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

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.

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.''

It was primarily an acting audition, he says, but they gave him Valjean's first number, scored for a baritone by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg. ``It was quite low for me; so ... I was jumping octaves. I think that really impressed them, that I could jump an octave and sing like that.''

Wilkinson grew up singing, a middle child in a Dublin family of 10 children. They were encouraged to perform by a mother who loved acting and a father who ran an asphalt business and played banjo.

Before he left high school to join a band called the Witnesses, a teacher had criticized young Colm for ``bending your voice'' when he sang.

He's still bending it to break the hearts of the audience, with a poignancy that makes strong men in the audience take out their linen handkerchiefs and pat the tears away.

On stage, Wilkinson seems to merge into Valjean. ``When I work with a character like Valjean on stage, I get totally absorbed in that man. I become that man. But there's always, outside of that, the third eye, which watches what you're doing. And you can say to yourself, `I'm crying well' or `I'm being angry well.' But there's always that element there, and it never stops. There's always that alter ego there, watching your performance.''

He adds, ``You're working at such a high level of intensity all the time, but you're never into your role so much that you forget what you're doing or that you're only play-acting.''

There is an extra dimension in the musical and in Wilkinson's performance: a spiritual thrust that lifts the spirits of the audience. He makes utterly convincing the strong but compassionate Valjean, who refuses to let an innocent man go to prison for him, who spares the life of the merciless Javert and promises the dying mother, Fantine, that he will rescue her orphaned child and ``raise her to the light.''

Wilkinson speaks of ``the very strong, spiritual people that I've met, or that I've read about'' from St. Francis of Assisi to Jesus. He says he doesn't believe that they just ``went around smiling benignly at people and blessing people - that kind of person doesn't get a lot done. The great saints were always great innovators. ... They had to be very strong people, ... principled people. And, apart from their principles, with great tenacity they had to have great reserves of patience.'' He also believes they must have had great reserves of righteous indignation: ``They would react angrily to situations, as well.''

Wilkinson, who says he was raised as a Roman Catholic, explains the fervor with which he does a scene kneeling before an altar: ``I pray for people - every night I pray for people in the prayer [scene]. I think of people that I think would need my prayers, would need my help'' - people he ``might not want to spend a lot of time with.'' He pauses. ``You pray for your enemies.''

Back on the subject of acting, Wilkinson quotes Stanislavsky: ``He says you must be. You don't act. You are.''

In his moving scenes with Cosette, the orphaned daughter of Fantine, whom Valjean has raised as his own daughter, Wilkinson wraps his character in a warm cloak of fatherliness.

Wilkinson, himself a father of four, says, ``I always try to relate that to a natural situation. I always think of Cosette as my daughter, as Judith. You charge yourself with it; you look for that emotion and relationship, and then you use it in the scene.

``It's the same with Marius [Cosette's fianc'e], when I sing to him. I think in terms of my son Aaron. I use emotional recall as a technique. It's a very valid one, and it's the only way to do this.''

Wilkinson quotes Hugo as writing that, when Valjean had the child's hand and was running from Javert, he was conscious of something outside of himself helping him. ``I feel guided by somebody greater than myself doing this show, in many instances,'' says Wilkinson.

On opening night in New York, for instance, Wilkinson remembers he was exhausted from only three hours' sleep the night before, because he and his wife had been up with a sick child. ``I was out on my feet when I arrived to do this show.

``When I got out on that stage here opening night, don't ask me where I got the reserves of energy. But I was just suddenly charged.''

He attributes the sudden burst of vitality that carried him through to the thoughts and prayers of the many people who were hoping he would do well that night. ``I know that's what kept me going, and if you want to call that prayer, I think that's prayer.''

Frank Rich, drama critic of the New York Times, wrote of that opening night performance:

``It's New York's good fortune that Mr. Wilkinson has traveled here with his commanding London performance as Valjean intact.

``An actor of pugilistic figure and dynamic voice, he is the heroic everyman the show demands at its heart - convincingly brawny, Christlike without being cloying, enraged by injustice, paternal with children.

``Mr. Wilkinson anchors the show from his first solo, in which he runs away from his identity as paroled prisoner 24601 with a vengeance that burns his will into the inky void around him.''

In his narrow, white dressing room, a wall of mirrors is framed with family pictures of his wife, Deirdre, their children, and the rest of an extended family. Fourteen members of that family flew in from Ireland for the opening. Just below the pictures is a well-thumbed paperback copy of Hugo's novel ``Les Mis'erables.''

Wilkinson says, ``I've become very close to Victor Hugo through Valjean. I go back into the book, all the time. I reread the book. I just open a page and start to read, and it brings me right back into the feel of the piece.''

One of the most affecting ideas for him is in a scene where Enjolras, the leader of the revolutionaries fighting for the poor at the barricades, says ``something to the effect that we will not abandon the people who have abandoned us. We will still fight for them. And that strikes me as a very humane and amazing thing to do.''

Wilkinson says, with some wonder at his starring part, ``This is just one of the best roles that's been written in the last 10 or 20 years in a musical. And this musical, I think, will live longer than I will.

``This music is just going to go on and on forever. It belongs to the people. ... And the issues of this musical are as viable today as they were in those times: the status of the poor in society, the spirituality of man.''

Cameron Macintosh, the producer of both the London and Broadway versions, says Wilkinson ``has a voice which is, on the one hand, pure and, on the other hand, contemporary.

``And that's what is haunting about it,'' he adds, ``and that's the secret of the show - that the show is not a rock opera in any way.

``It is something that truthfully does straddle the world of `Jesus Christ Superstar' and a proper opera. Mr. Macintosh notes that, before the Valjean role, Wilkinson had been known for a long time around the pop record business as having a God-given voice.'' But the most important ingredient, he says, ``is that Colm's soul and Jean Valjean's soul are at one.''

Although he enjoys his demanding role, Wilkinson plans to leave the show next fall.

``I love doing Valjean, but come October that's it. Oh, yeah, I have to go. 'Cause I've been doing it two years come October, and that's too much.

``It's too much for me physically, it's too much for my social life - too much for my family. This thing takes so much out of you that you can do nothing else.''

After that, Wilkinson plans to compose some more music, the score for an Irish TV series, and perhaps work with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, maybe even some O'Casey, or a first - an Abbey musical.

Then there's always the possibility of the movie version of ``Les Mis'erables,'' which Steven Spielberg is reportedly interested in.

Play it again, Colm?

``I'd love to do it on film, because that way we'd capture it once and for all.''

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