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Canadian Rocker Tom Wilson Brings His Fascinating Life Story to the Stage with 'Beautiful Scars'

The world premiere of the musical adaptation of the Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Lee Harvey Osmond songwriter's best-selling memoir about discovering his Indigenous identity begins a run in Hamilton on April 26.

Full cast of 'Beautiful Scars' onstage

Full cast of 'Beautiful Scars' onstage

Dahlia Katz

Tonight (Friday, April 26) marks the official world premiere of Beautiful Scars, a musical based upon Tom Wilson’s best-selling 2017 memoir, Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home. The play is being staged by Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, Ontario, the hometown of Wilson, the charismatic rock-roots singer/songwriter, visual artist and author well-known on the Canadian music scene for his work in Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Lee Harvey Osmond.

The launch of the play has been keenly-anticipated, not just locally but beyond. Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood visited Tom Wilson during rehearsals for the play, and many Wilson friends and fans from Toronto made the trek to Hamilton for the first preview show on Wednesday, one attended by Billboard Canada.


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Wilson’s critically-acclaimed autobiography has already been adapted into a 2022 full-length film documentary of the same name, written and directed by Shane Belcourt. It premiered at the 2022 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival where it was one of the top ten films in the Hot Docs Audience Award race. It received a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Biography or Arts Documentary Program or Series in 2003.

Beautiful Scars is also the title of a 2015 album released by Tom Wilson’s solo project, Lee Harvey Osmond, and one of its songs, “Blue Moon Drive,” is now reprised in Beautiful Scars, the play.

Wilson had a very hands-on role in the creation of the play, and is credited as its playwright and co-creator, alongside noted playwright/actor Shaun Smyth (Playing With Fire). Its journey to the stage has not been an easy one, with a change in director being one obstacle. It is now helmed by Mary Francis Moore, who is also the Artistic Director of Theatre Aquarius.

In a recent interview I did with Moore for Hamilton City Magazine, Moore recalled that “My brother bought the book for me for Christmas when it was first published, and I loved it. 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?’ He wrote back to me, saying ‘I am already doing that, with Shaun Smyth at Theatre Aquarius.’ I had taught at Aquarius but was not in a position to develop a new work here. I thought ‘that’s great, but too bad for me!’”

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As fate would have it, Moore later landed her current position at Theatre Aquarius, and, with Wilson’s blessing, took the reins of the project.

Tom Wilson may be something of a multi-media renaissance man, but theatre was not previously part of his artistic arsenal. “I am on a learning curve,” he admitted. “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!”

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Tom Wilson’s deep involvement in the play did not extend to portraying himself onstage, however. “I know how to act up, but I just can’t act,” he confesses, with a deep chuckle. Intriguingly, his son and co-songwriter Thompson Wilson does appear in the play, as the younger Tom, in both a singing and acting role. This is Thompson’s theatrical debut, but, with the exception of musician Phil Davis (billed as Indigenous Collaborator), the rest of the seven-person cast comprises seasoned and acclaimed actors. Taking the crucial role of Tom Wilson is Sheldon Elter.

As with the original memoir, the essence of Beautiful Scars, the play, is Tom Wilson’s discovery, in his late-50s, that he was born to a young Mohawk woman from the Kahnawake community. Thanks to a fiercely guarded family secret, he grew up in Hamilton believing that his non-Indigenous adoptive parents, George and Bunny Wilson, were his real parents.

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The revelation of his true heritage had a life-changing impact on Wilson, who has now reconnected with his birth mother, explored his Mohawk culture, and become a passionate advocate for Indigenous issues and the need for true reconciliation with Canada’s settler population. This evolution is being further explored in a second memoir Wilson is now completing for Penguin Random House.

In the musical, Wilson’s extraordinary life journey is told through a combination of narrative passages and renditions of songs he wrote and recorded with Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Lee Harvey Osmond. These tunes are sung by different cast members, with some featuring the full ensemble, with Junkhouse classic "Out Of My Head" playing a pivotal role in the play.

A talented backing band comprises drummer Gary Craig (Bruce Cockburn, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), guitarist David Gray (Parachute Club) and bassist Anna Ruddick, under the musical direction of Bob Foster.

Of note are two new original songs co-written by Wilson, “Death Row Love Affair” and “Standing The Line.” The latter number is co-written with fellow Hamilton luminaries Daniel Lanois and Terra Lightfoot, and it provides a show-stopping and triumphant finale to the musical.

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

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