Student-written musical on family, World War II 

The Notre Dame Department of Film, Television, and Theatre is in the midst of performances of Dawn’s Early Light, a student-produced musical theater production written by Solomon Duane, a fourth-year architecture and musical theater student. Performed in the Philbin Studio Theatre the show opened, with a cast of seventeen, on Thursday February 23, 2023. 

The two-act musical is based on the true story of Duane’s grandmother, Donna Zucchiatti, whose brother, Tommy, resolved to enlist in the U.S. military in 1943. It was part of Notre Dame’s student-written musical theatre program, started by Matt Hawkins in 2019. The program works on a two-year cycle in which musical theatre students take a play-writing class which culminates in an open-pitch of a musical. The show is then workshopped in a three-credit class the next fall semester and produced the following spring. 

Libby White, who plays Tommy’s love interest, Reagan, said of the program: “[It] reminds us that you don’t need to be living in New York City and have a Bachelor of Fine Arts to be able to create something beautiful and moving.” Duane explained that the “open-endedness of the process” was the greatest difficulty he faced in creating the show: “We have the total flexibility to make changes as we see fit. So while it’s exciting … it can also be daunting at times. Sometimes I have to sit down and write a new scene from scratch, and I have the ability to take that scene wherever I’m led.”

Telling the story of an immigrant Italian family in 1940s America, Dawn’s Early Light explores the dissonance that immigrants faced as the country in which they live waged war against the country that they loved. 

The story opens on Tommy Zucchiatti’s 18th birthday. He and his two sisters head to Crystal Beach Park, the local bandstand in Buffalo, New York. 

A visit from an old friend and Navy enlistee, Frank, soon convinces the young boys to sign up for the war in Europe. In Navy Song, the men sing of the responsibility they have to America: “Our whole life we’ve had liberty, we owe it to our country. So be a man and take a stand and join the military.” Tommy, torn between his familial and national duties, decides to enlist alongside his friends. His father, Val, still struggling with the guilt from the price he has paid for his American Dream, forbids Tommy from fighting in a war against his hereditary home.

As Act I concludes, the draft age is lowered from 20 to 18, and Tommy’s number is called on the radio. 

Act II’s opening song “Letters,” based on content from real letters that Duane’s family saved from Tommy’s deployment, depicts how each of the family members respond in his absence. 

It highlights the struggle of Tommy’s mother, Rosalin Zucchiatti, played by Olivia Seymour, as she experiences the heartbreak of a mother who must choose to be separated from her only son. 

Duane explained that he hoped to use the juxtaposition of the horrors of war and the invincibility of youth so that the audience might take away an “experience [of] the family unit at its strongest and its weakest” through one of the most “challenging periods in [American] history.” 

Senior Drew McClimon said “the performers … did a phenomenal job accurately portraying a myriad of heavy situations.”

Duane was a sophomore when students were sent home in the pandemic in 2020 and has credited this lockdown experience with inspiring him to write the show, “during Covid there were a lot of things being said about how humanity had never gone through such a global experience.” 

Hearing his grandmother’s story growing up, he knew this was not the case: “We, as a collective humanity, have gone through so many periods of challenges and tribulations, and I was inspired to create a piece of art that would allow us to reflect on an objectively trying time in our history and experience through our ancestor’s lenses. … The show sets out to address how we can learn to love and find joy through our suffering.”

Theresa Thomas, who choreographed the show and played Tommy’s sister, Lucy, praised Duane’s “ability to translate the emotions of each character into mesmerizing musical melodies [that] immediately captivated me and fueled my inspiration for movement and dance throughout the show. His themes of family, loss, and dreams drew me in and I knew that I wanted to help translate this story of his family to the audience.”

The architecture program has also had a major impact on Duane’s writing process. Citing similarities between lessons in creating pieces “influenced by the human experience” and “finding a central idea and letting that influence the rest of the design,” Duane has learned how to create a show in which “every detail is pointing toward a central theme or core idea.” 

“Writing feels like sculpture, you have an untouched piece of marble that the writer has to slowly chip away at and discover the figure beneath. Layer by layer, over hundreds of drafts, I’ve uncovered this story and will continue to do so as I move forward with the work,” Duane says. 

“I’d especially thank my Grandma Norma, whose family story directly inspired the content of the show, and whose resilience through so many challenging periods in history has inspired me. Norma will be turning 91 on March 5th, closing night of Dawn’s Early Light.”

Merlot Fogarty is a junior studying political science and theology. A former musical theatre geek, she is delighted that the Rover was able to cover the cost of her ticket to this tremendous show. If you’d like to sing broadway songs with Merlot, email her

Photo Credit: Peter Ringenberg

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