Mr, Mrs And Mis

 

Statistics, statistics, statistics; the story of Les Miserables, the commercially successful, award-winning musical based on Victor Hugo's massive novel, comes complete with a lengthy list of facts and figures guaranteed to delight compilers of the Guinness Book Of Records. To date, more than 40 million people have seen it in 30 productions which have played in 26 countries. Nicknamed The Glums, it has a cast and crew of 101 and has also been translated into 14 languages. There have been 25,000 performances. The London cast's album has sold more than 900,000 copies in the UK.

When 400 million viewers in 197 countries tuned in for the opening ceremony of the 1996 European Football Championships - presumably with football uppermost in their minds - 250 Les Miserables' cast members sang songs from the show. The London production at the Palace Theatre has been running for 13 years, while the nine-week Dublin run in 1993 grossed more than £3 million. The video of the 10th anniversary concert, filmed for television at London's Royal Albert Hall, has sold more than 400,000 copies. And the facts go on and on . . .

Since 1985 this show has been on target for a world domination of sorts and Dubliner Colm Wilkinson has been part of it. Known for his dramatic stage presence and theatrical style of presentation, Wilkinson in person is surprisingly low-key. Dressed in a black suit, his expression is serious, his hair has a vaguely 19th-century look to it and he is not graced with the face of a standard romantic hero.

However, after a string of memorable baddie roles, including Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, Lucifer in The Adam and Eve Show, Shylock in Angel Voices and an offer to play Bill Sykes, Wilkinson has become more heroic - appearing in the title role in The Phantom of the Opera and as Hugo's Jean Valjean.

Now based in Toronto, a city he describes as "very clean, very safe, lots of trees - New York run by the Swiss", the Wilkinson family hasn't lived in Ireland for "about nine years, well, eight-and-a-half. The children have settled in and every time it looked like we were coming home, we stayed on."

Colm Wilkinson is a man with a mission, that of igniting interest in the return of Les Miserables to Dublin. He will star in Cameron Mackintosh's production at the Point Theatre next year and booking for the show has already begun.

This interview takes place in a hotel board meeting room. He takes his place at the large table, Deirdre, his wife, sits on the couch. Is she planning on sitting in on the interview? Yes, he wants her to. Is there any problem? Problem or not, she stays. And so the three of us, steered by my stilted questions, set off on a trip back to Wilkinson's earliest years.

It is obvious he is not that interested, after all he already knows all the answers. So does Deirdre Wilkinson. She is very friendly and has a strong accent, the legacy of spending eight years of her childhood in England. Couples often work well together in a chat show format; in a print interview, it proves trickier. The subject says less. It is not easy asking someone about their life before a third party. Interviews at the best of times are artificial situations. This one is not going to be easy.

Asked about his childhood, Wilkinson looks heavenwards and says: "I grew up in Dublin . . ." His attitude veers toward world weary, as if he had been expecting to discuss the shows, rather than himself. "My father was from Belfast, my mother was from Crossmolina. I grew up in Dublin." To begin at the beginning, though, when was he born? "The 5th of the 6th, '44," he answers matter of factly, "but I don't like saying it."

He came fifth in a family of 10, Deirdre adds. Home was Drimnagh: "The green hills of Drimnagh, it was all countryside then. I loved it. I left there when I was 12. We moved to Rathmines which I hated. It was too close to the city." His primary school days were spent at the Christian Brothers in Crumlin - "a tough school" he says; his secondary education was at Drimnagh Castle. Was he academic? "I wasn't very successful - I didn't enjoy school." He was already singing. "I went on the road at 16," he says.

While he competed in the local feis and sang in a choir, his musical interests always tended towards black artists and blues. "Irish music was not very fashionable then," he says. How would he describe his voice? Looking slightly surprised, he pauses before commenting: "I've always been told I sound black." His father ran an asphalt roofing business which Wilkinson worked for. Hence his head for heights. All the climbing about in The Phantom Of The Opera must have come quite naturally to him? The observation makes him smile.

But the singing which had begun as a schoolboy hobby quickly took over. Asked how he can sing the same role, night after night, for almost five years, chalking up 1,653 performances - more statistics - as he did in the Toronto production of The Phantom, Wilkinson half smiles with the wisdom of experience.

Much of his career in Ireland was dominated by the cabaret scene. "It was soul destroying. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone, but . . . conditions . . . " - he shakes his head. Performing at a cabaret means taking a back seat to conversation and the ordering of drinks and - having to sing other people's songs. "People are having a night out, you're supposed to fit into the background. You become a human juke box, expected to sing whatever song is in the charts at the moment. But nobody is listening. It's a tough school." Deirdre reminds him he sang Without You. She tells me: "He did them his way." There were nights, though, when the exasperated Wilkinson walked off stage. "No one cares about the performer, and then you get into trouble for walking off."

For several years his career was divided between appearing in big London shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and then returning to Ireland and the cabaret scene. Having played Judas in the Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar, he stayed with the part for a further two-and-a-half years, in the West End and the subsequent British national tour. It was Wilkinson who sang the role of Che in the first recording of Evita. Offered the part in the London production, he declined. "He had the choice of doing Evita," says Deirdre, "or singing for Ireland in the Eurovision, and he chose singing for Ireland." Born To Sing finished fifth in Paris. Who won? "Israel", he says, and he mentions that the song he had sung in the National Contest the previous year was the one he would have liked to have brought to Europe.

Speaking about the hard years seems to bring back memories for the Wilkinsons. They begin to reminisce. Deirdre tends to tie in dates with the births of their four children, ranging in age from 26 to 14. Spending a few years playing the part of Judas in Jesus Christ makes it seem only fitting to call your daughter, born in 1973 during the London run, Judith. Judas was also the first of Wilkinson's bad guys.

"Guess who I played in Fire Angel", a musical version of The Merchant Of Venice? There are no prizes for hazarding Shylock. The three-way conversation continues; with Deirdre's memory often coming to the rescue, just as her opinions help shape, even revise some of the answers.

They were married on "the 3rd of June, 1970" - he says emphatically, "after a five-year courtship" she adds. When Wilkinson leaves the room for a moment, Deirdre describes how they met. Chance not only took a part, it dictated the proceedings.

In 1965, his sister, actress Rebecca Wilkinson, was appearing in The Riordans. By then Deirdre, who had left Ireland as a child, had returned some years later and was now working as a vision mixer with RTE. "Rebecca missed the bus from RTE, going down to Co Meath where we used to film the show," she says, "so she had to get a lift." Her driver was her brother, Colm, who had been in Donnybrook, on a roofing job. "We met up and it all began."

Is he an aggressive performer? "Yes", he says. Deirdre disagrees. "You're not. You're very emotional." He accepts this and adds: "I like to get to the truth of a song." He also says he likes acting: "I'm an actor." Earlier he has described himself as a songwriter. Ultimately he decides: "I'm an entertainer." Later, performing two of his solos from Les Miserables on the Late Late Show, Wilkinson leaves little doubt as to his sense of theatre as he sings with expression and the slightest trace of a French accent. Certainly he is a physical performer. Fitness is a factor in the type of stage shows he appears in. "In Phantom, you're on stage for 45 minutes - the rest of the time you're climbing about, getting into position up above the stage. In Les Mis, it's two hours, it's very demanding. That's why I want to do it now in Dublin, before I find myself in a wheelchair."

Dublin will be his last run as Valjean, a part he sang about 800 times but has not played since leaving the original Broadway show in 1987. "It's 12, 13 years on from when I started . . . " he says with a characteristic expression which implies "use your common sense".

Returning to Ireland might see them spending about half the year in Connemara: "Around Clifden, I like the place and the people are great." There might be more time for recording; Wilkinson has written about 60 songs in his career so far - his eldest son has already written more than 300. He points to the similarities existing between the Phantom and Valjean: "Both are older men who have had hard times, they are both involved in helping young girls."

Promoting Les Mis is a job he takes seriously but he also stresses his interest in using interviews as a way of highlighting the work of the late Willie Bermingham, who founded Alone in 1970. "I can't even remember how I first heard of him. And I never met him, but I think he was a great man. I'd like to use my interviews as a way of drawing attention to the work of Alone and particularly encouraging young people to help with the old, by visiting them, taking an interest." Bermingham died in 1990 at 48. Wilkinson is at present thinking out the most effective way he can help Alone: "I've also got the support of Cameron in this," he says.

How about Hugo's novel though? Had he read it? "No, not at first. I have since though, it's become my bible." Even allowing for the artistic licence involved when original works are adapted, who would have imagined that Hugo's great melodrama - which was first published in 1862 - could have spawned a musical? Hugo (1802-85) began life as a royalist and was conservative. Essentially a poet, he was the central figure in the French Romantic movement. But as the years passed, he became more political.

Les Miserables succeeds as graphic social history. Approaching 1,300 pages, it could be described as the French War and Peace, except that Hugo's approach to history is more emotive than Tolstoy's - and not always as accurate. Explaining the appeal of it, he says: "It's very emotional." Deirdre adds: "The 10th anniversary concert was screened on television after Diana's funeral, it (the funeral) was so emotional they could only follow it with something like this." She urges me to see the video: "It was bigger on Canadian Public Television than The Three Tenors." Wilkinson remembers Prince Charles telling him the Princess "keeps playing the music". Wilkinson met her - and liked her. "I think another reason that the show is so good," he says, "is the fact Boublil and Schonberg are French, they know what it means. He's their Shakespeare." Ireland has a limited audience for long runs of expensive shows, the population is simply too small to justify the expense. But in a more international context, does he feel big musicals have a future? Where is the form going? "Have you seen the Broadway version of The Lion King?" he asks. "Go and see it," they both urge. "That's where the future of musical is."

Let the booking begin. Before coming to Dublin next year for his farewell stint as Valjean, Wilkinson will be appearing in the forthcoming production which opens in Toronto in July. "They've already taken more than four-and-a-half million Canadian dollars in advance bookings," he says. Apparently the Broadway production of Les Miserables amassed $14 million. "Mon Dieu!", shriek collectors of such facts.

All very impressive. The show looks set to continue until the end of time. Its place in the history of the modern musical as a commercial phenomenon appears assured. Yet, statistics aside, what would Victor Hugo make of it all?