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In a new musical by Lee Harvey Osmond’s Tom Wilson, one Indigenous icon honours another

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iPhoto caption: Tom Wilson and Sheldon Elter face each other at rehearsals for Beautiful Scars. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/By / Apr 19, 2024
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Canadian rock legend Tom Wilson’s new musical is a homecoming twice over. 

Beautiful Scars, adapted by Wilson and co-creator Shaun Smyth from Wilson’s 2017 memoir of the same name, tells the story of Wilson’s journey from a lonely childhood on the East Hamilton Mountain to a celebrated career as a multidisciplinary artist and three-time Juno-award-winning musician in bands like Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and most recently, his psychedelic folk project Lee Harvey Osmond, often stylized as LeE HARVeY OsMOND. 

It’s fitting, then, that Beautiful Scars will have its world premiere at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius, which recently launched its National Centre for New Musicals. 

But Hamilton isn’t the only place Wilson calls home. Beautiful Scars also tells the story of Wilson’s discovery, at the age of 53, that the Irish-Canadian couple he considered his biological parents had, in fact, adopted him. In 2012, Wilson discovered that he has Mohawk ancestry, with roots in Kahnaw’a:ke, located on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River. 

Celebrated Métis actor Sheldon Elter embodies Wilson in the theatrical adaptation of Beautiful Scars, opening on April 26.

“All I do is sit around and do rewrites — and I’m exhausted!,” joked Wilson on the second day of rehearsals, speaking over Zoom alongside Elter. “Look at me! I’m ravaged! Ravaged by the theatre world! I’m a 64-year-old burnout. Sheldon is a vibrant actor who is actually able to memorize lines.” 

That Wilson has shared his life story in so many forms over the years — first on the page, then on screen in Shane Belcourt’s 2022 documentary Beautiful Scars, and now on the mainstage of Theatre Aquarius — is a testament to the artist’s ongoing desire to provoke conversations about Canada’s colonization of Indigenous peoples. 

“At this point in my life,” shared Wilson, “discovering that I’m not the big puffy, sweaty Irish guy I thought I was for [over 50] years, and that I’m actually Mohawk, has inspired me to create work in visual art, in music, through the books I write, and now this play… with the intent of developing a conversation in this country that desperately needs to happen: about the [colonial] world that crashed into Indigenous nations some five, six, seven hundred years ago, and the trickle down effect of that — which is hardly a trickle down effect,” he qualified. “The traumas and disasters and death, the murders that went along with that.”

Tom Wilson performs at a launch party for Beautiful Scars. Photo courtesy of Theatre Aquarius.

At the same time, Wilson made it clear that he doesn’t want his art to lecture or retraumatize audiences. “We don’t make art to break people down,” he averred. “We’re not churches. We’re not corporations. We’re not governments. We create. We create to make this world a better place. That’s what our job is.

“Right from the downbeat of the first song,Long Way Down Tonight,’“ he continued, “right from the moment that Phil Davis, a Mohawk drummer, steps out on stage and fills the theatre with prayer and hope, I think that people are going to know they’re on a journey that’s only going to enrich their lives.” 

“Tom’s got such a great ability as a multidisciplinary artist to understand the medicine and the power of art,” added Elter. On taking on the role of Wilson in Beautiful Scars, Elter says he won’t be doing “a full-on impersonation, because there won’t be much truth in that.” Rather, his work will be “about honouring the story that was written… and working with all the great tools that Tom and Sean Smyth and the rest of the artistic team” have given him. 

Elter’s own life story is itself a tale for the ages. As a young man, he intended to become a primary school teacher — until he started doing stand-up in college. “Eventually, I dropped out of my second year to go on the road and do stand-up comedy,” said Elter. “I toured Western Canada for two and a half years, opening for a hypnotist. It was wild.” 

Elter then decided to go back to school and train in musical theatre at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. “It was a great experience as far as teaching me what it is I love about theatre,” Elter continued. “I knew right away it was storytelling.” 

Sheldon Elter poses behind the scenes of Beautiful Scars. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

After he graduated, Elter wrote and toured his own autobiographical one-man show Métis Mutt. “I remember being so scared, like ‘what am I doing this for?’” said Elter. “It’s so exposing [because of] the fearlessness it takes to try to tell the truth and be honest… I got a lot of permission from family in order to make sure that I was telling stories that I knew to be true, and that didn’t compromise somebody for the sake of me telling my own. After I started touring that show, I knew right away, ‘this is going to be what I do for the rest of my life.’” 

Elter’s experience of sharing his own life story gives him a profound respect for Wilson and Beautiful Scars. “When you tell your own story as specific as it can be, as much [as Wilson’s story] is an ode to his family and to Hamilton, it really becomes a human story,” Elter explained. “No matter who you are, where you’re from, you’ll see the humanity in who [Tom] is and his own struggles.”

A resonant story isn’t the only thing that audiences can expect from Beautiful Scars. They can also look forward to some killer songs — both old and new. 

“I don’t allow myself to be in my own tribute bands,” said Wilson. “It would be a huge disservice to this story just to rely on music from the past. So I’ve written about four [or] five songs that are brand-new, specifically for this.” That being said, even the musical’s more recognizable songs will feature surprises. “It makes it very exciting as a performer,” said Elter, “to know some of these songs from before and to see just the slightest little tweak of lyrics, in order to give them a new context in the story.”

Among the show’s numbers are collaborations between Wilson and other titans of the Canadian music scene, including Tara Lightfoot, Daniel Lanois, Colin James, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, and Wilson’s own son Thompson Wilson Shaw. “It’s the best music in one place that I could ever imagine producing,” Wilson said. That’s saying something, given that Wilson has been a professional musician for the past 50-odd years. 

“I have the same passion for music, the same passion for creating, that I’ve always had,” Wilson reflected. “Getting my hands on a guitar was what I needed. It was like I was in a boat without a paddle. Once I got a guitar I knew I could get where I needed to go.”

How did Wilson come by his first guitar?

“I stole it,” said Wilson. In his early teens, he absconded with a guitar from Waddington’s Music in Hamilton — about four blocks from Theatre Aquarius’s current location on King William Street. A crucial detail: Wilson did not have a car at the time. He made his getaway via city bus. 

“I was inducting Neil Young into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame,” Wilson told me. “And I told this story, because I was inspired by a couple of his records to get a hold of the guitar. [Neil Young] goes, ‘wait a minute… You didn’t even have a car to steal the guitar? You actually had to steal the guitar, and then walk over to the bus, and wait for the bus with the guitar in your hand,  and then get on the bus, and go home?’ It was a crime of passion, let’s just say that,” he joked. 

Tom Wilson in rehearsal. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Wilson’s looking forward to opening Beautiful Scars in the place that has so strongly shaped him as a person and an artist — though it’s not the only one. 

“Everything that I write about starts from the city [of Hamilton]” said Wilson, “because this is where I grew up. But now everything is enhanced and inspired by Kahnaw’a:ke, Mohawk territory, just outside Montreal, where my family’s from. 

I was lied to for 54 years of my life about my identity,” Wilson continued. “I was lied to about who my parents were and where my culture lived. I’m the last man standing, so it’s my job to tell the truth.”


Beautiful Scars opens for previews on April 24 at Theatre Aquarius. You can learn more about the show here.

Nathaniel Hanula-James
WRITTEN BY

Nathaniel Hanula-James

Nathaniel Hanula-James is a multidisciplinary theatre artist who has worked across Canada as a dramaturg, playwright, performer, and administrator.

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Comments

  • Tanya Langille Apr 27, 2024

    You spelled Terra wrong. 😊

  • Lisa Fraser Apr 25, 2024

    Love to read & see your successes, in all arts. Finding the roots you always knew instinctively were there. Guitar & song as well as your art which has always been a reflection your story. Well done Tom!

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