Colm Wilkinson has the extreme privilege that, as legend has it, the part of Valjean was written with his voice in mind. Obviously, this means that you would expect his version of the role to be definitive, even from almost twenty-eight years ago, but this is only subjectively the case, as he has a huge rival in terms of vocal legacy in one Mr Alfie Boe. Obviously in terms of fame alone, Hugh Jackman of the new film version cannot be challenged, but unfortunately his voice doesn’t have the power of these two forerunners.
In ‘Bring Him Home’, Valjean’s most iconic and emotive song, Colm can hit the high notes rather eloquently, with an emotional wobble in his voice on the long notes- you can tell how the song was tailored to his range and strong points. However, Alfie has the true power to bring the needed effect to the song, as well as the more intimate gasp for the ending; there is no more evidence needed than the way he commanded the entire O2 arena during the 25th anniversary concert, and the audience’s reaction. Unfortunately, Hugh’s voice is too reedy and weak to sustain the long notes that are such an important part of the melody, and there is a sort of inconsistency here. Although he does better on other songs- it is quite obvious that the new ‘Suddenly’ was written with his voice in mind- he can’t vocally compare to the former two men; it is clear that his previous musical work has been on lighter Broadway numbers, whereas Alfie has done opera and Colm previously played big roles such as Judas Iscariot, Dr. Jekyll and the Phantom.
Similarly, in the thematically essential ‘Who Am I’, the actor must portray through his voice the inner journey of discovery he is going through, with the most important two lines proclaiming that he is, indeed, Jean Valjean and 24601. Alfie does this wonderfully, with a strong assertion that, once again, filled the vast room, making it completely convincing that he is saving the wrongly-condemned prisoner by being an honest man. Colm seemed to favour a slightly rocky slide on many of the lines, with a steady feel throughout, but with the same strength of conviction for the two all-important lines (although arguably less successfully, with his shakier voice and almost squeak at the end of the last note). However, once again Hugh slightly misses the spot. Despite a spectacular belt on “24601”, his fall into a whisper for “Jean Valjean” lets it down, as it seems more like he is more hesitant about admitting his true identity than the others; equally, this could be read as an impressive acting decision, making the most of the film medium to make this event more intimate, but that of course is subjective.
It may have become obvious already, but Alfie Boe is so far my personal favourite Jean Valjean; the sheer passion and power behind his voice, with the ability to bring it down to an intimate level as well as the sheer sadness that his eyes can enhance the music with is a breathtaking combination for me. I am also a fan of Ramin Karimloo’s Valjean due to his similar power and emotion, although admittedly this could be because he’s the only one I’ve been able to see live myself, and his interpretation will surely be improved in a decade or two when he has the increased age that could add to the depth of the character. I also don’t want to say much to detract from Colm Wilkinson, as it is plausible that without his commitment to the early project, Jean Valjean and his music may not be what we know and love today. Finally, although Hugh Jackman is arguably the least qualified man vocally here, he used his vast acting experience to make the most of the fact that he was playing the role in an ambitious film production in which he could still sing live to make the emotions as raw and natural as possible; this may not have brought out the most perfect songs, but he gave the character an obvious core, especially in moments of his redemption and his love for Cosette.