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Colm Wilkinson on coming home to the West End and being a hit in Hollywood

As his new concert show Bring Him Home comes to the UK, including a date at the West End's Lyceum Theatre (on Monday 24 June), musical theatre legend Colm Wilkinson reflects on his career and his involvement in the recent Les Mis movie

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Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean
What can we expect from your concert show?

I'll be doing songs I'm known for, such as "Bring Him Home" and "Music of the Night" and some Broadway stuff, like "Some Enchanted Evening". I sing maybe 60-70% musical theatre, and then mix in some rock 'n' roll and Irish stuff. There'll be some Beatles, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Johnny Cash - it's a mixed bag of stuff. The concert is all about people enjoying themselves, clapping their hands, having a good time. I want it to be very informal. I'll do requests as well; it's going to be an interactive show.

Any songs that are your personal favourites?

People expect me to say "Bring Him Home", but I've been singing that for a long time now. A new song, "She's Leaving Home", is beautiful, though that's not to take anything away from the other stuff. For me, good songs are always good, and depending on the night and the way you sing them they can be better. It changes; I can hear a new song and fall in love with it or hear someone else singing it and fall in love with it. I don't sing a song unless it moves me emotionally.

How will it feel to be back in the West End?

I've been back for the anniversaries of Phantom and Les Miserables, but I've never done my own show here before, which is unusual for me. It's a challenge but I'm really looking forward to it and I hope other people are too.

Do you find that you attract a range of ages?

Ever since Cameron Mackintosh let out the amateur rights for Les Miserables, we've had a second generation of people following that musical. I get young people in their teens who are doing it at school up to people in their 60s and 70s who went to see the original production. There is a huge span of ages in the audience which is great for me. I get emails from kids all the time asking how to sing "Bring Him Home" or "Music of the Night".

And I suppose the Les Mis movie has opened it up even more?

Absolutely. I was very surprised when I was in Hollywood for the premiere by the number of people who knew Les Miserables and remember me as the original Valjean. I met people like Daniel Day-Lewis who, not to blow my own trumpet, was delighted to meet me. Even Sally Fields has the album at home and plays it all the time.

Colm Wilkinson (centre) with Hugh Jackman and Tom Hooper
Was it strange playing the role of the Bishop in the film opposite Jean Valjean?

Yes - I was usually the one who took the candlesticks! It has certainly come full circle. I suppose it was a bit strange listening to Hugh Jackman singing the songs I had sung. But I was delighted to be there and they all treated me with such respect - I was knocked out by the reception. Hugh is such a gentleman and a hard worker and the way he tackled that role is extraordinary. Physically, he's the only guy who actually made it possible for Javert to not recognise him. He became a different person as the Mayor, and that was incredible.

There was a lot of talk about Tom Hooper's methodology; did it feel revolutionary to you at the time?

Not really. You had the smallest monitor in your ear, and the sound coming through was absolutely dreadful - not the fault of piano player I hasten to add, it was just very tinny and distorted. For me it was ok, but Hugh Jackman having to do that prologue with the electric piano must have been ridiculously difficult. But at the same time, it meant Tom could go in very close to the actors and capture the emotion, which I thought that was extraordinary. Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Did you give Hugh Jackman much advice?

I didn't want to impose any advice on anyone unless they asked. But he did ask, and I said he needed to do it in his own way. I said "it shouldn't sound like me, it should sound like yourself, your interpretation". I thought he told the story really well. People say, "he didn't do 'Bring Him Home' like you", but why should he? He's not me.

Did you regret that a film version wasn't made back in the 1980s?

Of course, I would have loved to do that movie. But Cameron thought at the time it would kill the stage show, though in fact now it has done the opposite. I remember when Steven Spielberg came to the Palace Theatre and was thinking about taking it on. But I was glad Tom Hooper got it in the end - he put a lot of Victor Hugo back into the story. It was a hard shoot though, and maybe I would have had a bit more energy back then! We were out in the open air trying to sing at three o'clock in the morning, with Anne Hathaway wearing only a flimsy dress. Standing around for 12 hours is really intense; I have a new respect for those involved. In one scene I actually fell asleep in the bed when I was meant to be pretending.

Any roles you look back on and wish you'd had a crack at?

I would have liked to do Man of La Mancha; I always wanted to do that. And I looked at Sweeney Todd for a while, that would've been good. But there was always a problem with timing and availability. Eight shows a week takes a huge chunk of your life. I spent over 15 years on the stage - four and half in Phantom of the Opera, three and a half in Jesus Christ Superstar, three and a half in Les Miserables. It's a lot of time.

Any remaining ambitions?

I would like to do more movies, and I'd also like to direct. I also want to do more teaching, impart some of the knowledge that I have to the kids. I'm attached to a group called Theatre20, who told me I had to come in and talk to the students because they use me as an example. It's a wonderful way of doing something positive. People often want to know how to look after themselves and their voices, and the one word I come back to is 'consistency' - you can't be good one night and then crap on the next. You have to come in, love your job and respect the people you work with. That's what all producers are looking for.

Was it emotional performing in the 25th anniversary concerts of Phantom and Les Mis?

It was little daunting, especially as most of the cast were half my age! But I did reasonably well I think, and it was great to sing alongside the younger guys. It made me look back at the first critical attack on Les Miserables, and how nearly 30 years later it's more popular than ever. That's not only a testament to the show, but also the people who have been in it. And to Cameron Mackintosh, who keeps the show alive, constantly reinventing it. It was great to be part of something that's had such longevity. People ask me how I can stay in shows for so long, and I always say it's down to good material, If it's not good then it drives you crazy. I was very fortunate to be in good shows with good material.

Colm Wilkinson: Bring Him Home is at the Edinburgh Playhouse tonight (20 June 2013), the West End's Lyceum on Monday (24 June) and St David's Hall, Cardiff on Saturday (29 June). For more information visit www.colmwilkinson.com