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Theater's Valjean. `Les Mis'erables' star Colm Wilkinson finds Hugo's epic about the redemptive power of love as persuasive today as it was a century ago

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 1987

New York

THE stage manager leads me through the wings of the darkened Broadway Theater, over the shiny cobblestones of the giant revolving stage for the musical ``Les Mis'erables'' and back to the star's dressing room. If we had not been introduced, I would not have known him. On stage, star Colm Wilkinson sings the role of the hero fugitive Jean Valjean in lion-hearted style, roaring his defiance at the relentless Inspector Javert who has pursued him through life for stealing a loaf of bread. His singing voice is fierce, fervent, filling the stage with emotion. When he warns Javert to beware in ``Confrontation,'' he hurls his dramatic tenor like a javelin at his enemy. But when Wilkinson sings the fatherly prayer ``Bring Him Home,'' he hits a soft, true A (over high C) that sounds like an archangel and stuns the audience into silence before a cascade of applause.

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It's for the role of Valjean that Wilkinson has been nominated for a Tony Award as best actor in a musical. The award ceremony will be telecast Sunday, on CBS at 9 p.m., EDT.

Does he hope to win?

There's a small, wry grin. Then he says, ``Yeah, it would be great. I'd love to. I think we've got a good chance. But, then, there are other people, other shows - like Robert Lindsay in `Me and My Girl.'''

This Irishman who pours out his heart and voice for over three hours on stage is a paradox in person. The man who stirs audiences so is a quiet, almost diffident guy with a face that at first seems wiped of expression, as though he'd removed the emotions of the role along with the greasepaint.

He appears burly on stage, massive enough to lift an overturned delivery cart to rescue the man under it. But in person he is slighter, without the heroic intensity of Victor Hugo's Valjean.

Wilkinson sits on a straight chair in his narrow dressing room and sips Evian water to keep his throat moist. He has learned to endure the dry air of American theaters and the questions of reporters. Is he a singer who acts or an actor who sings?

``I am singing my acting. I think that's the better definition. I think when you get the emotion right and the notes right, the acting will take care of itself. Acting means nothing unless it's truth. And honesty.''

He revels in the emotion of the role. ``Tyrone Guthrie is the great Irish director who said to Ian McKellen that the first and foremost obligation was to excite and move an audience - as an entertainer. And that's what I call myself. I mean, people come - and you're supposed to get withdrawn and not emote and not relate? I just don't understand that kind of approach.''

He says straight actors always try to define the line between actors and singers, but he doesn't buy that. ``I've never believed there is a line. I know when I'm affecting people. ... You know when you get it emotionally right, that's how it will affect people out there. And all this Brechtian thing about you must not be associated with your audience - well, that's the greatest lot of rubbish.''

Behind him in his dressing room hang the prison rags and 19th-century costumes.

Wilkinson is relaxed in blue jeans, a matching jacket, and white running shoes. Although his hair on stage goes from gray to white, in real life it's sandy, and his ginger beard is sprinkled with gray. He has a medieval, Celtic face - the eyes wide and of a dense blue, the nose long, the mouth thin. It is not the face of a 20th-century rock and pop singer, but that's what he was, until he stumbled into stardom in Hugo's epic of France of the 1800s.

Wilkinson sang the role of Judas in the London cast of the rock opera ``Jesus Christ Superstar.'' Its author and lyricist, Tim Rice, then chose him to sing another outlaw role, that of Che Guevara in the first recording of the hit ``Evita.'' And it was Rice who thought of him again when ``Les Mis'erables'' directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird were searching for the right Jean Valjean.

Wilkinson remembers auditioning for the role in London at the Barbican Theatre, where ``Cats'' was playing: ``It was very bizarre. ... I'm singing all this stuff in the middle of that big alleyway [set] full of trash.''