Irish Tenor Colm Wilkinson Gives Glorious Voice to a French Classic in Broadway's Les Misérables

updated 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

One morning two years ago, as the mist rose over Killiney Bay outside Dublin, a barrel-chested Irishman pushed open his garden gate. As wife Deirdre waved, Colm Wilkinson was off to yet another audition. "This is the one," she called out as he headed for London to try out for the lead in a musical version of Victor Hugo's classic tome, Les Misérables. Wilkinson, now 42, wasn't so sure. Until he was approached about playing Hugo's fugitive hero, Jean Valjean, he had never heard of the author, let alone read the book. Moreover, Wilkinson had spent most of his show business years crooning Irish folk songs and performing with pop bands. His clear-honey voice, a perfect high tenor, was even heard singing jingles for sausages, Toyotas and other consumer goods far removed from Hugo's 19th-century world of good and evil. None of this, however, deterred the Royal Shakespeare Company's director Trevor Nunn and associate director John Caird, who had rejected every singer known to them in their search for the perfect Valjean. After listening to Wilkinson, they knew they had their lead. "He has this uncanny ability to communicate dramatic events through his voice," says Caird. "Also, Colm's a man with a simple human faith, and that's what Valjean's got. It's a match made in heaven."

As Les Misérables opened on Broadway recently to a record $11 million advance in ticket sales, the critics agreed. "An actor of pugilistic figure and dynamic voice," raved the New York Times.

Despite the fuss, the star himself is determined to remain just a regular guy. He has imported his prescient wife, Deirdre, and their children—Aaron, 15, Judith, 13, Simon, 6, and Sarah, 3—from Dublin to a rented house in Short Hills, N.J. "Family life is everything to me," says Wilkinson. Though his doctor has urged Colm not to talk after the show so that he can protect his voice for his strenuous three hours onstage, he refuses to comply. "That smacks of big-star time," he says. "I never want to get into that." Besides, he has his own old Irish remedy for soothing vocal cords; he chews half a clove of garlic each night.

Garlic in the garden was a part of his youth on the outskirts of Dublin, and so were theatrics around the stove. As the fifth of 10 children, Colm was used to seeing his mother acting everything out in the kitchen. His father, Thomas, owned an asphalt business and played the banjo ("very badly"). The kids were encouraged to sing, dance and read poetry at Christmas. "My mom liked a good show," says Wilkinson.

So did her son, who stole his father's banjo whenever he could and toured with a pop band at age 15. That same year he and his teachers parted ways. "I don't think you'd call my leaving school a graduation," jokes Wilkinson.

At 18, he settled down reluctantly in his father's business. Five years later Colm was again touring with a group called the Witnesses and fitting in dates with Deirdre Murphy, a pretty TV production assistant. They married in 1970, and Deirdre became Colm's biggest fan. "In Nassau, Elvis Presley came to hear Colm sing Danny Boy," she boasts. "That's a lot of blarney," protests the plain-speaking Colm. "He came to hear the band."

In 1972 Colm landed his first major stage role in the Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Around that time he also stopped having a few pints or wine with his pals. "Drinking is a serious pastime in Ireland. It's all caught up with talk, and it's a social event," he explains. "I felt it wasn't the thing to do if I wanted to pursue a career in singing."

Sober and proud of it, Wilkinson moved on in 1974 to play the part of Judas in the London production of Superstar. Later came a few more musicals, some work for the BBC and more concerts and cabaret acts, in which Wilkinson sometimes sang songs and ballads he had written. He recorded the voice of Che on the original Evita album and won the admiration of lyricist Tim Rice, who suggested him for the role of Valjean.

Since his 1985 audition, Wilkinson has been immersed in the tumult of Hugo. He is committed to stay with the show through November and then hopes to branch out into straight dramatic roles. ABC has asked him to do a TV movie, and Hollywood agents have been broaching film roles. Steven Spielberg has expressed interest in a film version of Les Miz, as it is now dubbed around Broadway, and Wilkinson would be tickled to star. Though he came late to Hugo, he says that one of his most moving moments was shaking the hand of the author's great-great-granddaughter in London at the Palace Theatre opening. "I felt his presence here tonight," intoned Madame Leopoldine Hugo. "I feel his presence, too," says Wilkinson, who squirms at a suggestion that Victor is watching him. "I feel he would have approved, and that's enough."

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