Photos by Matt Cashore ’94
At the start of the 2018 season, at the start of his junior year, Jorge Rivera-Herrans ’20 had never attended a Notre Dame football match. “While people were attending the games, I was writing. I was always like, ‘Ah, next one, I’m going,’ said the musical theater student who had drawn attention on campus for his songwriting exploits. “I was really very inspired when I got there,” he adds. “It was so cool to see all these people together and celebrate the season, the victory. All those 80,000 people who gathered – it was just inspiring to watch. “
A year later, he was part of the soundtrack for the match. The Puerto Rican native, known to his friends as Jay, wrote “The Fighting Irish (Of Notre Dame Y’all)”, a hip-hop number that would become the first college-commissioned song for the football since the powerful ballad “Here Come the Irish,” released in 2003. The play debuted the day before the Sept. 14 game in New Mexico, when Rivera-Herrans and his fellow major in film, television and film Teagan Earley Theater ’20 sang it as part of the pre-game festivities at the Eck Visitor Center. A one-minute clip could be heard over the stadium’s speakers for the rest of the season.
It was not the first time that the composer was in the spotlight on campus. Arguably his greatest moment came seven months ago – with Stupid humans. Presented in February and March 2019 at the Philbin Studio Theater of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Stupid humans marked an academic first: a musical production composed by students worthy of the performance program of the FTT department. The rap-influenced show took to the stage with a DJ booth in one corner, a group of talented students in the cast and the playwright in its lead role, inspired by his own journey from future doctor to creative at full-time.
All eight performances sold out, and soon after, an impressive comparison was drawn: The young Puerto Rican who wrote and performed in his own hip-hop musical was Lin-Manuel Miranda of Notre Dame, the Hamilton designer whose family is from the nearby town of Rivera-Herrans.
The connections didn’t end there. In 2018, when Miranda started to set up a production of Hamilton in Puerto Rico and was planning to raise money for the island’s relief efforts after Hurricane Maria, Rivera-Herrans was one of 600 residents lining up to try out a role. He would be one of 11 guests to return – then fly to New York to audition for the role of John Laurens / Philip Hamilton. Although he didn’t get a role, he was later invited to return to New York to attend rehearsals and meet the cast.
His academic introduction to theater came during Rivera-Herrans second year in Performance Techniques, a class designed by Matt Hawkins, an assistant professor recruited to launch FTT’s musical theater minor. “A lot of my education and experience relates to new work,” says Hawkins. “And the only way to teach our students to be practicing artists is to do the thing.” Upon entering Notre Dame, he hoped that “doing the thing” would eventually mean original musicals written by students.
This goal was achieved surprisingly quickly. In a first assignment, Hawkins asked the students to perform a song of their choice in a musical. Says Rivera-Herrans: “When he said that, I asked, ‘All musical? ‘ Between classes and rehearsals for shows around South Bend, he had started writing a show himself. A pivot number felt almost ready, so he performed it for his mission. Hawkins sensed a promising skill behind the song, and the teacher and student set out together to turn the Rivera-Herrans idea into a full-fledged piece that became the autobiographical piece. Stupid humans.
“As long as a student has some sort of raw talent, and has a work ethic and is disciplined about it, I can fill in all the other gaps,” Hawkins says. “I learned from day one, if it’s their own job, they’ll be more invested.”
While the elder is flattered by the comparisons to Miranda, he doesn’t expect fame just yet. “I still have a lot to understand,” he says. “I really want to keep learning, especially about music theory and the different musicals in general. I’m not really sure what’s going to happen – and that’s part of the excitement of it. “
His immediate plans seem brilliant. With the help of Hawkins, an updated version of Stupid humans – renamed My heart says to go – is in workshops this summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Now co-writers, the professor and student are set to seek other homes for the play, and, in the meantime, Rivera-Herrans continues to work on his main project: an Ulysses-inspired musical called Epic.
The piece, with a score that the composer calls “tropical” in tone, loosely follows Homer’s plot. Odyssey. Although it was not completed in time to be performed at Notre Dame, the project earned Rivera-Herrans a research grant to study the set’s setting in Greece, and it is the latest in a growing body of work which has been a boon to the beginning musical theater minor.
“What’s exciting from a corporate perspective is that this is sort of the inaugural production of this new ‘lab’ of work,” Hawkins says of Stupid humans. “We now have a laboratory theater where we do new musicals, and the hope is to do one every two years. It can be student musicals, it can be teachers, it can be professional, but just creating new work – there’s a lot of excitement around that.
Fostering an active scene for original productions taps directly into Notre Dame’s love of creating communities that can be a force for good – something, according to Rivera-Herrans, was key to her decision to enroll. here.
“The main reason I chose Notre Dame was the people, the community and the campus,” he says. He can’t say if the University would have been on his radar had he planned to study theater instead of medicine, but “one thing is for sure,” he says. “If I had been in musical theater all my life, I would never have written Stupid humans. So I’m happy with the way things turned out.
Sarah Cahalan, former associate editor of this magazine, is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.