Last June, when many were at home perfecting their sourdough, J.R. Heckman was putting the final touches on a concert for over 1,000 people. When the Tisch musical theatre student returned home to Cleveland, Ohio in mid-March, he watched countless venues close their doors due to COVID-19. “I began thinking about how I could make a difference during these difficult times,” he explains. In the months that followed, he planned a virtual concert, produced an original song, and raised $5,000 for the arts. “Music is transformational and inspirational. I wanted to inspire others to be the change they want to see.”
Finding a Home in New York City
Before ever setting foot on campus, J.R. had no doubt that NYU Tisch School of the Arts was his “dream school.” A classically trained singer since second grade, he wanted to be in New York City, at the center of the action. While he looked at other schools, “After visiting every one, I told my mom, ‘It was nice, but it’s not NYU,’” he laughs. Additionally, he was eager to learn from the world-class Tisch faculty, particularly the renowned musical theatre performers. In fact, Telly Leung, an NYU adjunct professor who starred in Broadway’s Aladdin, conducted J.R.’s audition for the Tisch Drama New Studio on Broadway (NSB). “After that, I knew that I’d found my home for the next four years,” J.R. affirms. “This was my tribe.”
Getting Inspired in the Classroom
While he always wanted to be a performer, J.R. credits his Tisch musical theatre professors with shaping his personal and professional aspirations. J.R. recalls the early days of quarantine, when everyone felt scared and isolated. However, in his Vocal Performance class, Professor Michael McElroy, an original cast member of Rent, shared a video of the cast singing “Seasons of Love” for hospitalized COVID-19 patients. “He encouraged us to use our art to give back and inspire others. And that hit me so hard,” says J.R.
At the same time, Professor Crystal Monee Hall, also a Broadway veteran, encouraged him to go behind the scenes, too. In her Music Theory class, he learned the basics of music composition. Inspired, he went back to his dorm and wrote his first song, “Reimagine.” The lyrics read:
Reimagine what could be,
Be the change you want to see.
When the world needs something new,
Let it come from you.
It was one month before COVID-19 shuttered classrooms and theaters across the world.
Giving Back in Concert
In early 2020, J.R. saw Josh Groban perform at Radio City Music Hall, where Groban discussed his nonprofit, Find Your Light (FYL). The organization supports arts education for underserved youth. Then and there, J.R. knew he was seeing something special. But it wasn’t until COVID-19 struck that he realized he could be a part of it. In March, he decided to produce his own benefit concert to raise money for FYL. He would debut his song and partner with Tisch musical theatre professors to make a difference in such dark times.
That June J.R. livestreamed Songs of Hope, a benefit for arts education. Professors Michael McElroy, Telly Leung, and Crystal Monee Hall all recorded songs, and Josh Groban himself did the introduction and J.R. debuted his original song “Reimagine.” J.R. is a three time Dazzle Award Recipient for Best Actor in a Musical at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, which is the largest performing arts center in the US outside of New York City. Additionally, he then went on to become a Finalist in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards (Jimmy Awards), performing at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway. He is the only male in the country to have been a three-time nominee. And he brought all his skills to the stage for this event: by the end of the night, viewers had donated nearly $5,000.
Planning for the Future
Going forward, J.R. hopes to organize additional virtual concerts while supporting other arts nonprofits. “Tisch Drama gave me the tools and resources to make my dreams come true. Even during this challenging time, I tell everyone, ‘If you work hard and persist, anything is possible,’” he concludes. “The greatest gift of being a performer is being able to transport the audience. When I sing and act, I can take everyone away from their troubles and into a new world. That’s what I love about performing.”