By Clare S. Richie
After a well-received showcase performance, Tom Willner, playwright, producer and composer of Turning Thirty, The Musical, is ready to share his life story with more audiences. His musical explores how a young couple’s decision to start a family is interrupted and ultimately influenced by a testicular cancer diagnosis.
The concept for the musical came to Willner during his cancer treatment, more than a decade ago. A gifted musician and songwriter, the Virginia Highland resident started a journal to help him cope. “One day, I wrote ‘Turning Thirty’ on the top of the page and within minutes I had the musical title, five characters, and seven song titles,” Willner recalled.
With his wife, Allyson, by his side, Willner endured major surgeries, a recurrence of cancer and chemotherapy. The musical captures their devotion in “I’m Here for You” as well as the surrealism of navigating cancer treatment in “The Battle” between his doctor and cancer personified.
By his 32nd birthday, Willner was a cancer survivor and a father. The years passed, he remained cancer free, and his family grew. He continued writing songs (check out “Rescue Me” on Pandora) but his musical went unheard. Willner explained, “when I was 39, a friend told me I better perform my musical before I turned 40!”
Since 2008, Willner has performed four staged readings that to raise money to fight cancer. To take it to the next level, he raised $10,000 via Kickstarter to conduct a recent workshop. For one week, director Scott Warren, musical director Michael Fauss, actors and musicians poured over Willner’s work for a performance last month.
At the talkback, Tom Key, executive artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, weighed in, “There is something really substantial here. The last song ‘I Got Life and Life is Good’ created joy in me – a precious thing to earn.” The audience also discussed whether the musical should be sung as a rock opera or if needed more dialogue and backstory.
Willner will ponder these and other creative decisions as he moves toward his next goal of a longer run at a local theater. Director Scott Warren believes that goal can become a reality at theaters like the Essential Theatre, Stage Door Players or Aurora Theatre. “I can see continuing the workshop at the Aurora – they always take chances on new musicals,” Warren added.
For more about Tom Willner and the musical, visit turningthirty.org.