When you’ve created one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre, it must be difficult watching other actors eventually taking over.
But when West End and Broadway hit Les Miserables was turned into a blockbuster film, Colm Wilkinson – the original Jean Valjean – was more than happy to see Hollywood heartthrob Hugh Jackman taking on the leading role.
And the Irish singer was delighted to land a cameo role as the Bishop of Digne.
Now aged 69, Wilkinson – who premiered Valjean in the West End in 1985 – says he enjoyed every minute of shooting director Tom Hooper’s feature alongside an all-star cast which included Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.
And he says Jackman was perfectly cast as the French protagonist.
“He’s a very intelligent man and his work ethic is astonishing – he raised the bar every day,” says Wilkinson. “And I couldn’t have worked with a nicer guy.”
So did he offer him any tips?
“Not really,” he laughs. “I asked him if he wanted me to talk to him about the music. I wouldn’t impress my opinions on anyone. You have to try and make the role your own and not copy anyone else. He doesn’t sound like me and I don’t sound like him. There are now a lot of other Valjeans out there – John Owen-Jones was another great Valjean,” he says of the Welshman who’s also famously played the role.
Wilkinson says it was “a great experience” playing the Bishop – a role which he had asked musical impresario Sir Cameron Macintosh if he could be considered for.
“There have been lots of attempts to make a movie of Les Miserables over the years,” says the Dublin-born singer who lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife Deirdre, with whom he has four children.
“Tom Hooper did an amazing job in capturing the feel of Victor Hugo’s book. I thought some of the performances were incredible. I thought the Bishop would be a nice part to play and they all made such a fuss of me being there.”
He particularly enjoyed attending the glamorous premiere.
“There was a spontaneous burst of applause when I came on the screen. It’s probably the fact I’m still alive,” he jokes.
Wilkinson is now performing some songs from the much-loved musical – namely Valjean’s famous solo Bring Him Home – as part of his current short concert tour which concludes in Cardiff next weekend.
Accompanied by his band and vocalists Siobhán Pettit and Áine Whelan, he sings a wealth of musical theatre favourites like Music Of The Night and Some Enchanted Evening as well as Irish classics such as Danny Boy and Whiskey In The Jar and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and The Animals’ House Of The Rising Sun.
“I love working with a live audience,” says Wilkinson, who has just released a new album, Broadway Beyond.
“The show is all about having fun – I also take requests and get people singing along. I also tell some jokes here and there. It’s a very informal night. I just want people to have a good time.”
With around 20 songs performed in one night, how does he maintain his rich voice?
“You have to be a vocal athlete so you’ve got to get a good sleep and there’s no partying. You have to look after yourself physically – if you’re physically not right, your voice won’t be right.”
While he clearly still loves performing, Wilkinson – whose iconic stage roles also include the Phantom, Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) and Che Guevara (Evita) – is looking to scale his workload down.
“After next year I’ll start taking it easier. When you’re in my business work can be very inconsistent but if you say ‘yes’ to everything you end up taking on too much.”
But he says he would consider the right role.
“I would do a musical again if it was the right kind of thing although eight shows a week is too much. I would like to do more straight plays and direct, especially any young people’s versions of Les Miserables – I want to give a little something back.”
Colm Wilkinson is at St David’s Hall, Cardiff on June 29. For tickets, call 029 2087 8444 or visit www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk