HSU Alumni writes Wheels, a musical to the disabled by the disabled By: Annabelle Smallwood

A Hardin-Simmons University alum has written his own musical, and a new journey is now beginning for him in New York.

Jess Westman has just recently become an alum from HSU, as he graduated in August with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater. As an active student in the theater community, Westman has always loved singing, acting and being able to tell the stories of others. Now, he has decided to tell his own story in a unique way.

Jess Westman and his brother, Josh, were born with a disease called Becker muscular dystrophy. This muscle-killing disease caused harsh physical ramifications for them. While this disease has affected him his entire life, the symptoms worsened in 2019 when he began developing a limp.

“I started . . . finding myself feeling embarrassed to admit how drastically my disease was really affecting me,” Westman said. “And after a long conversation with someone very important to me, I began to consider healthy ways to manifest my disability . . . So, in attempts to combine my theatrical passion with my ways of coping with my disease, the idea for ‘Wheels’ was clearer than ever.”

This show, titled Wheels, is about the ability inside the disability, and not only was it written for the disabled community, but it was written by someone in the disabled community. While the clear idea behind Wheels is the wheels of a wheelchair, Westman stated that it is also about the wheels of life.

The plot of this story involves a brother and sister--Nancy and Elijah--who are suffering with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and are trying to navigate through life as the worst and best of it is thrown at them.

While Westman did write this plot, he also wrote another important part of the musical: the music. Between April of 2020 and January of 2021, Westman wrote 17 of the 19 songs in the show. For two years, he worked on the show with the help and support from many.

On June 3, the show was performed in Behren’s Auditorium for its opening night. There was also a production of the show at Abilene Christian University and McMurry University.

“. . .[W]hile it was at times very stressful, I had such incredible support beacons all around, reassuring me that the message of the show would indeed mean something to someone out there, someone struggling like me, or even worse,” Westman said. “Everyone in the cast gave that version of ‘Wheels’ their all, and I am pleased to say that every single actor and technician performed brilliantly, on and offstage.”

Once these productions were over, Westman decided that he should lay the show to rest and focus on how to support himself financially and logistically. However, after some major life changes in June, he decided to reach out to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. After a response, many phone calls and even sleepless nights, Westman eventually got in touch with Tony-nominated Broadway director, Sheryl Kaller. Kaller informed him that she wanted to help make his workshop a reality, and that is what Westman has been working on since.

He is now residing in Queens, NY, and is actively meeting with Kaller to continue rewriting and working on the show for a future workshop. They are hopeful for an off-Broadway debut within the next couple of years.

“I can’t state enough how important it is to me that little girls and boys all over the world who can’t stand or move the way they want to can see a version of themselves onstage, embodying a role in the cast,” Westman said. “That representational aspect the show has to offer is what it’s intrinsically about: the lives, stories, and souls of the unheard. Those who are too often marginalized. And while I can’t cure my disease, I can certainly try to change the lives of those like me; those who have it even worse than me. That’s what ‘Wheels’ is. A love letter to the disabled, by the disabled.”