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Shining the stage lights on Tom Wilson’s story

The world premiere of Beautiful Scars, a musical adaptation of the musician and artist's 2017 memoir, is about creating understanding and has required a deep level of trust and creative collaboration, he says.

The journey has been a long and winding road, but the world premiere of Beautiful Scars, the musical, is finally about to take to the stage.

Described as “a tale of loss, love and forgiveness,” the play portrays the extraordinary life story of musician/author/visual artist and now playwright Tom Wilson. Given his status as one of this city’s most important cultural ambassadors and proudest citizens, it is only fitting that Hamilton’s leading theatrical venue gets to host the work.

To learn more about the production and its intriguing back story, HAMILTON CITY Magazine contributor Kerry Doole and co-publisher/editor Meredith MacLeod sat down with Tom Wilson and the play’s director and dramaturgist and Aquarius’ artistic director Mary Francis Moore at the start of the fourth day of full play rehearsals.

The interview revealed that plans to turn Wilson’s acclaimed and best-selling memoir Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home into a stage production got underway shortly after its publication in 2017. This turned into a complicated process that saw a documentary film adaptation of the book by writer/director Shane Belcourt arrive first, in 2022.

Tom Wilson spoke to a large crowd at a welcome party for Beautiful Scars held at Westinghouse HQ on April 2 that celebrated the first day of rehearsals. PHOTO: FRAMEWORK

The genesis of Beautiful Scars, the musical, came from a collaboration between Tom Wilson and noted actor/playwright Shaun Smyth, credited as co-creators of the work. Wilson tells HCM that “originally, the play was supposed to be a play. Just words with no music. Anyone I told that to, including Mary Francis, went away thinking ‘that makes no sense to me.’ 

“My ignorance or lack of education in musical theatre only started to end when my wife started dragging me to plays. I thought, ‘oh now I see, there is dialogue and the story is being told in music, too.’ I went to see Hadestown and it was like a lightbulb went off in the first 15 minutes, seeing how music could be used.”

One play Wilson’s wife took him to was pivotal for this project. 

“I saw Playing With Fire (starring Shaun Smyth) and I watched a guy step out on stage, an ice rink, on skates and in this one-man play for two hours he broke people’s hearts telling the story of Theo Fleury. I was so blown away with the potential of how a true story can be told.”

Wilson and Smyth then collaborated on the creation of Beautiful Scars, the play. “We made a great team because Shaun had the ability to put all the bones in the right places for this play,” Wilson reflects. “He is so respectful to me and the Indigenous people that he didn’t dare speak for anyone else. That was my job.”

The play was always destined for Theatre Aquarius, but plans hit a roadblock when the original director stepped away from the project. 

Beautiful Scars co-creator Shaun Smyth has helped Tom Wilson bring his memoir to the stage. PHOTO: FRAMEWORK

“I stepped in to cover for that director when they had to leave at the last minute,” says Moore, who took over the role as artistic director at Aquarius in July 2021. “I thought I’d be a placeholder director until we found the right director.”

That situation changed once Moore began working with Wilson and Smyth and a creative chemistry blossomed. Moore did not know Wilson well, but, in an interesting twist of fate, she was very familiar with the source material of Beautiful Scars.

“My brother bought the book for me for Christmas when it was first published, and I loved it,” she recalls. “I worked at another theatre at the time. I found Tom on social media and reached out to him, saying ‘I think the book is spectacular. Would you consider adapting it for a musical for my theatre?’ 

Wilson responded that something was in the works with Smyth at Theatre Aquarius.

“I thought ‘that’s great, but too bad for me.’”  

But that obviously isn’t the end of the story.

Mary Francis Moore, artistic director at Theatre Aquarius is the director of the world premiere of Beautiful Scars.

Moore was then working at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in PEI. “I remember standing in the kitchen where I was billeted and (acclaimed Indigenous actor) Sheldon Elter was there doing a show with me,” she recalls. “I said to him, ‘if this Tom Wilson play ever happens, you should play him,’ and I gave him my copy of the book. Then I joined Theatre Aquarius and here we are.”

In fact, Moore half-jokes that she took the job in Hamilton for the chance to be part of Beautiful Scars.

It is now Elter playing the older Tom Wilson in the play, while Wilson’s son, Thompson Wilson, plays him as a younger man. Wilson admits he was initially surprised that Thompson accepted the role. 

“Thompson still has no desire for the stage. He doesn’t have that burning desire to be under the spotlight, onstage, but he found this interesting enough because he could be part of a group. Having Thompson involved is completely special, and we have spent a lot of great time together on this.”

Moore says that as she began working with Wilson and Smyth at Theatre Aquarius, she was still reluctant to take the reins completely. “I was fully prepared to let it go as I was very aware of myself as a settler director. I had rather made the assumption it should be a First Nations director, but a couple of days after our first workshop Tom reached out to me, saying he wanted to continue working with me.

“I went back to the original director, saying I wasn’t sure I should be that person in the room. They were very gracious, saying ‘if you are the person who can get Tom talking and writing and telling his story in a theatrical way, you absolutely should be that person.’”

Moore’s highly impressive resumé as a playwright and director includes significant work on Indigenous-themed projects. “I did one in 2016, Dream Catchers Project (one she co-created) and that really changed my artistic practice,” she recalls. “That experience of working in a First Nations community really affected how I work and what I do. That is a part of my everyday now. I think that is what drew me to Beautiful Scars. I was just coming out of that project when I read Tom’s book, and it really resonated with me.”

Moore was quick to sense the theatrical potential of Wilson’s life story. “ What I loved about the book was the amount of interpretation possible with it. It has been amazing to go from that first draft of the play when I first arrived at Theatre Aquarius to what it is today. Even yesterday, right at day’s end, at 5.59 p.m., Tom was still making cuts.”

Moore says playwrights tend to agonize over every comma but Wilson takes a different approach.

“He is so ruthless with his own work and that is really refreshing. We have taken out huge chunks of his life, in part because it’s a musical, not a nine-hour play.’”

Moore tells HCM that the workshopping process and now the rehearsals for Beautiful Scars have been intense but highly rewarding. 

“It was such a joy, developing this with Tom over the winter,” she recalls. “I’d go to his house on Monday mornings, and that was a wonderful way to start my week artistically, rather than with budget meetings. The trees, his dog and the coffee, and these wonderful work sessions.

“Bob Foster (the play’s music director) would come in, and he’d play piano and Tom would have his guitar, and Thompson would be there. We’d just be throwing ideas at the wall. I’d go, ‘I think you should change that lyric to this, and try this,’ then I’d have this surreal out of body feeling, thinking this is the best job I’ve ever had. It was thrilling to have those musical minds working together and getting to be a fly on the wall. Now it’s about taking all that exploration and putting it on its feet.”

Much of the cast and creative team of Beautiful Scars pictured in the lobby of Theatre Aquarius. From left, front row: Yolanda Skelton, Phil Davis, Valerie Planche, Jeremy Proulx, Sheldon Elter, Tom Wilson, Brandon McGibbon, Kristi Hansen, Shaun Smyth and Thompson Wilson. From left, back row: Khaleel Ghandhi, Kevin Fraser, Josephine Ho, Mary Francis Moore, Jay Havens, Jasmyne Leisemer and Bob Foster. PHOTO: Dahlia Katz

The rehearsal process has been equally collaborative, Moore says. “This is our fourth day and there have been massive changes every day. On some musicals, the music director stays there, the director there, the choreographer there, but we are in each other’s zone here.”

Moore credits that to trust in each other that leads to taking artistic risks.

At this point, Tom Wilson arrives from a radio interview, and he quickly concurs with Moore’s perspective on the collaborative process. “Once you get into a creative space with people who are used to that, it is all hands on deck. That is how I feel about it. There are people who write and are very precious about their creations, but I prefer collaborations, and working with Mary Francis has been an easy road to take. With people like Robert Foster and Mary Francis, theatre is beyond instinct. It is what they live. If I can hitch myself onto Mary Francis’s star, then I think I’m doing OK.”

He’s a genuine multi-media renaissance man, but theatre is a new medium for him. “I am on a learning curve. For the first two years of this process, I’d joke that I don’t actually know anything about the theatre. I’d also joke that I kept my backpack really close to me in case I’d be asked to leave so I didn’t have to pack things up.”

Developing a musical requires the same creative energy as writing songs with Thompson, painting or writing a book. And it’s also hard work. 

“But this, Beautiful Scars, the play, is completely pleasurable hard work. We are all serving the art and we are attempting to create. There is that Quincy Jones line, ‘leave your ego at the door,’ and we have done that.”

Just as the play’s script is still a work in progress, so too is the music, which is a hybrid of older and new original material.I already had music that was completely relative to this story, songs that I realize I’d been writing about my mother for a long time. The (Lee Harvey Osmond) album Mohawk came out in 2019, and that was a lot about discovery.

“There are brand new songs, too. Some came from us sitting in the living room and Mary Francis going, ‘we really need something here.’ I’d sing her something that’d be a nice placeholder and then develop it a little more and now it’s an important part of Act 2.”

Another song in the musical is co-written by fellow Hamilton natives Terra Lightfoot and Daniel Lanois and Junkhouse classic “Out of My Head” makes an appearance, too. 

The cast of Beautiful Scars performed at the welcome party after just one day of rehearsals. From left: Valerie Planche, Kristi Hansen, Sheldon Elter, Phil Davis, Thompson Wilson and Brandon McGibbon. PHOTO: FRAMEWORK

Beautiful Scars has already found multi-media life as a memoir, a film and a 2015 solo album by Lee Harvey Osmond, Wilson’s musical alter ego. It being developed into a musical certainly wasn’t expected. 

“The important question is, did I come to the theatre with an ego that drove me to where it is not enough that there are words on a page? Do I now need the words said under lights, on a stage with a set and a lot of people paying attention?

“No, that’s not the reason. The theatre somehow came to me. It’s not about ego, it’s about the need to tell this story.”

Of course, the story of Beautiful Scars is one of Wilson discovering his Indigenous identity later in life and how colonialism and oppression has affected his life and that of his biological mother, along with kids and grandkids. With his work, Wilson is determined to tell stories that lead to understanding.

“The way to do that is not by sticking a finger in someone’s chest and making them feel guilty and solely responsible for the occupation of this land. We need to create art that will inspire and move the conversation. We will never be inspired by the news cycle or by land defenders who are always looked at as villains. Art is our vehicle for getting people to the table. That is what this is about,” he says.

A second memoir is due to his publisher in about two months. 

“I’m going to be 65 soon, and I feel like I’m stretching and now using muscles that I’ve never used before,” Wilson says. 

“I am the last man standing and I have a responsibility to tell the truth. Knowing that, you’re working with a clear head and an open heart, and when you do that, anything is possible.”

So about expectations: don’t expect to see Wilson on the Theatre Aquarius stage (“I know how to act up, but I certainly can’t act.”) 

“People should expect nothing but the art that is there, and what they should take from it is their own journey.”


Beautiful Scars at Theatre Aquarius
190 King William St., Hamilton
April 24 to May 11
Tickets here or by calling 905-522-7529