Gay Byrne returns for another series in which he talks to major public figures from all walks of life about the things they believe and the things they have done, that give their lives meaning.
First up, musical star, Colm Wilkinson, reveals why an absence of faith never stopped him singing his most famous song – the prayer, Bring Him Home from Les Miserables, which was written for him – with total conviction.
Colm Wilkinson thinks he just might be the first person in the history of the world to get into a fight over an anger management book. The musical star may have Buddhist leanings, but, by his own admission, there was nothing Zen about his reaction to the discovery that a Toronto bookstore had sold the copy of the book he’d ordered to someone else, by the time he got to the shop. Needless to say, his four children and wife, Deirdre, teased him mercilessly.
“CT” talks frankly about his huge dependence on Deirdre, in keeping his feet on the ground and helping him cope with the stresses and nerves of a career on stage. Some will be surprised to discover that the showman suffers torment every time he opens a show, throwing up, unable to sleep or eat before curtain up. Which, of course, begs the question: why do it?
Wilkinson thinks the performing bug, not to mention talent, came from his parents, who were both performers in an amateur sense. Then, having tried his hand working in his father’s asphalt firm, Colm took to the road as a musician, age 16. He’s never really got off it, dividing his career between stage musicals and solo gigging.
He grew up in a traditional, Dublin Catholic household and was educated by the Christian Brothers, but little of that faith stuck. Deirdre is a committed Catholic, but Colm could never get past the idea that a benign God who lets bad things happen is, well, probably not very benign. His mother’s beliefs were more orthodox, to the extent that she refused to speak to Colm for six months, after he took the part of Judas in the original Dublin production of Jesus Christ, Superstar:
Wilkinson’s relationship with his Dad was even more difficult and clearly troubles him still. An undemonstrative Belfast man, who showed little warmth or encouragement to his children, he never saw Colm’s musical career as a proper job, and only reluctantly attended a couple of performances of even Colm’s most acclaimed roles in Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.
If Colm’s dad was unimpressed by his talent, others have made up for it. He has received letters by the sack-load about the inspirational effect his performances have had on anyone from prisoners to drug addicts, from the dying to the bereaved. In turn, that clearly inspires him to continue.
He talks to Gay about the irony that his most famous song, Bring Him Home, from Les Miserables, which was written especially for him, is unashamedly a Christian prayer. He doesn’t share the faith of Jean Valjean, who sings it, but he says, when he sings it, it’s vital for him not to act that character, but to become him.
In any case, he has a spiritual side which becomes clear, when he discusses his hope that he may see his deceased relatives again; and also the out of body experience that he has had, at times, during the very best of performances, when he has sensed that he is almost channelling a higher energy, whatever that may be.
In recent years, Colm and Deirdre’s respective beliefs were all tested, as they faced the anguish of a brain tumour that nearly killed her.