Tom Wilson Takes his Beautiful Scars To The Stage

Tom Wilson Takes his Beautiful Scars To The Stage

By David DeRocco                   

Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” So wrote Cormac McCarthy, as he touched upon the enduring physical and emotional imprints of our past experiences.

For artist/singer/songwriter/guitarist TOM WILSON, it’s Beautiful Scars that have left the most indelible imprint on the amazing life of this accomplished Hamiltonian. Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home is the name of a 2017 bestselling novel, a 2022 documentary film, and now a world-premier musical created by Wilson and Shawn Smyth under the direction of Theatre Aquarius Director Mary Francis Moore. It’s the story of Wilson’s discovery of his own true Indigenous identity, a tale of love, loss and forgiveness that has helped set Wilson on his current path artistically and spiritually.

With rehearsals underway for the musical being staged April 24th through May 11th at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius, Tom took time to chat with GoBe Weekly about his latest artistic endeavor, his busy schedule, and the loss of his longtime Junkhouse bandmate, Russell Wilson.

GoBe: Is bringing Beautiful Scars to the stage part of a grand plan that began with the publishing of your memoir in 2017, or is just the next step in this beautiful journey you’ve been on since discovering your Indigenous heritage.

TOM: It is. It’s another step, an important step, to continue telling this story. There’s a way greater cause other than my ego to continue doing this stuff. My art that I work on, my work to try and be an artist, has an intent now, to develop and to remind us and inspire a conversation that needs to happen in this country. I’ll say this as a Hamilton guy, when you open up y our heart and you start speaking in truths, it’s amazing what good fortune and opportunity comes your way.

GoBe: How did this project come to be. What was the evolution of the idea.

TOM: This play came along originally when Mary Francis Moore, who runs Theatre Aquarius and who is director of the play, an absolute genius, came to me right after the book came out in 2017. She was with another theatre company in Toronto and said to me, listen, I’ve read your book, I’m interested in bringing it to the stage. I wrote back to her respectfully and said, I’m working with Shawn Smyth, developing a script, and Theatre Aquarius is currently funding this play for workshops. So she kind of tapped out on that, and didn’t hear from her for three or four years. Then she became director of Theatre Aquarius. The play was sitting on her desk. She’s in control of making this happen.

GoBe: Was the original idea to simply bring the book to the stage or are there other elements that you’ve woven into the fabric of this musical adaptation.

TOM: When I wrote the book Penguin Random House came to me, they said you have eight glossy pages to fill with photographs. You’ve seen lots of memoirs and biographies with photographic references to the people inside the books. And I said I don’t want any of that. I want people to concentrate on the words that I wrote. When I started writing the play, the original idea was, I’ve been doing music all my life, let’s let the words and dialogue do all the work. As time went on I realized the music that I’ve been writing for the last 10 years has all been guided toward this story. Some of the earlier music I’ve written in my longer past is all about that, touching on my lack of identity. We incorporated some that. To cut to the chase, it’s a musical now.

GoBe: I bet you 25 years ago when you were looking toward the future you never pictured Tom Wilson: The Musical.

TOM: Never. Not a chance. Once again, guiding this not with ego but with the need to tell a greater story, my story represents thousands and thousands of people who have experienced the pain of colonialism and the idea of trying to wipe out nations of people and identity. Just to quote Norval Morrisseau, ‘if we don’t tell out stories no one else will.’ And that applies to not only the Indigenous world but to you as well. If you don’t pass on the stories of your mother, your father, your grandparents, or how your family got here, to your kids, the story is dead. This story represents that identify.

GoBe: It’s a universal message for certain. How did you find Sheldon Elder, the actor tasked with portraying you on stage. You are such a visual presence. That took some casting.

TOM: Well, you have to put hair and a beard on him for starters. He’s a little shorter than me. He’s a powerhouse, a journeyman stage actor, film actor. Also, he’s a fantastic singer. He was a finalist on Canadian Idol a decade and a half ago, so the guy can also perform. We needed that strength to get Tom’s end of the story across.

GoBe: What does the production look like. How big is the cast and what other primary roles.

TOM: The amount of talent involved in this is mind-boggling. The first day of rehearsal was Tuesday and everybody was brought into the black box theatre here at Theatre Aquarius, so it went from the cast , the director, the stage manager, me the writer, to people building sets, the lighting guys. There was like 40 people in the room. It was very moving to see all these people involved in bringing this story to life. I don’t even consider myself a novice in the theatre world. I’m an outsider who has been let into a world that is full of magic. I honour that. I honour my position here at the theatre. Then again, I am the writer, and all questions and all roads do lead to me, which I do love (laughing).

GoBe: You’re like ancient Rome Tom.

TOM: Well the ancient part for sure.

GoBe: The stage run goes to May 11th in Hamilton. Have you had offers to bring it to more stages elsewhere.

TOM: That’s part of the plan for sure. I’m fortunate to be working with an organization who do that. The people producing the play with Theatre Aquarius work in the Mirvish world, from the NAC to the Confederation Theatre in PEI all the way out west to Citadel. That’s in the cards. Let’s see how it plays out. I think it’s an important enough story, a Canadian story, a North American story. What I simply say is, I’m not putting on an Indian costume, I’m taking off the colonial one that was put on me when I was too young and unaware to k now that I was wearing it. That’s been my position in my play. That’s the part of Tom in this play.

GoBe: When it comes to the music, you’re obviously not performing as part of the stage production. Who’s behind the music.

TOM: Robert Foster, who put the music together for Come From Away. He’s always working. This guy is in high demand. He’s also the guy who wrote Good Mother for Jann Arden. He’s not only a fantastic musician and arrangement also a cornerstone in Canadian musical theatre.

GoBe: You are the consummate multi-tasker. What is on the immediate horizon after this initial stage run.

TOM: Oh my God, let’s just run them down. Right now it is the emiddle of April. June 1st my book gets handed in to the copy editor at Penguin Random House. I’ve got to tidy up and finish the second book. That’s the big job. My focus right now is in the rehearsal room for this musical. Other than that, after 35 years and losing two band members, Junkhouse is actually getting the offers we should have been getting in the 1990s. We’re doing some festival work. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is also going out to stages with two new band members, Daniel Lanois and Terra Lightfoot. And I just closed an art exhibit in Toronto that has sent ripples through the art world. I got a lot on the go.

GoBe: Daniel and Terra and Tom. That’s like a Canadian supergroup.

TOM: Ya, well, we’ll see. We’re all moody. (laughs)

GoBe: Final question, as you mentioned Junkhouse. Any thoughts on Russell’s passing and how impact that was for you given the earlier loss of Dan.

TOM: Both Dan and Russell were shocks. Both were unexpected. We had just done two shows. Sony music had just released STRAYS, our first album, on vinyl because it sold so much around the world. We were kind of in celebration mode. We’d done two shows, they were both sold out, and the effect of that caused promoters to be interested in bringing us to festivals in the summer. Losing Russell, the world is much less funny and interesting without him.



A new musical by: Tom Wilson & Shaun Smyth

Inspired by the book Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home by Tom Wilson. Dramaturgy and Original Direction by Mary Francis Moore

Music Supervision & Orchestrations/Arrangements by Bob Foster

Starring Sheldon Elter as Tom Wilson


Oblivious to a secret deeply held by his parents, Tom Wilson’s search for identity started on the East Hamilton Mountain of the 1960s and 70s.

For decades after, Tom carved out a life for himself in the shadows, battling demons along the way as he waited for the secret of who he was and where he came from to reveal itself. And when it did, it swept up the St. Lawrence River to Kahnaw’a:ke Mohawk territory and exposed a story generations in the making. A best-selling book, film and now a world premiere musical featuring some of the country’s most celebrated actors and musicians with a powerfully evocative score by multi-award-winning musician Tom Wilson, Beautiful Scars is a story of loss, love and forgiveness that will leave you spellbound to the final note.


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