Masi Asare and Her Radical, Creative Musical Theater

A Black woman composer-lyricist-book writer can hit many diversity check-boxes. But she'd rather talk about craft.

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Photo: Daphne Borowski.

Pursuing a career in the musical theater requires a radical dose of faith, persistence and thinking outside the (black) box. Especially in NYC — where the only thing that may be fiercer than the competition is the cost-of-living — it’s key to be flexible while navigating the zigs and zags. A perfect example of someone who has managed this quirky course with grit and grace is writer-composer Masi Asare.

I first met Asare when she was co-artistic director of Raw Impressions Music Theatre and I was a newbie lyricist in one of the group’s evenings of new short works. Asare and I crossed paths again when I participated as a book writer and lyricist in 8Minute Musicals, an organization that Asare co-founded.

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I caught up with the Harvard and NYU grad as she was preparing to workshop her latest piece at The Eugene O’Neill Center. She gave me the inside scoop on how she approaches her art and manages to balance her studying, her writing, her day job and day-to-day life — without having a nervous breakdown.

Robin Rothstein: What is your background? Did you engage in theater at an early age?

Masi Asare: I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. My parents are academics. Both were the first in their families to go to college, both have PhDs and both have been professors at different points in their lives. They were (and are) not that into musical theater! However, they have always supported me.

Growing up, I was in church plays (you know, those pageants at Christmastime), and always played the piano. I became obsessed with musicals at around age 12, starting with The Sound of Music, and in junior high I convinced the house manager at the local theater to let me volunteer usher for the touring shows that came through town. I also performed in community theater and high school shows.

Then, at college, I got a job as a teaching artist and music director for a youth theater in the Boston area where I wrote a bunch of songs (and some scripts) for kids’ musicals. I always say those kids were my first writing coaches and editors. If I wrote a melody that did not make logical sense, they would sing it back the way that made intuitive sense to the ear. So, I learned a lot about making things singable. And when I sat at the piano to improvise underscoring through the shows, I learned a lot about how music can drive dramatic moments.

RR: How did you get your start in NYC?

MA: I moved to NYC right after college, and I emailed Stephen Schwartz — he had come to my college and done a master class there. I was not sure about my songwriting abilities, but wanted to work in the musical theater. He suggested I apply to the BMI Lehman Engel writing group, which I eventually did a few years later.

Mixed race people are not symbols.

I was an actor for a while, doing some regional, Off-Off-Broadway and summer stock shows. I also did some downtown theater with Anonymous Ensemble, an avant-garde group I co-founded. Then, while working at a frustrating day-job, I was invited to participate in Raw Impressions, which brought together writers and composers to make new work very quickly. I participated as a composer, then went on to help run those sessions for a number of years. It was a wonderful sense of community and experimentation! Then, at the BMI workshop, I wrote my first full-length musical, Sympathy Jones: The New Secret Agent Musical, which went on to the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Later on, Playscripts published the piece and we recorded a cast album. That kind of kicked things off for me.

RR: You’ve also been a member of the ASCAP Songwriters Workshop and a Dramatists Guild Musical Theatre Fellow. How have these experiences informed your work and process?

MA: These workshops have all been helpful in different ways and at different moments. BMI is great for structure. The ASCAP workshop is great for being able to see a chunk of your show all together, not just song-by-song. My collaborator Brooke Pierce and I did Sympathy Jones there years ago and got very helpful feedback from Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Schwartz and Marcy Heisler. And I really benefited from the Dramatists Guild Fellows program because musical theater writers and playwrights work side by side. I began developing a piece there that is just now coming into its own, The Family Resemblance. This piece was the first for which I had ever written the book as well as music and lyrics. So, to be in a writers group with playwrights was incredibly valuable.

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I have also been a member of New Dramatists’ Composer-Librettist Studio, which brings in composers to work with their playwrights. That was life-changing. It really cracked me open in the best possible way. I was sleep-deprived, writing all these assignments, and I blasted into a new level of what I wanted to be as an artist — not just making facile musical theater songs, but really touching the core of something meaningful to say. It was different from the way musical theater is sometimes taught, where you try and bend a scene around a showtune, as opposed to thinking about the scene first. Playwrights continue to inspire me and I am and humbled to begin joining their ranks.

RR: How do you know whether you will write book, lyrics or music or all three? What are the benefits of writing on your own versus working with a collaborator?

MA: It really depends on the project. Sometimes I’m asked to write one aspect of a piece, and it’s a great opportunity. For example, I’ve been asked to write lyrics for the new version of a musical adaptation of Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding. I love writing lyrics because it’s the sweet spot of the Venn diagram: The music people aren’t always sure how to talk to the story people, and the story people aren’t always sure how to talk to the music people. The lyricist gets to sit right in the middle, which I love as a middle child by background and a kind of cultural translator by nature.

In terms of book writing, I fell into that accidentally. I wanted to tell certain kinds of stories and I couldn’t find the collaborators to tell them with me. So I started writing book, and it has become eye-opening that this is now something that I do! And then sometimes there’s just a really great collaborator with whom I want to work. The benefit of writing alone is that you can go really fast. You also don’t have to convince anyone of what needs to happen where. The danger is that you might not get the perspectives earlier that would help the piece. Also, when you’re writing everything yourself, you have to be deeply confident. Everyone has a lot of feedback and it can be tricky when you don’t have that other person — or people — to help you determine what to listen to and what to discard. Working with collaborators is much more fun, but I love working both ways.

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RR: How do you balance daily survival, studying and creating your work?

MA: I’ve actually just made a career transition away from a longtime day job and I’m a little overwhelmed at what it means to spend all of my time with music and theater, and the precious gift of that. And, of course, there’s washing the dishes, and getting groceries, cleaning the bathroom — the things we all do. Nothing is glamorous all the time!

My mantra has always been along the lines of “keep the faucet open.” As long as the water is trickling — even a little bit — the cup will eventually get full. As long as I have half an hour over a lunch break, I will go to a studio and write. And what I write in half an hour is fine — it doesn’t have to be brilliant, but it’s something. And I have desperately held onto that. The idea that a little bit counts, and that a lot of little bits over time add up.

I’ve also been really fortunate in my day jobs. I’ve worked mainly in higher education administration and fundraising, but I’ve been able to take chunks of time, whether it’s a week or a couple of weeks. Then I went to graduate school to get my PhD. I wanted to bring my day job into better alignment with my creative practice. And I’m now shocked and amazed that all these years later it’s happening!

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Sometimes it has confused other people about why I am doing all these things. I have tried to hold onto the fact that, first and foremost, I believe in being financially stable — I don’t believe that you have to be poor to be an artist.

RR: What’s The Family Resemblance about?

MA: I usually say that this is a musical play about a family a lot like mine, with a white mom, a Black dad and two mixed-race daughters. Then there is a character who is the spirit of an African grandmother who comes back from the dead one Christmas when the family is gathering together. She kind of shakes things up a bit.

Asare

I came very reluctantly to this project. I thought, who wants to hear a sort of navel-gazing story about mixed-race people? There’s so much in the canon about how confused mixed-race people are. I didn’t want to contribute to that. But, at the same time, I realized I had a chance to write something that felt true to how I feel about being a mixed-race person. We’re not symbols. Mixed-race people are often written that way, but when you’re living your life, you’re not a symbol. You’re just making decisions about what you should do every day in the context of your life.

There are also a lot of metaphors in the piece about mirrors. As I get older and I look in the mirror, I notice I do not look anything like my mother did when she was my age. So, who do I look like? Who will I be? Those are themes that made their way into the show. I also wanted to write about my African grandmother who I never met (my father’s mother). She died in Ghana in the 1950s. I imagined what it would be like if I met her today for the first time. What would we have in common, or not in common? Those were some impulses for the piece.

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RR: How has the adverse political climate influenced your work?

MA: One thing I notice is that my work feels really different now. There are some themes in The Family Resemblance about political activism. Some of the characters believe passionately in fighting for social change. And that piece was drafted before “45” was elected. It now it feels very different — what we think of when we think of activism, and the stakes of activism and what we should be activists about in this moment. That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to working on at the O’Neill. And I will have the wonderful support of Alex Gemignani as artistic director, and a great group of artists, including director Awoye Timpo and Playwrights Horizons’ Kent Nicholson as dramaturg.

I don’t believe that you have to be poor to be an artist.

I am especially shaken up about children being taken away from their parents and put into cages at the borders of our country in the name of immigration law enforcement. I’m shaken by these horrible camps, what this means for our country, and for us as people who live in this country and are complicit in that.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is how musicals tend to push the idea of togetherness, the idea of people singing together. But what are the costs and stakes of arriving at a place where we can sing together? What do you sacrifice to be in agreement and find some points of connection that land on the ear as vocal harmony?

RR: What is the theater’s responsibility to address diversity?

MA: People ask me a lot about diversity. I sometimes try to sidestep the question because I don’t want to only be called when there’s a diversity conversation. As a Black woman composer, I can hit a bunch of diversity check-boxes. I usually try to steer the conversation towards talking about craft. I think for writers of color to be taken seriously, our craft has to be taken seriously. Also, I have come to think more specifically about the ways that I can be more inclusive in terms of the actors, musicians and other artists I’m inviting into the room to work on my own musicals. If we are really going to dismantle stereotypes that are still in circulation on the stage, we also need people shaking that up offstage — producers, casting directors, designers, writers and composers.

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RR: What’s down the road for you?

MA: This summer I begin a new gig as Assistant Professor of Theatre in the music theater program at Northwestern University! I’ll teach musical theater history and run a writing lab for students. I’ll also teach singer-actors about vocal styles and interpretive approaches to song repertoire. In late July I will have a song at City Center as part of the “Lobby Project” with Encores! Off Center, and The Civilians invited me to write a song to respond to the work of Micki Grant and the performance of her landmark show Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. That will be the end of July.

RR: What advice do you have for writers who feel challenged to build a career?

MA: Focus on what’s right for you. The way everyone else is choosing to be an artist may not be the way that you choose to be an artist. Trust yourself, and find mentors. Invite people you admire for coffee, and ask them for advice. I’ve just had an amazing week of meeting with people in their studios and offices and learning more about how they work. Artists are incredibly generous and will often give you this knowledge for free. And know that it’s not easy, and that you’re not crazy if you feel that way. That’s just the world we live in. The fact that we persist and take good care of ourselves — that is the truly radical and creative act.