Interview: Matt Hawkins, Aurelia Williams of MY HEART SAYS GO

An interview with Matt Hawkins and Aurelia Williams about the new studio cast recording of a new musical.

By: May. 23, 2023

Interview: Matt Hawkins, Aurelia Williams of MY HEART SAYS GO How do you get a new, ORIGINAL musical in the hearts and minds of the public? That is the question. Of course, there are many routes, not the least of which was pioneered by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber: you put out a concept recording and get that music in the ears of the theatregoing public. When that new, original musical begins to make inroads, it's reason to rejoice.

Such is the case with the new musical My Heart Says Go, with music and lyrics by Jorge Rivera-Herrans. The just-released studio cast recording on Broadway Records, with music and lyrics by Jorge Rivera-Herrans,  was directed and written by Matt Hawkins, with Geoffrey Ko as musical director. My Heart Says Go follows the powerful story of a first-generation college student, Indigo. In hopes to become a singer-songwriter, he defies his father and drops out of medical school. Indigo is accompanied by his new friend Clara, who is also dealing with struggles at home.

Throughout the story, Indigo and his father find a new sense of respect and understanding for one another. Clara, then, experiences her own tragic loss, which allows her to find the importance of family and human connection. This new pop musical is about listening to your heart, overcoming obstacles, and never giving up on those you love.

The new studio cast recording features a star-filled cast including Hamilton's Javier Muñoz and Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller. Rounding out the cast is Rubén J. Carbajal, Erica Ito, Aurelia Williams, Jared Goldsmith, John Cardoza, Mili Diaz, Cailen Fu and Eric Peters.

The musical was initially workshopped and produced through the New Works Lab at Notre Dame and is currently funded by Notre Dame Research. The album was made possible by support from the University of Notre Dame and Apples and Oranges Studios. The studio cast recording is produced by Matt Hawkins, Jorge Rivera-Herrans, Geoffrey Ko and Christopher Sepulveda.

I sat down with Co-book writer and director Matt Hawkins and Aurelia Williams from Broadway's Tony-Nominated revival of PARADE, who plays the role of The Conductor on the album.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

How would you describe Indigo's journey in this piece?

Matt Hawkins: That's a great question. I should preface this whole conversation by saying that this is a huge experiment for us on how we're rolling out this new piece. But to speak directly towards something about the piece itself, not just the studio cast recording that really was part of it, but the story itself: the best way that I can boil it down, it feels to me like a very dramatic Pixar experience. What I mean by that is it's a multi generational experience or, yes, it's a coming of age. But I think it's a great love letter to parents as well, just a friendly reminder of how to love their children. I also think it's a love letter to children to remind them that their parents are also people to adapt entity for them, and where they come from. The piece is about following your dreams. You don't give up on your own dreams and all that. But for me, it's really about never giving up on those you love.

I think some parents give up on kids, and siblings give up on each other, and kids give up on parents. So it's really about never giving up on those you love and, then, as far as Indigo's journey - they're trying to find out who they are, and they're going along, trying to be the singer-songwriter... the challenges. They don't know really what to say to the world. They have math and science to do research, to create a perfect song, to get people what they think they want to hear. And they haven't looked inward to whom they are and who they want to be.

The thing is that he comes from a single parent family and never knew his mother. What's really hard with people meeting this piece through the studio album is that this is not a sung-through piece, so there's so much dramatic narrative that's associated around this. There's lots of holes, you know - I'm sure people are saying, "What's going on here?" What's the deal, really, by the end?

Indigo and his father finally connect over the trauma of not processing the death of the mother. Indigo experiences panic attacks throughout the show, and he doesn't know what it is and can't get out of it. He doesn't know where they are coming from. He hears this tune in his head. At the end, the father tells Indigo the birth story, the story of Indigo and where he got his name, how he got his name and the mother that gave (him) his name. So, Indigo finds out who he is and where he is from, and he can truly listen to his heart and move forward in the world.

Has the property been done in full production or workshop or a lab yet? Or is this just part of the grand experiment, to do it as a recording?

MH: Yes to all that. The short version is we did a fuller two act version with a different title at Notre Dame, where I'm a professor, and that's where Jorge and I met and that production happened. I would call that, in professional terms, a workshop production. But after that, we went to Zoom Workshop and basically pared it down from a two act to a one act, gave it a new title, custom characters added to that whole revamping. Then we did a full production here in South Bend, Indiana. A local community theater here called South Bend Civic just mounted it a couple weeks ago. That was part of our pilot program to say "Can we sell new work in a community that no one's ever heard of and associate a special cast recording?" So the workshop has happened, a full community theater production has happened, and now the experiment is to see, can we spread the word to other communities that may not have access to really great work, using brilliant voices like the really great people on the studio cast recording. We want to get the music out there for people and this is part of the experiment.

So the album is a gateway to production? Is that what you are aiming for?

What I mean by that is, if there is a local high school who has no money (because every arts budget is being slashed across our country) and they and they wanna do this piece, we will self license it to them, and we will work with them on budget, and we will provide a Q-lab file for tracks if they need, with the piano/vocal score, we would have tutorials on some of the choreography if they want that. Also, what if there's a choir, and in their spring choir concert and they wanna sing one of the songs? Or a dance troupe that wants to use one of the songs in their recital? I'm like, sure, full production, but it could also be piecemeal if there's something inspiring about the piece that a community wants to take on.

The driving force behind this entire project has been accessibility. Let's make art more accessible for audiences AND more accessible for artists who want to make the art. If you want to produce this musical, you can. The hope is to create accessibility by being able to produce new work from the ground up.

Now Aurelia, tell me about the conductor. I'm very curious about this character and how it fits into the whole piece.

Aurelia Williams: I think the conductor, it's kind of multilayered, as far as my view of her is concerned... as Matt just said, Indigo grew up not knowing his mother - technically she dies in childbirth. She gave birth to Indigo, and Indigo was placed on her chest, and before she passes, she sings a melody called "Goodnight Indigo."  That's how Indigo gets his name. The conductor gives a motherly nurturing that Indigo is really hungry for, especially because Indigo was battling with his father, as far as what his heart is telling him what to do, and what his father has been driving him to do, his whole life;  so she is providing this place, giving him permission to feel a different way. She does it in sort of a gruff way.

I don't know if you were hearing that COVID was a whole thing. (Laughs) Yeah. I mean, you know, and I wasn't sure if I was gonna be able to do it because I wound up testing positive. I kind of squeaked through at the end, to get in there, just as we were going to record.

MH: You know, we did that thing, right? I think we scheduled you at the beginning of the week and we rescheduled at the weekend to help. But I should also say that, if you listen to the track is when you know you're meeting all these kids on the train, all their hopes and dreams. She plays it really well, where she basically says to each person, "Hey, I know you wanna do this and that's great, but don't forget the responsibilities you have as a person on this earth."  I think if you listen to it, she uses that language brilliantly.

What song on the album do you think sums up the the show itself? Is there one in particular that you think that just says "This is the show?"

MH: That's so hard, right? I'm trying to separate myself as like, "Let's market this thing versus my personal favorite." What represents this? I think kind of the classic "I Want" song is "What Does My Heart Say?" I think that is, thematically, what the musical is asking. I think that does it.  I will say that "Find Your Voice" is the other for me. When I talk about the show, in my director's notes, I talk about finding your voice, and don't give up. Those are the two things that we always ask of people. I kind of think that "Find Your Voice" is what it is because the lyrics are asking the individuals, but also asking the audience - like, the world's got a lot to change, right? We gotta figure it out. I guess, narratively, it's "What Does My Heart Say?" - Thematically, I would say it's "Find Your Voice." Within the curtain call, "Don't Give Up" is also a kind of big brushstroke musical theater macro thematic thing.

AW: If I could also chime in, as far as "Find Your Voice," I think it also speaks to our responsibility as artists.  I've worked with some people that have talked a lot about finding your authentic voice, but, as an artist, you have a responsibility to your art. If you don't actually invest, what is this gift that you have? You aren't being responsible to your art, and that's a cop-out. I feel like, in this era, with so much content being thrown at us, instead of wading through it to figure out what is actually artistry and what is just filler nonsense, figuring out what is artistry is our responsibility, as artists, to put out things that have integrity, have weight, and have purpose.

MH: What's brilliant about that, what she just said, is that actually may be a more articulate way to express Indigo's journey... because I think Indigo try to chase the "cool" thing, right? And that's what it is. Indigo is chasing the product and not listening to the artistry inside of him.  He doesn't know who he is because he hasn't investigated that part of who he is and where he comes from, which is, literally, his parents.

Where else will we know your composer/lyricist Jorge Rivera-Herrans from?

MH:  Right now you would know him if you were a huge TikTok fan. He's got a pretty large musical theater following on TikTok. He released, (and, actually, I was his senior adviser on) his senior thesis - a musical theater retelling adaptation of The Odyssey.  It's called Epic. So, if you look at Epic, I think he's got two albums released now.  That's what he started his senior year, and, coming out of covid, he focused his energy (on) and that has gotten him a lot of attention. We've been working behind the scenes on My Heart Says Go. 

Aurelia, you're currently in Parade, but your story as to how someone with a degree in elementary education winds up on Broadway is fascinating. Tell me a little bit about that.

AW: I find it interesting that my path and musical theater often cross. I still, somehow, keep one foot in the educational arena, believe it or not, whether I'm playing a principal or teacher, guidance counselor or something - even a conductor who is trying to teach the children how to find their authentic voice.

I was working on my masters in elementary ed. and I was working at two different schools. I was interning in one school and I was working as a substitute in another school.  They both found out that I sang and both principals said "No... If you wanna work here, we have jobs for you. We definitely have places. I think you should really try out this singing thing, like you got your degree. If you want to come back to this later, you can, but you should really try it."  So my parents supported me - my parents also felt the same way, so when I finished up, I jumped on and started auditioning for things. I'm learning as I go and I'm still here - I figured, when I don't like it anymore, then, we have teaching.

As they always say, something to fall back on.

The plan was to be a teacher. The singing thing was my Plan B. So I'm working Plan B. There's really not a huge difference in there, not really. When you're a teacher, you know, that's teaching on your own. When you're teaching, you're telling a story. You know, I was an elementary teacher, so I've been hearing a lot of parallels between what I did in the classroom and what I do onstage, you know?

MH: You know what's fascinating? I didn't know that about your elementary education... my father was an educator. And his favorite song in the show is yours, and it makes a lot of sense now.

AW: You hear that? Educators hear it.

MH: He does. He goes, "Every high school counselor needs to hear this, and every parent needs to hear this." I can't get him to shut up about it.

AW: I really connected with it, as well, because I still mentor young people... They're not all young anymore! I maintained a place for them to come to me and ask me whatever - the things that they might be embarrassed about, bring it to me. I didn't go to school for theater. I've been kind of learning as I go, and I find that it kind of gives me another perspective, as far as what can work, you know?

I described this score to a friend as a beautiful mix of pop and hip hop. What I want to know is, Matt, you since you've been there for the inception of this, was this musical based in any way on Jorge's life?.

MH: Ohh. 1000%. It was when he brought it to me - I taught a class, and the assignment was you could bring in any song from any musical, one week. And he brought in this song and I was like, I don't know what this is, what is this? He told me and, basically, he came to Notre Dame as pre-Med and "All I think about was music" - so he ended up dropping his pre-Med to become a theater major, and he didn't tell his parents. So a lot of the early-on conversations, like the father versus son stuff,  it's - I don't want to speak for him, since he is not here, but, based on my conversation, it is pretty accurate in which way that conversation flowed, and, then, we ended up producing a show at school, and his parents flew in (he's from Puerto Rico), and his dad flew in... let me tell you, he needed to talk to me in my office. We had a pretty intense conversation. I will say that, since then, their relationship has definitely grown and mended. That's where it started. Once he graduated, the thing he was really missing was the adult perspective, and that's when he asked me to come on board to co-write with him, from a book perspective.  I pushed back at first - I was like "I don't know that I want to do this. I want to honor your story that we've been working together (on) -- you know it inside and out, I need the maturation behind that." So we started crafting it, the back end, a little bit.  We still keep the heart and the young, hopeful, youthful energy, but I think (we made) more space for the adults, to have empathy for them as well.

I find it interesting that you guys have taken the route of starting out with the album, introducing it to the world the Andrew Lloyd Webber route.

MH: I think this was the question about accessibility during the pandemic.  I was fortunate enough, as a faculty member, to receive a research grant from the University, which is great. But we all know the trajectory of how to get a show out there, and the the legwork, and the investors... sometimes I question what we're chasing at that moment. The real intention was, I believe, in the work. I think Jorge's got a really unique lyrical and composition voice, and, as we worked on the messaging of the song, I feel proud of what that is. The intention was: how do we get the most people to experience this work, and going the traditional route of trying to get investors, backers, all that was the opposite of access to me. So we're doing the opposite. We're setting the music out there first, and we've also been very clear - if there's a commercial endeavor or commercial path, that's awesome, as well. The only thing that we are saying is, even if this was a commercial path,  that would not prohibit any communities anywhere else to be able to produce. Like I said before, what's a little intimidating in this experiment is that you're shoving it out there and because there's so much book and character around it, there's a lot of missing pieces when people hear it. So, it'll be really interesting to see if people's responses are accurate to what the actual material is (when) they don't know the whole story.  That's what we're trying to navigate right now.

Now, Aurelia, what does My Heart Says Go say to you?

AW: Like a little bit of what I was saying before - finding your authentic voice, and then figuring out the best way to send your voice forward, to put your message out there, whatever it needs.  That is true for you to not be afraid to put that out there. You never know, exactly, who needs it. As an artist, I think that that is so important. I know sometimes it's like, "We're not doing brain surgery up there. We're not saving lives." But in a way.... sometimes we are. We're changing hearts and minds, which is the only way to really change the world around us.  I love the fact that our trajectory of this particular project (and) its goal is to go out as far and wide as possible, especially in an era where access is much more open, with the advent of the way that we are experiencing art now versus even five to ten years ago: it's different. You can access so much more, such a wider scope than we could before, so why not change the way that our theater is able to be received? I think that it's interesting that the message of this piece is to find your voice and to deal with that with integrity and purpose, and the way that this actual project is moving forward in the world and puts its money where it's mouth is.

Matt, Aurelia, thank you for chatting with Broadway World, and I'll definitely be excited to see where this project goes as it moves forward!

My Heart Says Go is available on all digital platforms right now.


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