Legendary Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson told David Hennessy about how returning home to Ireland after decades in Canada inspired his new song Harcourt Street, how greed and the fast buck has taken over in the city he grew up in and about creating the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
Best known for originating the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in the West End and on Broadway, Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson has released his first original release since 2002 in his release, Harcourt Street.
The song is inspired by how Colm was struck by the changes he could see in Ireland when he recently returned after being based in Toronto for many years.
Colm told The Irish World: “It’s definitely changed. They’re ripping down these fabulous old buildings and putting up shopping malls and crap. Dublin has just changed dramatically with all that stuff going on.
“I know it’s an evolving city and it’s hugely ethnically mixed now. There’s streets in Dublin I wouldn’t even recognise. Harcourt Street was a shock to me when I saw it because I remember Harcourt Street not at all tarted up.
“Okay, it looks great to a certain degree the way the Georgian houses are now in a great state of preservation. At the same time I think they’ve lost a little bit of their authenticity. I think it is an indication of the way things are going Dublin.
“Everything is being geared towards making money out of things rather than the preservation of the city. I think the city is being sacrificed to the fast buck to a certain degree. I think they’re selling it out.
“The song is about preserving our cultural landmarks, the song is about how I remember Harcourt Street. It wasn’t as rich in those days. They were rough times but it had something very Irish about it. I think the pursuit of money is just getting in the way of people’s idea of the city. I think it’s about the buck and the fast buck now.
“We should be preserving the city and its heritage. You walk around Dublin now and you see all these fast food places. It’s about how much you can get for the rent. They don’t give a sh*t what they put in there.
“You walk down O’Connell Street now and it’s just totally ruined. I couldn’t believe it. I just had to get out of there. It’s so bad. Fast food. Tacky, tacky.
“I’m of an age that the Dublin i grew up in is no longer there. I don’t expect it to be. I expect progress. I expect people to move with the times and all that. Greed is taking precedence over history and songs and art.”
Nothing Colm says means that he isn’t glad to be home. Although he lived in Toronto for roughly 30 years, it was always the plan to return home with his wife, Deirdre.
“I have a strong Irish identity and I never ever lost my Irishness. When I was in Les Miserables, sometimes people would say, ‘The British actor Colm Wilkinson-‘, ‘No, no, no’.
“That’s what Ted Kennedy used to say, ‘An Irishman in a British produced musical playing a French guy’. A bit like the United Nations. I always identified with my Irishness. I never adapted to the lifestyle in Canada.
“I feel like I’m home, I’m back home. I’m in my own country. I always felt like a stranger to a certain degree trying to fit into a culture I didn’t really identify with.
“I’ve been around the world and that was one of the guilt things that i felt: Dragging the kids around the world on my coat tails from gig to gig. Ireland, England, back out to America, to Canada: You’re ripping them out of their roots a lot of the time. That’s why we settled down in Toronto, didn’t want them to uproot them again because of work.
“My kids are just incredible. Obviously they got it from their mother.
“I came home here and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have any commercial agendas. I didn’t have to go out and sell myself. Whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, the minute you get into the entertainment business, you are selling yourself. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, you’re looking for gigs. You are selling yourself. I’ve been doing that for years. One way or another you’re always trying to get an advance in your career.
“I came home, had some money for the first time in my life to do exactly what I wanted. There was no commercial agenda, no radio plays in mind, nothing. There was just me putting down the way I felt. I didn’t care if it never came out of the studio. I just wanted to actually put this stuff down. It was just an incredible experience to have that freedom. There was no producer saying, ‘That won’t play on radio, the record company won’t go for that’. I didn’t care about that.
“It was for no commercial reason, just my own enjoyment.”
Although his other roles include playing the title role in The Phantom of the Opera and playing Judas Iscariot in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, originating Jean Valjean is what Colm is most proud of in his career.
“It is the biggest challenge and the widest singing and acting scope and just a great part to play: Spritual, conquering adversity, triumphant in the end and wonderful, wonderful story. And we thank Victor Hugo for that wonderful story that we were all allowed to play. The book was my bible when I played the part. If you lose focus for a little bit, just get back to the book, my bible as I called it. That’s what Hugh Jackman used to call it. He was always with his bible.”
He remembers a funny conversation that may not have involved him but led to him being cast in the role. Director Trevor Nunn told Andrew Lloyd Webber’s frequent collaborator Tim Rice he was having trouble finding his leading man.
“Tim said, ‘What’s the problem? What are you looking for?’ Trevor said, ‘I’m looking for somebody who looks like a convict, can carry a guy on his back and sing like an angel’. And Tim Rice said, ‘That’s Colm Wilkinson.
“I look like a convict!
“I got the gig. Tim was the guy who recommended me for it.”
Colm worked with Hugh Jackman when the Australian actor took on the part of Jean for the 2012 movie adaptation where Colm played the Bishop.
“I wouldn’t impose my views on any other singer but Hugh, of course, was always telling me how much he had listened to me growing up and there were certain things in it that he was talking to me about. I said, ‘Look, do you want me to talk to you about it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I would love to talk to me about it’. So we discussed certain aspects and basically what I said to him was: ‘Just find your own way of doing it. You don’t sing like me. I don’t sing like you. You have to do it your way and I do it my way. Unforunately a lot of guys had to copy me onstage because of the way I sang Bring Him Home, because the song was written for me and I did the song that way and I found that is the way I expressed the emotion of the song. You have to find your way. Whatever honesty and truth comes out, that’s yours.
“So he was delighted with that and he was such a gracious guy and fantastic to work with.”
Recent years have seen movements like #metoo. Colm welcomes talk of sexuality equality.
“I absolutely endorse that. I think women have been exploited left, right and centre for years. I’ve always endorsed equality for women. I grew up in a house with six sisters. You learn very quickly that women are strong and articulate people and you learn to respect women very quickly.
“If you look at any of the voices of people fighting for their rights, 99% of the time it’s fronted by women because they have the courage to speak out. They have definitely got the courage that men don’t have.”
Harcourt Street by Colm Wilkinson is out now.