As founder and creative producer of the University of Notre Dame’s New Works Lab, Matt Hawkins plays a key role in bringing new musical theater pieces to life.
But for Hawkins, it’s about more than just creating new work — he wants to reimagine the way those pieces are brought to the public.
It all comes down to accessibility, he said.
“Theater is great, but the commercial theater world has one of the most hierarchical, top-down structures anywhere,” Hawkins said. “As soon as it becomes a commercial endeavor, it’s not mission-driven, it’s financially-driven. And no one is changing that structure. Let’s make art more accessible for audiences — and for the artists who want to make it.”
Now, thanks to a grant from Notre Dame Research, Hawkins is collaborating with alumnus Jorge “Jay” Rivera-Herrans ’20 to do just that. The pair’s new musical, My Heart Says Go, premieres at the South Bend Civic Theatre on Friday (April 14), and a studio cast recording for the show — featuring Broadway stars Javier Muñoz and Jessie Mueller — will be released in May.
“The fact that the University gave us support to develop this creative endeavor has meant a lot,” said Hawkins, director of musical theater. “It enabled us to really hone this piece with a team of creative professionals like Javi and Jessie, and I’m so grateful that ND Research has had confidence in us and this process.”
The project began in 2018 when Rivera-Herrans enrolled in Hawkins’ class as a sophomore and performed a song from a musical he was writing. A year later, Hawkins launched the New Works Lab and began to workshop and produce the musical for the Department of Film, Television and Theatre. The show, then called Stupid Humans, sold out every performance on campus.
“I’ve worked at some other great universities, but I haven’t worked at a university that encourages me as a faculty member to be more holistic about my work, why it matters, and how I’m going to give back to the community. Notre Dame has done that from the beginning.”
After Rivera-Herrans graduated in 2020, the two continued to work through rewriting the musical, with the goal of seeking a commercial producer — until the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to rethink their plans for the show.
“None of this would have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic,” Hawkins said. “During that time, it was like the Wild West for theater. We started working over Zoom. There was no possibility for performances. And with everything shut down, I really started to think about accessibility.”
Once pandemic restrictions were lifted, they realized they didn’t want to return to the traditional model, with its often exorbitant production costs, licensing fees, and ticket prices.
The decision, Hawkins said, was inspired by the University’s mission to be a force for good in the world.
“I’ve worked at some other great universities, but I haven’t worked at a university that encourages me as a faculty member to be more holistic about my work, why it matters, and how I’m going to give back to the community,” he said. “Notre Dame has done that from the beginning. When I first arrived here, I wasn’t sure how my work would do that — but now, I’ve realized this is one way I can actively be a part of that conversation.”
Hawkins, who wrote the book, or spoken dialogue, of the musical, and Rivera-Herrans, who wrote the music and lyrics, began focusing on producing a studio cast recording as a way to generate interest and awareness and decided to offer the musical to small community theaters instead.
“We’ve been trained that Broadway in New York is the place to be, but we finally asked, why are we chasing that model?” Hawkins said. “We need to look to our communities — our regional theaters, high schools, community theaters — there’s a ton of talent there. They just can’t get their hands on the work because it’s being protected.”
Partnering with the South Bend Civic Theatre for the show’s premiere is an ideal first step, they said — and was particularly meaningful for Rivera-Herrans, who played the lead role in the theater’s production of In the Heights while he was a student at Notre Dame.
“I’m honored that it’s premiering at the South Bend Civic, which holds such a special place in my heart,” Rivera-Herrans said.
The model of producing a cast recording and sharing his work on social media is also proving successful for Rivera-Herrans with another musical he’s written, EPIC: The Troy Saga.
That project, which started as his senior thesis at Notre Dame, has become a viral sensation, with its songs garnering more than 70 million views and nearly a half million followers on TikTok before the concept album was released in December 2022. In its first week, the album was streamed more than 3 million times. It was also the No. 1 soundtrack album on iTunes the day of its release and the No. 4 album in all genres, surpassing Taylor Swift’s Midnights.
“Friends recommended that I start posting more on social media about EPIC and, at first, I genuinely didn’t know how to go about it,” Rivera-Herrans said. “I was terrified of showing off my project when it wasn’t completed yet, but I eventually figured I could use this opportunity as a way to document my process of writing it. … It’s surreal to see people singing and sharing the songs I’ve spent years on now.
“I’m hoping this journey encourages other musical theater writers to lean into their inspirations, no matter where those inspirations come from. I’m also hoping it encourages writers to not be afraid to put their work out there. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made and I highly recommend it.”
Rivera-Herrans said that neither musical could have happened without the education and mentorship he received at the University.
“Notre Dame gave me the space to learn and to experiment, and I’m grateful for every class I took,” he said. “Matt pushed me to become a much better writer when we worked together at Notre Dame, and the University’s support helped make My Heart Says Go possible. Their willingness to take a chance and do Stupid Humans back in 2019 means a lot to me. It let us develop and share this piece with the world — and it opened the door for more musicals to be created at ND.”
“Notre Dame gave me the space to learn and to experiment, and I’m grateful for every class I took. (The University’s) willingness to take a chance and do Stupid Humans back in 2019 means a lot to me. It let us develop and share this piece with the world — and it opened the door for more musicals to be created at ND.”
Originally published at news.nd.edu.