‘Dark Heart’: How Jess Avellino ’20 adapted the production of her original musical during the pandemic

Jess Avellino '20 worked closely with her long-time mentor, Associate Professor of Music Todd Coleman, to write and record the musical 'Dark Heart,' her senior capstone project.

Jess Avellino ’20 was still in high school in New York when she began writing the musical that would become her ambitious senior capstone project. “Dark Heart,” a 15-song stage production that addresses mental health, suicide and resilience, was slated to be presented in Elon’s Black Box Theatre at the end of the spring semester. COVID-19 changed all of that, but Avellino, a music production and recording arts major, refused to let the circumstances negate all of her hard work.

With the help of her mentor, Associate Professor of Music Todd Coleman, and a collection of 15 musicians and singers, she produced recordings of all of the songs and made a video for ‘Let There Be Dark.’ Though she created the work before the pandemic, Avellino recognizes how relatable the show’s themes are right now.

“There are a lot of people struggling with mental health now,” Avellino said. “But the times of darkness allow us to see the light; we can’t have one without the other. Knowing that is helping me get through this time, and it provides a hopeful message in general.”

“Dark Heart” tells the story of Emma Black, a 15-year-old struggling with the tragic loss of her sister. After a suicide attempt, Emma returns to boarding school, surrounded by friends but haunted by her sister’s ghost. Contending with depression and guilt, Emma fights to survive her emotional turmoil and move forward.

“The message is a profound and timely one, and as we faced not being to do a live public performance, Jess still wanted to get this out there,” said Coleman. “It was great to see her determination to complete the project in the best way possible despite the circumstances.”

Avellino and her sister, Lindsay, began working on “Dark Heart” together before Avellino arrived at Elon. Their mother is a musician, and the sisters have been writing partners for much of their lives. What began as a few songs with only vocals and basic keyboard parts began to blossom into the current iteration of the musical as Avellino began taking one-on-one composition lessons with Coleman. Avellino learned how to write for a variety of instruments, ultimately incorporating a seven-piece band in the “Dark Heart” songs.

Associate Professor of Music Todd Coleman and some of the performers for “Dark Heart,” a musical written by Jess Avellion ’20, rehearse on campus before Elon shifted to remote learning in spring of 2020.

The plan was to bring a live performance of “Dark Heart” to the stage, and as the spring semester began, Avellino and the other artists were hard at work preparing. There were live rehearsals with Avellino choreographing and blocking the movements on stage. But the performers only got to work with one another through a handful of rehearsals before the semester shifted to remote learning and all in-person work had to stop.

Undeterred, Avellino and Coleman began to imagine what a different version of the musical could look like. With the musicians and singers already in place, they knew they needed to at least record the songs. She secured funding to purchase microphones, and she and Coleman worked with each musician, guiding them through using the technology to get the best recording possible.

Knowing the vocalists were working alone, performing weighty material in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Avellino was cognizant of caring for them through the process.

“This show deals with mental health and is dark. I had to talk the singers through and let them know it’s OK to put this work aside, that their mental health is the most important thing,” she said. “Even for me, while I was mixing, I found myself sobbing listening to these songs. There were times I had to step away.”

Nicole Romeo ’20, one of the singers, noted that although the musical’s theme can be dark, she found working on recording the songs comforting.

“Music has gotten me through so much in my life,” Romeo said. “If I’m happy about something, I’ll sing a happy song around my house; if I’m sad I’ll listen to sad songs and cry it out. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it waves of different emotions, and it was really comforting to be able to work on the “Dark Heart” recordings during this time. It allowed me to deal with my emotions through the music I was recording.”

Although the project took an unexpected form for Avellino at the end, her gratitude for everyone involved remained steady. She praised the performers for stepping up during a difficult time, working through the technical challenges and getting solid recordings of their parts. And she credits Coleman for his comprehensive mentorship. The two worked together from Avellino’s first semester at Elon to her last, and she said that Coleman taught her the skills she needed to realize her vision. And beyond that, his support was constant.

“He was an inspiration,” Avellino said. “I’ve known him since my first year, and he’s watched me grow, giving me the tools to do all I wanted to do. All of the teachers in the music department seem to believe in me more than I believe in myself. They believed I could write a musical and produce it and have a cast recording. No one ever questioned it.”

Avellino plans to pursue a career in musical theater. Although the pandemic continues to impede live theater and job prospects, for now she is writing new work and promoting “Dark Heart.” She’s submitting the musical to festivals and competitions with hopes for workshopping it. Ultimately, seeing it performed on a stage in a New York City theater is her dream. Her Elon mentors and peers taught Avellino that there’s no reason to expect anything less.