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From the classroom to professional production: How a Notre Dame-developed musical took its next steps to the big stage

Author: Brandi Wampler

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The musical production My Heart Says Go has come a long way since Jorge “Jay” Rivera-Herrans ’20 began writing it in his dorm room at the University of Notre Dame. Rivera-Herrans had recently switched majors – from pre-med to film, television, and theatre (FTT) – and that became his inspiration for the production. But going from concept to a fully developed musical has been a winding journey.

“It was a big mess at first,” said Rivera-Herrans. “But I signed up for the class, Performance Techniques with professor Matt Hawkins, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to develop my skills. For one of the classes, we were asked to sing a song from any musical. So, I chose one from the musical I was writing.”

For the rest of that semester, Hawkins worked with Rivera-Herrans outside of class. The plot of the musical was about the dynamic between a son, who has switched career paths from becoming a doctor to pursuing music, and his upset parents, who have just been told about this change. To fully develop that concept, Rivera-Herrans was asked by Hawkins to complete weekly assignments that, when put together, would help move this concept into a more complete production. 

Img 1658Rivera-Herrans and Hawkins during rehearsals of Stupid Humans at Notre Dame.

“It was clear how talented and passionate Jay was. He completed the weekly assignments, investigated everything from character development to plot analysis. He was so excited about the process he sometimes turned them in early,” said Hawkins, assistant professor of the practice in FTT and director of musical theatre at Notre Dame. “Then, when FTT faculty were considering what musical programming to select for the following year, I pitched Jay’s play, which wasn’t really ready, but being chosen for production gave us the motivation to work on it over the summer.”

To support the musical, Hawkins created a new class the following fall semester called the New Works Lab that, for its first year, looked at developing Rivera-Herrans’ original creation. From staging, choreographing, and writing, about 20 students as part of the class worked on the production. In spring 2019, Stupid Humans premiered in the Regis Philbin Studio Theatre at Notre Dame with Rivera-Herrans starring as a lead character named Indigo. But there was still more Rivera-Herrans and Hawkins wanted to do.

In early 2020 – just months before Rivera-Herrans’ graduation – Hawkins was awarded a Faculty Research Support Program - Regular Grant from Notre Dame Research to take the musical to the next level. 

“The Faculty Research Support Program was created to assist researchers and scholars from across the University,” said Richard E. Billo, associate vice president for research and professor of computer science and engineering, who oversees Notre Dame Research’s Internal Grant Program. “As the first student co-written musical theatre production that we have funded, we are so proud to be able to support its ongoing development.”

Together, co-creators Rivera-Herrans and Hawkins planned to host a professional, two-week workshop and presentation with performers and collaborators at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago’s oldest and largest non-profit theatre. The goal was to move the musical a step beyond what it had been at Notre Dame – but then the pandemic happened.

“Staged readings are about getting people interested in a show so they’ll work on it. They’re about rehearsing new actors, and helping the musical look and sound more presentable,” said Hawkins. “But what Jay and I really wanted was more time to do research and improve the musical overall. Because of COVID-19 restrictions we were given the time to do that. And with the help of the grant, we were able to get some astute, professional artists to virtually collaborate with us so we could really dig into the script and the music.”

Mhsg WorkshopSeveral performers work with Rivera-Herrans and Hawkins during their virtual workshop.

That development time completely reshaped the production. The two-act performance became a one-act, 90-minute musical, which includes new characters, a new song, and new scenes. Additionally, some characters were removed to include more lines and develop more depth for others. The performers, who were found through professional networking, were able to participate from across the country and compile demos of the songs with Music Director Geoff Ko. The two-week process even led to renaming the musical, My Heart Says Go.

The workshop process didn’t just aid the musical’s evolution. It also helped Rivera-Herrans, the production’s songwriter, develop a new mindset about his work and how to approach the creative process. In fact, not only has the original song that Rivera-Herrans sang for Hawkins’ class been cut from the show, the character who sang it has since been removed as well.

“When we first started working together, I would fight for every single song to be in the show, but I’ve learned that it’s not always what’s best,” said Rivera-Herrans. “What is so cool about partnering with Matt is his relentless pursuit of making the work as great as possible. At times that could be frustrating. But now I’m able to look at something I have written and I’m no longer scared to throw it away and start fresh.”

Through all its versions, the musical has consistently maintained its heart, youth, and hopefulness. However, as the show has evolved, it has come to include more depth and themes of empathy for the older generation represented and of not giving up on one another. 

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Hawkins and Rivera-Herrans

“The two weeks we spent workshopping led to such massive growth for the show,” said Hawkins. “It was such a personal experience to see the journey of the script and how it really began to mirror the relationship between Jay and I.”

Hawkins and Rivera-Herrans are now exploring alternative steps to present their musical beyond a traditional production. This musical was created with the support of the Goodman Theatre, Apples and Oranges Arts, Associate Professor Tanya Palmer from Indiana University, and Sean Cocchia, a supporter of Notre Dame's Musical Theatre program.

To learn more about My Heart Says Go and listen to the music, click or tap here.

The Notre Dame Research Internal Grant Program is currently accepting applications for the Faculty Research Support Program - Initiation Grant and the Equipment, Restoration, and Renewal Grant until Friday, April 9, 2021. To learn more or apply, please visit https://research.nd.edu/our-services/funding-opportunities/faculty/internal-grants-programs/

Originally published at research.nd.edu.