The Musical Mansours
Siblings blazed own creative paths at Notre Dame
Ronnie Mansour was 2 and a half years old when she followed her older brother Alex to a piano lesson. After he finished playing a Mozart piece, she jumped on the bench and started to play the song by ear.
The piano teacher told the precocious child she wasn’t playing Mozart correctly.
“I said I don’t want to play the Mozart way, I want to play the Ronnie way,” she recalled. “The piano teacher looked at my mom and said, ‘You’re gonna have a big problem on your hands’ — because I was acting like a little bit of a diva.”
Ronnie and Alex Mansour chose Notre Dame over a traditional music conservatory because the University’s music program allowed them the flexibility to do it, as Sinatra would say, their way. They were able to study a wide liberal arts curriculum and go abroad. Both majored in cello performance, but they also found the freedom to create musical paths that included writing original compositions performed by their classmates.
Alex, two years older, wrote a symphonic poem for the student orchestra that became the centerpiece of his application to graduate school. Ronnie wrote the script, songs and score for a musical performed by her classmates last spring.
“I wanted to study things outside of music — to study film and take science classes — and I wanted the option to study whatever I wanted. Notre Dame was a great way to do that.” —Alex Mansour
“To study at a conservatory right out of high school is a really rigorous and virtuosic thing to do, and I just didn’t have that direction then,” Alex said. “Conservatories are very structured toward honing a young person’s ability, making them the best they can be. I just frankly wasn’t ready to do that.
“I wanted to study things outside of music — to study film and take science classes — and I wanted the option to study whatever I wanted,” Alex said. “Notre Dame was a great way to do that.”
Music was a big part of family life in the Mansour home, though they said it was not like the von Trapp family roaming the hills of Austria in window-curtain clothes. Their parents — Egyptian and Finnish with some Greek and Lebanese — grew up in California and Chicago and met at Occidental College near Los Angeles. A lawyer and therapist, both played some music but not professionally.
Alex started playing piano at age 3 and cello at age 6, and Ronnie (her real name is Veronica) began even younger. Their piano teacher encouraged them to pick up a string instrument because it could help them appreciate their natural perfect pitch.
“We discovered music, not as an opportunity to practice a discipline, but as something to try and see if you’re interested,” Alex said. “We very intuitively and naturally just gravitated towards it. Our home videos are usually us at the instruments. It is not glamorous, not prodigious talent by any means — it’s just young people that are really ecstatic about music.”
As they got older, they expanded: Alex into classical guitar and Ronnie into vocal performance. The siblings would put on shows for their parents of Disney songs or anything else.
“I would force Alex to play the piano,” Ronnie said. “We would for hours just make up songs and have them say a topic or a story, and I would sing in accents and wear costumes, and it was a whole show.”
By high school, both were studying classical music in private lessons and playing liturgical and chamber music at school. Alex began scoring friends’ amateur films and played in the pit orchestra for theater productions while Ronnie often sang at church or on stage. They also performed in different combinations of piano, cello and voice at gigs for their school or as volunteer service.
“Having a musical sibling and being a musician myself, it’s a bond that I haven’t been able to find with anybody else,” Ronnie said. “It’s like twins that talk about having telepathy, and I feel like Alex and I sometimes have a musical telepathy. We’ll be in a car and both decide to do a harmony at the same time, and it will be the exact same parts.”
Coming to Indiana
The California kids would not have stumbled upon Notre Dame except for the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, the nation’s largest chamber music competition, held on campus annually. Alex competed in it twice during high school and was impressed by the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
“It’s just a gorgeous structure architecturally,” he said. “The semifinals were in Decio Theatre and the finals were in Leighton Hall and I just really loved that space. It was very impressive to a young person who was thinking about where they wanted to go to college.”
“I wanted to go to school to be a musician and a write, and learn about history and English and math and all that. We were able to meet with some wonderful people in the music department who said you can do whatever you want here.” —Ronnie Mansour
Both siblings said they weren’t focused enough on one particular musical direction to go to a specialized conservatory. Instead, they needed the time and space to figure out what type of musical muse to follow.
“I didn’t want to go to school just to be a cellist,” said Ronnie, who at first avoided following her brother to Notre Dame. “I wanted to go to school to be a musician and a writer, and learn about history and English and math and all that. We were able to meet with some wonderful people in the music department who said you can do whatever you want here.”
While both majored in cello performance and took classes in film, television and theater (FTT), they still found divergent paths. Alex focused on classical music composition and earned a second major in film, while Ronnie pursued her writing interest with a second major in English and a minor in musical theater.
Word of their prodigious talents spread organically, leading to escalating opportunities.
Alex was asked to create music for the development office’s Boldly fundraising campaign, which led Notre Dame’s multimedia team and Athletics to hire him for stadium and TV commercials.
“That was the first time I was being hired as a professional to compose music,” Alex said. “It was very empowering and there was a real, material thing I could show people and say, ‘I scored a nationally broadcast commercial for one of the most recognizable academic brands in the country.’ It was a really cool thing to be able to add to my portfolio.”
Later, he would be asked to write the music for a theater production about Notre Dame founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., as well as podcast music for communications department stories.
As a freshman, Ronnie worked on FTT’s “Spring Awakening” musical performance. After she took a summer songwriting program in New York, an FTT professor asked her to turn some scenes from Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” into musical numbers for a 2018 adaptation. She was beginning to get noticed.
Abroad and Back
Serendipitously, the seed for the most ambitious projects of the Mansour siblings was planted through a chance encounter with a Notre Dame professor. Both developed their idea while abroad for a student performance of their creations in their respective senior years.
Alex was working at the ticket office in DPAC when Dan Stowe, who directs the Glee Club and Symphony Orchestra, stopped by for small talk. He suggested Alex compose something for the orchestra. That fledgling idea bloomed with the arrival of John Liberatore, who came to campus that same year to boost the teaching of composition.
“That was lucky because he was a really significant mentor and began giving me lessons,” Alex said. “That was all outside the scope of my coursework or degree. We did an independent study at one point, but otherwise his guidance was really just out of his own generosity.”
Liberatore said he wanted to help Alex consider different lenses for the music he was composing to home in on a single idea.
“There were so many aspects of musicianship that came naturally to him. But I think he also really benefited from something more regular, with intense feedback and direction.” —John Liberatore
“Alex was such a singular talent when it came to composing,” Liberatore said. “There were so many aspects of musicianship that come naturally to him. But I think he also really benefited from something more regular, with intense individual feedback and direction.”
In London as a junior, Alex took regular courses but studied privately with a cello professor at the Royal College of Music. He also met on his own with a top composer and sat in on jam sessions at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club to test his skills.
He wrote a 15-minute tone poem for the orchestra called “Across the Sea” about the adventure and loneliness of being far from home. The Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra that Stowe directs would perform the piece the next year.
“That’s a big deal, to have a piece played by the orchestra,” Liberatore said. “That’s 60 people up on stage with your part in front of them that you’re directing.”
For Ronnie, it was Matt Hawkins, the director of musical theater in FTT. Hawkins heard Ronnie was writing musical numbers and encouraged her to write a full musical.
“I still wanted to be in shows, but I had my English and cello and everything I was doing with my concerto with the orchestra that year too, so I was just kind of all over the place,” Ronnie said. “And he said, ‘Well, just know that if you ever want to do a project with FTT, we will support you.’ And I said, ‘Maybe I should do something big.’”
She was taking Italian courses to prepare to spend part of her junior year in Rome and decided she wanted a modern musical with an Italian element.
“So that was the big idea,” she said. “In conversations that I had with Matt early on, he said whatever you write about, it has to be something very close to your heart so that you can offer something personal and unique. And I knew immediately that I wanted to write about mental health.”
“What’s weird about this piece is – because of the pandemic – we basically rehearsed it as a stage musical inside a theater, but then we shot it as if it were a film.” —Matt Hawkins
Her goal was to put on stage the mental health issues that are difficult to have a conversation about. She began by writing a short story and then adapting it into a play, keeping much of the dialogue but turning some of the internal thoughts into stage directions. Later, she would transform certain scenes into songs.
“I thought if I ever wanted to get it done, I needed to just sit down and write something with a beginning, middle and an end,” Ronnie said. “It didn’t have to be good and it didn’t have to make a ton of sense, but just staring at a blank page was the most daunting thing you can imagine.”
Hawkins created a class to workshop the draft musical, named “An Old Family Recipe,” during the first semester of Ronnie’s senior year. Workshop students generally rotate critiques of everyone’s work, but this was 15 weeks of finding the holes and reworking the script and melodies in just one work — and for one student. All done during a pandemic that required engineering specialists to promote airflow for safety.
“I was feeling burned out but also so motivated,” she said. “Because I did want to deliver for myself, but also for my classmates and for my professor, and because I was excited that other people were excited about the project too, and that they cared enough to critique it.”
Due to COVID-19 crowd restraints, Hawkins teamed with FTT film professor William Donaruma to create a live musical on film for an online audience. Three other FTT students were able to complete their senior thesis projects around the production in the areas of choreography, directing and documentary making.
“What’s weird about this piece is — because of the pandemic — we basically rehearsed it as a stage musical inside a theater, but then we shot it as if it were a film,” Hawkins said. “So it was this weird hybrid. I’m still trying to figure out the language, but I think it’s a theatrically staged musical for film.”
Alex graduated in 2019 and went to USC to get a two-year master’s degree in composition. He lives in Los Angeles and composes film and concert music. He is cobbling together income as many artists do — through a combination of performances (classical cello and jazz piano), commissioned pieces and private lessons.
The Alabama Symphony Orchestra recently commissioned him for a five-minute piece, and he has written scores for marketing teams and independent filmmakers. Crucially, his company, Alex Mansour Music, has been up and running for a while.
“Starting with some of the Notre Dame opportunities where I was getting paid, I use that date as the beginning, which means I’m six years into it now,” he said. “As I do it full time, I have some grounds to stand on as opposed to being completely in the dark.”
Liberatore said he thinks Alex will succeed because he has a broad liberal arts background and wide range of musical talents.
“There’s something about the Notre Dame curriculum that’s kind of a sandbox,” he said. “You don’t just go down the chute and come out a really good cellist on the other side. You can say, ‘What if I explore film studies or philosophy?’ Alex was exactly the kind of student that really flourished in that kind of curriculum, that was in some ways very customizable but also offered him guidance in any direction he might set out.”
In the fall, Ronnie will attend New York University for a graduate program in musical theater writing. The program pairs 15 composers and 15 words people, ages 21 to 52, for rotating collaborations. She knew she couldn’t act in “An Old Family Recipe,” but she wants to keep that option open for the future.
“I look at people like Lin-Manuel Miranda who are writing as well as being performers themselves, and being able to dip their toes in a lot of different parts,” she said. “I would just love to be able to do that, but writing for musical theater is the thing that most excites me, that really lights a fire.”
“The liberal arts ones always bring more to the table. Always, because they’re interested in life, in the human condition. I feel Notre Dame is putting a lens on the entire human condition.” —Matt Hawkins
Hawkins said he will continue to develop Ronnie’s play to offer to different theater groups, while Donaruma will push the film version. Like Liberatore, he believes that a broad background lays the right foundation.
“The liberal arts is going to make you a better actor as opposed to being in a vacuum, learning all these technical skills,” Hawkins said. “Then you graduate, but you don’t know anything about anything else besides what it’s like to be an actor.
“The liberal arts ones always bring more to the table. Always, because they’re interested in life, in the human condition. I feel Notre Dame is putting a lens on the entire human condition.”