" is one of my favorite EVITA songs...
CW: [Laughs.] Oh, really?!
PC: Were you originally playing Che Guevara on the concept album, more or less? Especially given the lyrical content of that song, I'd assume so.
CW: Yes. On the Julie Covington album - yes.
PC: In the new revival that song was not included and Che was played as an "Everyman". What are your thoughts on that? Is it too politically volatile of a topic for a song, do you think?
CW: Well, I am not sure about this, but, originally, I think Hal Prince thought that that song was too rock n roll and wasn't quite "musicale" enough for him, so that's why he cut it, but I am not sure what his reasons really were for doing that with it. I think it's a pretty good song, too.
PC: It's a very interesting subject.
CW: Well, I'm not sure if you know this, Pat, but Che Guevara was actually a lab assistant - he was an assistant or technician of some kind. He had actually perfected an insecticide for flies that he was trying to get patented and the lyrics in that song mention that, obviously. So, it was definitely a tie to Guevara. Definitely. I mean, he did perfect a certain formula and he submitted it to be used, but it was turned down by the Argentinean government at the time.
PC: What fascinating history.
CW: Yeah, he hated them for doing that, I think. They didn't allow him to use it - ever. Anyway, does that answer your question about Guevara? [Laughs.]
PC: Definitely! Did you enjoy exploring that hard rock side of your voice, especially on a musical theatre concept album?
CW: Yes, I did. I enjoyed it very much. I thought Lloyd Webber's score was great. It was so great to do that song, too - especially because the rest of it was fairly difficult to sing [for me]! [Laughs.]
PC: It's a perilously tricky score.
CW: Yeah, the original album of that, when you saw it on the page it was like someone took a fistful of ink and threw it on the page.
PC: What a description!
CW: It was all over the place! It really was. It was very, very difficult to sing - a really difficult beast. It was difficult to do that album. I thought Julie Covington was absolutely amazing on that, too, I have to say.
CW: I don't think anyone has bettered her on an album that has come after her, since then. She was wonderful - just wonderful.
PC: Your contributions are amazing, as well. What was your personal favorite to do?
CW: Oh, "High Flying Adored". That's a great, great song.
PC: Do you remember filming the music video for that for the Tim Rice special?
CW: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah - I remember getting dressed up as Che. Strangely enough, ABBA was there with Tim in the studio at the time - the guys from it [Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus] that he was writing CHESS with at the time.
PC: Of course.
CW: They were there at Yorkshire Television at that particular time because they were all working on CHESS. So, they were just then putting it together. But, yeah - Tim is a great guy.
PC: He really is. So open and thoughtfully spoken.
CW: He is a real gent and an amazing, amazing talent. I don't think he is appreciated enough for his prowess as a lyricist, actually. He is an amazing lyricist.
PC: You can say that again - just his work on CHESS and EVITA alone.
CW: Right! I mean, he doesn't write like Stephen Sondheim - he writes differently. But, when you look at some of the lyrics that he has written, it is really, really powerful, beautiful stuff. He is very concise and very to-the-point. He is a very skillful lyricist, and, as we have been saying, a really nice man, too.
PC: Did you ever consider playing the American or the Russian in CHESS at any point?
CW: Yes, actually. I mean, I did "Anthem" as one of my songs for my audition for LES MIS and I thought about it. Tim is actually the guy who got me the job in LES MISERABLES, by the way.
PC: No way!
CW: Yeah, absolutely. I did "Anthem" then because the album was out prior to the musical being staged, of course - it was originally supposed to be directed Michael Bennett.
PC: One of the great "What could have been" moments.
CW: Oh, yeah. He was a fantastic, fantastic talent. But, as you know, he got ill, so then Tim went to Trevor Nunn, who was involved with LES MISERABLES at the time, and he said, "Can you help me out because Michael is not well and he cannot finish this and I really need a director now," but, Trevor said, "I'm really in the middle of this [LES MISERABLES] right now," - at least this is the story according to Tim - but, then, Trevor said, "As soon as we are finished with this, then we can come in and work on CHESS." Trevor had already heard the music for CHESS at that point.
PC: I did not know the sequence of events was quite this way.
CW: Yeah, it's sort of interesting. In the same conversation, Tim then asked Trevor how LES MIS was going and he said, "We have everybody we need but we just can't get the right guy for the main character, Valjean," and, so, Tim said, "Well, what exactly are you looking for?" And Trevor said, "We want somebody who looks like he can carry a guy on his back and still sing like an angel," and, so, Tim said, "Well, that's Colm Wilkinson!" [Laughs.]
PC: Who else?!
CW: That was my entrance! Trevor said, "Colm Wilkinson? I thought he was black!" and, Tim said, "No, no - he's not! He's white and he lives in Dublin. Give him a call." And that's how I got the gig.
PC: What happened next?
CW: Well, I went over to London and I sang "Anthem" for him. Here's something you'll like to know: Trevor walked to the front of the stage after I was done singing "Anthem" at that audition and he said, "That would be a great ending for Act One." And, I said to myself, "What is this guy talking about?!" And, then, when I saw CHESS in London, there was "Anthem" right at the end of Act One.
PC: One of the great first act closers from that era.
CW: Yeah, it's a great song. I think it's funny that he was already thinking about CHESS during that audition, though.
PC: It is. What else did you sing at your first audition for Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES?
CW: Oh, I did "Heaven On Their Minds" from [JESUS CHRIST] SUPERSTAR, I did "Anthem" and I did "[Valjean's] Soliloquy" from LES MISERABLES.
PC: Those sealed the deal, then?
CW: Yeah. That's how I got the gig - I got it right there and then that afternoon.
PC: You first played the Phantom in the Symonton PHANTOM right at that same time - so many classic shows were being created at that same moment in history; CHESS, PHANTOM and LES MIS.
CW: It's unbelievable - unbelievable! How lucky can you get to be associated with all those major musicals - and to have the longevity and the vocal health and durability to get through them and be able to do them for a long period of time, too! I feel really lucky - and I'm absolutely blessed to have been able to do that.
PC: It must bring back all those memories doing PHANTOM 25, LES MISERABLES AT THE 02 and the LES MISERABLES film recently...
CW: [Laughs.] Oh, it has just been wonderful to do those events.
PC: Do you think the 02 event contributed to the collective enthusiasm that ultimately led to making a LES MIS film become a reality?
CW: I'm not sure - I never connected that in my head, but that's a very, very interesting question. That could have been the huge catalyst that really pushed that forward - I really think it could have been. Did the studio see the success of that and say, "We should do a movie of that!" The tenth anniversary was huge, as well.
PC: How did you become involved in the film process?
CW: Well, first, I have to say that I think the film really came together in the first place because of Cameron [Mackintosh] and because of Tom Hooper, the director - especially coming off of THE KING'S SPEECH and everything. He got Hugh Jackman and Annie Hathaway and Russell Crowe and those kinds of people involved - a lot of them had histories with the show, too. I mean, Annie Hathaway's mother played Fantine on the road, did you know that?
PC: She wore her mother's tour jacket onset, no?
CW: She has a real connection and history with the show - they all do in one way or another, I think; just growing up with it, you know?
PC: It's a cultural touchstone of a musical for a two generations now, for sure, at least.
CW: Yeah, I think you're right. So, you know, I think once Cameron and Tom put that package together that it was so interesting that it had to go - it just had to get made. So, they wanted me to be involved and I said, "Sure!" I have to say, I credit Cameron with a lot of the reason this film got made at all and I credit Tom Hooper and the cast, as well - absolutely. Initially, you know, I think Cameron was afraid that it would take away from the box office of the road shows and the theatre shows, you know?
PC: It's always a risk with a currently-running property, even in this day and age.
CW: It is - it always is. But, actually, it has done the opposite in my experience - the tenth anniversary fueled the show on the road and the twenty-fifth anniversary fueled the show on the road even more. And, now, the movie is doing the same - it's absolutely doing the same.
PC: PHANTOM 25 was an equally successful reinterpretation of the show for the arena and home video formats - your participation makes it even better, there, too. Did you find it to be particularly special?
CW: Oh, absolutely - and I can tell you that it was a heck of a lot different from the show I did back in Sydmonton in 1985! [Laughs.]
PC: I bet! I'm curious: did you hear LES MIS or PHANTOM first?
CW: LES MIS - I was offered LES MIS first and so then I was under contract to it. After that, I went down to the workshop [of PHANTOM] and they were looking for somebody to sing that part. And, so, we had a couple of weeks before the Barbican was ready or whatever [for LES MIS] and so they asked me if I would come down and learn the part and do the part and so I decided that I would do it. So, we went there and did it.
PC: But you were committed to LES MIS by that point, right?
CW: Yes. Hal Prince and Andrew actually asked me if I would be interested in continuing with PHANTOM, but obviously I was under contract to LES MIS by then. Coming away from that workshop at Sydmonton, I remember Cameron saying to me, "I know Andrew has asked you to play the Phantom, but I need you to do LES MISERABLES now. If LES MIS doesn't work you can do PHANTOM."
PC: Which was riskier? Was PHANTOM even riskier than LES MIS back then, do you think?
CW: Oh, yeah! I mean, Pat, just look at the books - LES MISERABLES the book versus PHANTOM the book. There is just no comparison.
PC: You can say that again.
CW: Yeah, I mean, the book that PHANTOM is based on is sort of a pot-boiler and it is just not that great of a book. I think Andrew saw a love story in it, though, and that's what make it work - bringing that love story to the fore. And, he wrote such beautiful music for all of that, too. It was a great idea to do that - a fantastic idea. There had been a couple of adaptations done based on that story before and I know one guy claimed that Andrew stole his ideas, which was just a bunch of cow swill. But, yeah - it was a very, very interesting time.
PC: Singing the Monsignor's vocals in the LES MISERABLES film now, do you find yourself reminded of "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" since it is essentially the same musical line in your recurring motif?
CW: You know, people have mentioned that to me and I never really connected all of that, to be quite honest - I mean, I know it is the same melody, but I concentrated on the story. People will say to me, with PHANTOM or LES MIS or EVITA or whatever, "Oh, well, repetition means this guy can't really write," and I say, "I don't think so." I mean, the melody carries it all and that is how the story is being told - in a musical like LES MIS, you bring in the motif and you bring in this music to state that this is a guy we will see again and this is a theme we will return to later on. So, I was never really too conscious of it to be honest - I see it as just being a way of telling the story and that's what I'm most concerned with is telling the story.
PC: Did anything significant that you filmed not make it into the final cut as far as you know?
CW: Yeah, in the film there was one big scene we did that did not stay in - they had to take the whole thing down in the timing after a while. The difference there, though, is that there is no intermission in this movie.
PC: It never stops.
CW: It never does. So, you have to take into consideration that people will be sitting for two and a half hours or whatever. For myself, personally, I am never really aware of timing or anything because I am passionate about what I do, so I have found that if you really love what you do then time flies. So, honestly, I can't tell you how long the movie actually is, but when you don't have an intermission like you do in the theatre, you have to be very conscious of the time element there - and he was.
PC: There is a much longer cut that exists, reportedly.
CW: Yeah, he had to cut and cut and pare it back to the bare bones, but I'm sure there's another two hours or so of footage there. I know it.
PC: What are your favorite moments in the score to perform - "Who Am I?"
CW: Oh, yeah - "Who Am I?" is pretty powerful. But, that part at the very end - "24601" - was always very daunting to me to do; especially eight times a week! [Laughs.]
PC: Talk about a tough note to always nail.
CW: Yeah, it was a bit difficult - it's a B natural. That's the note Pavarotti hit at the end of "Nessum Dorma", you know. You have to be very, very, very careful how you sing that - especially eight times a week... for a period of two or three years! [Big Laugh.]
PC: They don't ask for half as much from Pavarotti, do they!
CW: That's right! They didn't - and don't! [Laughs.] But, to answer your question, though: my favorite part of LES MIS to play was the death scene.
PC: Do you have any thoughts on the differences in that scene: do you think Fantine and Eponine should both appear at his death or it is just as powerful with only Fantine?
CW: Well, if I remember right, Fantine, Eponine and myself are the three characters at the end in the stage version, I think - and under the brilliant direction of Trevor Nunn and John Caird that worked quite well. I thought it was a wonderful moment - just wonderful. Now, I know in the film it is a bit different but it works just as well, I think.
PC: Did you ever play Javert or have you ever considered playing Javert?
CW: No, I actually never have, but I suppose I could at this stage. I don't know, though - eight shows a week? Again? I mean, I did that for four and a half years with PHANTOM in Toronto and I did LES MIS for years, too...
PC: It's a bit of a big commitment for you.
CW: Yeah, I mean I've been there, done that - I did it for years and years. So, at this stage, it's like: do I really want to commit to this? But, I do want to do another musical, I will tell you that.
PC: What a wonderful announcement!
CW: Yeah! Especially if a great part comes up, I suppose.
PC: What is next for you coming up now after the huge success of the LES MIS movie?
CW: Oh, well, I think I would like to concentrate on movies and concerts mostly - whatever I am asked to do, really, as long as it's something worthwhile. But, I have been asked to do a couple of movies recently - since LES MIS - and they really weren't the kind of thing I wanted to do. [Sighs. Pause.] Ah, I guess I'm getting sort of picky in my old age, Pat! [Laughs.]
PC: You've earned it at this point after so many great performances, without a doubt.
CW: Thank you for saying that. Yeah, I have some concerts coming up, too - people can go to my website (here) and find out where I will be playing coming up in the next few months.
PC: What about Boublil and Schonberg's THE PIRATE QUEEN? Were you actually involved with that project at any point?
CW: Well, I considered doing it - sure. I thought about it. I've been asked to do so many things, though, over the years - and some of it is strange; very, very strange. [Pause.] I mean, look, there are very, very few LES MISERABLES out there, Pat!
PC: Unquestionably - it is a once-in-a-lifetime musical.
CW: And, there are very, very few PHANTOMs out there, too; there are very few EVITAs out there - I have been very, very lucky and very fortunate to be associated with some of the best of them out there. Also, I am not knocking great stuff like OKLAHOMA! or A CHORUS LINE or CHICAGO or some of Sondheim's amazing stuff [either] - I mean, I think SWEENEY TODD is just incredible; it's just phenomenal.
PC: Would you consider playing SWEENEY TODD someday?
CW: Oh, I'd love to play that. The recent version in London with Michael Ball...
PC: A LES MIS alum!
CW: That's right! A LES MIS guy. He's a terrific guy. And, he was just incredible in [SWEENEY], I thought. The girl - Imelda Staunton - was fantastic, too; it was just fantastic.
PC: You are always fantastic in everything you do, Colm - EVITA to LES MISERABLES to PHANTOM to now LES MIS onscreen and whatever else is next. Thank you so much.
CW: Thanks to you, too, Pat - I had a really great time doing this. Take care. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Universal, Dewynters, etc.