When Veronica Mansour landed her first role in musical theater as Marcie in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown at age 8, she never imagined she would one day write a musical of her own.
She still has trouble believing it now.
“I just have to pinch myself sometimes to say this is real life and this show is going to happen in one way or another, even if COVID is putting speed bumps in our path,” Mansour said.
Mansour, a senior English and music major with a minor in musical theatre, spent last semester workshopping her original musical, An Old Family Recipe, which will be filmed over the course of a few weeks and released to the public in a live-streamed opening night this spring.
The process of writing the music, lyrics, and book for the show has been quite the challenge — one that draws from all of her academic pursuits.
“I feel like English has really helped me to articulate myself as a writer in a more concise way,” she said, “but also to push myself creatively with some of the creative writing classes I’ve taken.”
“An Arts and Letters education allows students like me, who maybe aren’t exactly sure what they want to do in the future, to pursue everything that they want to — and I didn’t come across any other school that was really supportive of that. I can do whatever I want and be whoever I want at Notre Dame.”
‘A new family’
Mansour’s passion for music began at age 2 when she started playing piano — and continued at age 4, when she picked up cello.
By high school, Mansour was considering attending a conservatory to focus on cello, but decided she wanted a college experience that would allow her to pursue her wide range of musical talents, including singing, songwriting, and arranging music.
She found just that when visiting Notre Dame.
“An Arts and Letters education allows students like me, who maybe aren’t exactly sure what they want to do in the future, to pursue everything that they want to — and I didn’t come across any other school that was really supportive of that,” Mansour said. “I can do whatever I want and be whoever I want at Notre Dame. Arts and Letters doesn’t want students to limit themselves, but instead challenge themselves by studying anything that sparks their interest.”
Mansour has embraced this philosophy fully, while still excelling at cello performance, her concentration for her music major. She is the principal cellist of the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra, with which she soloed during the spring of her sophomore year.
“Even though cello is not necessarily the thing I want to pursue professionally, it’s just been a constant for me throughout my life,” Mansour said. “It helped me so much within my classical training, which helped me in writing songs and in the musical theater realm — they just kind of blended together.”
And it is in this musical theater realm that Mansour has found her home at Notre Dame. She was the musical director for PEMCo’s production Guys and Dolls her sophomore year, and has performed in Department of Film, Television, and Theatre productions of Spring Awakening and a student production of Heathers. She also composed and arranged music for FTT’s adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid.
“Being in a cast allows you to bond with people on a really intimate level and share your gifts with people while they’re sharing their gifts with you,” she said. “It becomes this really positive community. When a show is over, you just leave with a new family.”
‘Growth as a writer’
Mansour’s greatest FTT undertaking by far has been An Old Family Recipe, which tells the story of Toni, a young woman struggling with depression and anxiety as she navigates relationships and tries to create a life for herself.
The process began in a summer songwriting program at New York University and a fiction-writing program at Skidmore College during the summer after her first year. Those experiences challenged her as a writer and an artist, Mansour said, and encouraged her to consider how to blend her two core interests.
After hearing some of Mansour’s songs from that summer, Notre Dame musical theatre director Matt Hawkins encouraged her to develop a larger project, and her thoughts immediately went to creating a musical.
Mansour began talking with classmate and friend Gabe Krut, and a story started to develop, influenced by their plans to study abroad in Rome the coming year.
But once Mansour began writing, she became overwhelmed by the scale of the task in front of her. So she wrote the plot as a short story first, then adapted it into a play, then added songs.
When she arrived in Rome, she immersed herself in Italian culture — a centerpiece of An Old Family Recipe.
“It’s all about Italian food, so I was eating a lot and calling that research,” Mansour said with a laugh.
The coronavirus pandemic cut short her abroad experience, but she used her extra time at home to continue working on the musical and preparing it for the lab class that workshopped the show twice a week with Hawkins last fall.
“It’s been really humbling to hear all the criticism and all the praise as well,” Mansour said. “Implementing the thoughts of all the people in my class and recognizing that people often do know better than me has been such an experience of growth as a writer.”
‘Music brings people together’
The class has also been working with Jennifer Hames, an assistant clinical professor of psychology, to ensure that the musical appropriately represents mental health in a way that’s beneficial to the audience.
Mental health has been something Mansour has struggled with for years, and she’s found talking about it with others to be a challenge.
“Using the arts to help me broach conversations about mental illness has been a really special opportunity,” she said. “Really that’s what I want to do in life — use music and theater and the arts to have these important conversations that are generally stigmatized.”
After graduation, Mansour hopes to remain in the field of music and is applying to various graduate programs in musical theater writing and commercial music.
“Music brings people together — it has united me with my family and my closest friends, and it has made me feel the most comfortable in my own skin,” she said. “I think people feel the happiest when they’re doing the thing they love the most with the people they love the most, and music provides me with the opportunity to do just that.”