EPIC: The TikTok Musical

Photo by Hello I'm Nik from Unsplash

You may think that Homer’s Odyssey is a distant cry from what’s popular now. All the TikTok dances and trends are way more interesting than a 12,109 line epic, right? Well, think again. Composer Jorge Rivera-Herrans is writing a musical interpretation of the Odyssey called EPIC on TikTok — and it’s good. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the Odyssey, let me explain the premise. Our main character Odysseus, who played a big role in the Trojan war, is trying to get home after winning the war. It’s a 10-year journey in which he faces many challenges and difficulties by the way of monsters and gods alike to get home to his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus and his Kingdom of Ithaca.

The composer, Rivera-Herrans, was raised in Puerto Rico and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May 2020. Growing up, he intensely studied medicine, but during his first year at Notre Dame he realized that musical theater was his passion and switched his path. His decision inspired him to create the school’s first-ever original musical called “Stupid Humans,” now titled “My Heart Says Go.” It is being developed in a joint effort by the Goodman Theatre with Apples and Oranges Arts. The Notre Dame run sold out every performance before opening night and an additional performance was added which sold out in 36 seconds. “My Heart Says Go” has a phenomenal demo cast including Rivera-Herrans, Talia Suskauer (Elphaba in Wicked on National Tour), Jessie Muller (who originated the role of Jenna in Waitress), and Rick Negrón (King George in Hamilton San Francisco run). He was often referred to as Notre Dame’s own Lin Manuel Miranda.

At the beginning of January 2021, Herrans started posting snippets from his work-in-progress musical. It quickly garnered an audience of musical theater and mythology lovers alike. Now he has 280,000 followers and 4.7 million likes on TikTok, along with a thriving Discord server with more than 5,000 members from all over the globe, which is steadily growing with no signs of slowing down. His plan is a 40-song, entirely sung-through show, and he’s currently working on song 37 out of 40. His music leaves nothing to be desired. It has catchy hooks, witty lyrics and a mixture of different musical genres. He explains his composing choices with an exciting air and technical expertise that is hard to find elsewhere. The first five songs have available rough demos on his website.

On his Discord server, he frequently drops informational bits about his songs and where he draws his inspiration from. On Sept. 22, Herrans said, “The usage of a fiddle as Scylla’s instrument, one that wilds out like crazy in her song, was inspired by Jhin, the Virtuoso’s theme from League of Legends.” He is frequently active on the server and loves talking to everyone there in both text and voice chat about his creation. Sometimes he will engage the community by asking them a question, and if they get it right, he will release a new snippet. The latest one on Oct. 23 asked, “In which saga is the musical characterization of LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillators) as spells FIRST introduced?” The dedicated fans got it right and Herrans posted a new clip of Circe interacting with Odysseus and Eurylochus on TikTok.

TikTok has become a dominant platform; it can make a person’s career take off overnight. But social media as a whole is making theater more accessible and transparent. Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, the songwriting duo known as “Barlow and Bear,” created the “Unofficial Bridgerton Musical” album. They often wrote and created on live streams, inviting fans to watch the process. Streaming allowed Barlow and Bear to see what was popular right down to the lyric. The viewers had a huge role in what did and didn’t make it into the final recording. This devotion to the fans and love for the work, with a little nudge from the algorithm, allowed them a major platform for their work and a lot of audience connection. That connection is what got the album more than a million streams once it was released on streaming platforms.

Rivera-Herrans is doing something similar. He releases videos breaking down his music to even the singular instruments he associates with each character (if this sounds like a familiar concept, it is because he drew inspiration from “Peter and the Wolf”). For example, Athena is represented by piano, Circe by cello and Odysseus by guitar (but the type of guitar changes based on the context). In his interpretation, more magical people or places also have more electronic influences. So a god, for example, would be more electronic than a mortal and the underworld would be more electronic than Odysseus’ ship. He also isn’t afraid to talk about his troubles when songwriting and what is difficult for him. In one video, he talked about how he had written two entirely different songs for the character of Penelope before settling on his final product. He even showed viewers clips of each one. 

This age of social media is doing wonders for the arts. Creating a new wave of theater lovers with a better understanding of the art they love. When creators make their work process open, like Rivera-Herrans and Barlow and Bear have, it allows viewers to not just fall in love with the art but the artist themselves. It has been a closed-door process with far too few people involved for too long. Now with that door finally open, more and more people are getting the courage and inspiration to create, which is doing wonders for this new era. More diverse voices, more impactful stories, and such a wide array of musical styles.