News spread this evening that Canadian musical theatre star Michael Burgess, perhaps best known for his performance as Jean Valjean in the critically acclaimed Original Canadian Cast of Les Miserables, has passed away after a long battle with cancer. He was 70.
Burgess was a household name among Canadian fans of musical theatre, not only for his work in Les Miserables but also for performances in Man of La Mancha, Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris, Blood Brothers and for his frequent singing of the National Anthem at Toronto Maple Leaf Games.
He was also instrumental in my decision to pursue my love as musical theatre – and arguably my Mom’s favourite performer. For those who don’t know, I lost my Mom fourteen years ago today to a battle with pancreatic cancer, so news that Burgess had also lost his battle with the dreaded disease on the same day as her struck a chord.
My mom was a passionate lover of the arts and a huge supporter of musical theatre, and when I was only five years old she took me to see the Original Canadian Cast of Les Miserables. Arguably too young to properly understand the scope or importance of what I was witnessing unfold on stage in front of me, I fell in love with the performers and their passion, and clearly recall Burgess’s performance as Valjean. It sparked a fire inside me and from that day forward I knew I wanted to be as involved within Toronto’s musical theatre community as possible.
As for Burgess, he was instantly a ‘star’ in my young eyes – and my Mom’s adoration of his vocal talent only solidified that. I was so enthralled that I recall begging her to take me to Man of La Mancha when he performed it in Toronto with Susan Gilmour – only to be heartbroken when she told me I was ‘too young’ for it because there was mature themes and nudity. Rather than give in to my incessant pleading, she stood outside the stage door and told Mr. Burgess of my desire to see him perform again and her decision not to bring me to the theatre. She returned home with an autographed Playbill that had a lovely personal note from Burgess to me – and I still have it.
As I started to make a name for myself as a critic and writer in the musical theatre community of Toronto, I was fortunate enough to see Burgess perform on many occasions. Every time I was struck by his voice and kind demeanor, and I always thought of my Mom. When he toured Canada with Rebecca Caine, I had the opportunity to chat with him and tell him of the length’s my Mom went to get me that autograph and ease the pain of me missing the performance. I then had the opportunity to hear him sing The Impossible Dream – and it was a gift and unique privilege that I will never forget.
Life is a funny thing – that is something I’m learning more and more with each passing day. Tragedies turn into incredible gifts that more often than not inform the way we live our lives. Events that ignite a passion inside of you are ones that you never forget, instead they turn into memories that burn brighter with each passing day. My Mom’s joy upon hearing Burgess sing is one such memory, and his kind reaction to me recounting the tale is another. I am grateful to both of them, who in their own very different ways gave me something to live for. Something to be passionate about, and helped instill a light in me that I hope with continue to shine bright in the face of inevitable heartache, tragedy and loss.
September 28th is always a sad day for my family, friends and loved ones – but tonight I send my love and light to all those close to Michael Burgess. May you find peace and comfort in the memories you created that will burn bright in you with each passing day.
And remember, the truth that once was spoken… To love another person is to see the face of God.
There are many performances of Michael Burgess that I love and have gone back to watch over the years… but this one with Colm Wilkinson stands out tonight. Bring Him Home indeed.
The other one is a favourite memory I have of Burgess and my Mom – from the 10th Anniversary Les Miserables performance at The Royal Albert Hall. At the end, 17 Valjean’s from productions around the world performed together to represent their respective countries. Burgess represented Canada – and I remember us both squealing like excited children when his name and our flag flashed across the screen – I’m sure we weren’t the only ones.