Masi Asare is a composer/lyricist, playwright, singer, and voice coach with a PhD in Performance Studies. She was the first-ever recipient of the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award in 2015. This past April, she received an Emerging Artist Grant from the Theater Hall of Fame, and this past May, she received the Stacey Mindich “Go Write a Musical” award at The Lilly Awards. As a composer/lyricist, Masi has studied with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Stephen Schwartz, and Stephen Sondheim. She is an alum of musical theatre workshops at ASCAP, BMI, and New Dramatists, and she was a Dramatists Guild Musical Theatre Fellow. In addition to her multitude of writing achievements, Masi is also a faculty member at Northwestern University and divides her time between New York City and Chicago.
A Conversation with Masi Asare
Jamie Maletz: So, you’re a composer/lyricist, a playwright, a singer, a voice coach, a performance scholar, and you divide your time between New York and Chicago. That’s a lot to do! How often do you go back and forth?
Masi Asare: So, that’s a fairly new thing for me. I just started teaching at Northwestern University this past year, and I come back to New York from Chicago at least once a month during the year, sometimes twice. I try to put my classes in the middle of the week. And then I’m spending most of the summer here in New York, although I’ll go back a couple times to Chicago.
JM: And you teach theater and performance studies at Northwestern. What do you like about teaching?
Masi Asare: I really love teaching. I mean, it’s actually nice you asked me. People haven’t been asking me that a lot. I can put in a plug for Northwestern!
Masi Asare: The students are great to work with. It’s a wonderful theater department. The faculty are so impressive. It’s an honor to be there. And there’s really some interest in growing in the music theater program in particular, adding more offerings in music theater writing, so that’s one thing that I love.
JM: Oh, that’s really cool. So as a teacher, what is your hope as far as the impact that you have on your students?
Masi Asare: I think what I hope that we’ll do is study the past and see what has been done, and then use that as a basis from which to know what we want to do. I was just talking to an early-career writer today—we’re all early-career, I’m early-career— but we were talking about “Who do you admire?” and “What are the works that you really respond to?” so that we can follow the example of the things that we love and that have been done well, even as we’re figuring out what our own voice is.
JM: I’ve found that in my studies of writing, too. A lot of what we’re coached to do is to…not copy, but to look at what you love and think is good, and to examine it and break it down and see how you can translate it to your voice and apply the strategies behind it.
Masi Asare: Yeah. I think there are so many different ways of working in the theater, so many different kinds of theater, so many different kinds of musical. I’m excited to see the boundaries of the form stretch and change, and at the same time, I have a really deep respect for…I always say “those old musicals,” for all their, you know, sometimes casual misogyny and racism, they’re often built like tanks. Like, they’re structurally so sound, and that, I really admire, for the craft of that.
JM: Yeah. We recognize good writing when we see it. Speaking of good writing, your songs have been heard at venues from Playwrights Horizons to Lincoln Center. Can you recount one or two of the most memorable performance experiences that you’ve had?
Masi Asare: Well, last summer I took a musical to the [Eugene] O’Neill [Theater] Center, and that was really a wonderful experience. And I don’t even know if I was prepared for how helpful it would be as a workshop. I recognized it as a serious career opportunity specifically for me as a composer/lyricist and bookwriter, you know, the only name on the byline.
JM: What was the musical called?
Masi Asare: It’s called The Family Resemblance. The level of support was overwhelming, and there was so much support for the kind of story that I wanted to tell…so many people asking me helpful questions about how it could work and it just felt like a new coming into my own as a writer. And then I would also say, in terms of memorable experiences–I didn’t see this performance, I always mention this–but my secret agent musical Sympathy Jones is published and licensed. I wrote the score for that, and the book is by Brooke Pierce. And it gets a fair number of amateur productions, I would say about 5-10 amateur productions a year, and I love to look at the photographs. And a few years back, there was one production of it at an all-girl’s Catholic school in Tasmania. The photograph of them in costume is pretty amazing.
JM: That sounds awesome. So, you’re an alum of musical theater workshops at ASCAP, BMI, and New Dramatists, and you were a Dramatists Guild Musical Theater Fellow. What did being a Dramatists Guild Fellow entail? What kind of activities did the fellowship consist of?
Masi Asare: Writing new songs, you sort of workshop them. There were also guests and artists who came in to speak with us and listen to our work. We had a master class with Stephen Sondheim, and that was really meaningful. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were running the workshop, and I think they were almost as excited as we all were when he came. But yeah, with many of these workshops, you’re working on your show, you bring in your songs…I wanna say, for that Stephen Sondheim master class, there were some people who brought their best, most polished song. And that’s hard, because if Stephen Sondheim tells you that your great song isn’t as great as you thought after you’ve polished it and rewritten it a million times, it’s a harder thing to hear. But for whatever reason, maybe naiveté, I just sort of brought the next song that I was working on. And it was really valuable. And I guess I just mention that because, you know, so often there’s this idea that we have to bring the songs that will show us off. And I think the point of any of these workshops is what it gives to us. Like, what am I going to gain from this as a writer? And I think there’s some value in just thinking, “What can I bring to this that will benefit me the most?”
JM: So what did Stephen Sondheim say about your song?
Masi Asare: He asked me a great question about the character who was singing the song. He asked me if she was a boring character, if she was a predictable character, if she was the kind of person who would wait the same number of bars before she sang each entrance. And that was really a smart question. Just a reminder that all of our musical choices are character choices.
JM: Yeah. So overall, how do all these great musical theater workshops that you’ve gotten to do differ from each other?
Masi Asare: They’re all useful for different reasons. I always feel like the BMI workshop is really good for structure and for thinking about some of the mechanics, like how to make your songs do dramatic work. I met some great people in that workshop, too, that I’m still friends with. Really great community of people. The ASCAP workshop, I assume it’s still running this way, you present a bigger chunk of your show. And that’s useful because, as opposed to just doing one song here or there, you do like 45 minutes, and that gives people a fuller sense of what your piece is, to respond to. New Dramatists, I worked there as a composer, and I worked with New Dramatists playwrights, and they’d bring in actors…I really loved that workshop, or actually, it’s called the Composer-Librettist studio. They have a wonderful way of thinking about all the different kinds of musical theater, whether it’s more veering towards opera or it’s more veering towards experimental or avant-garde performance that includes music and theater in the work, or it’s more traditional musical theater structure. So they’re really open to all of those things and figuring out where your work might be in that landscape. And I like that openness and fluidity.
JM: But on the more traditional side, you do have a pretty popular musical too! Sympathy Jones, which premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, has had more than 40 productions to date in the US and internationally, it has a well-received cast album, and it’s published by Playscripts. And you mentioned that 5-10 productions are done per year? What’s that like?
Masi Asare: It’s mostly amateur productions. It gets done in a lot of high schools, community theaters…it’s done internationally. There are a number of companies in Canada…it’s almost exclusively amateur, so it’s not like it’s bringing in the big bucks, but it’s exciting to see it have a life. We had a really wonderful process here in New York. Kate Shindle was our lead, and she can belt her face off.
JM: Oh my god, yeah.
Masi Asare: So to hear her belt that second act ballad was pretty impressive. [Laughs] So yeah, it continues to have a life, and I think that’s what makes me happiest, just anytime I see somebody online excited about a character I helped create…it’s rewarding. It’s still being lived.
JM: That sounds like a really good feeling. Speaking of other good feelings: You were a 2017 Jonathan Larson Grant Finalist, and in 2015, you were awarded the first ever Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award for a female composer of musical theatre. What did that feel like?
Masi Asare: The Ziegfeld Award absolutely changed my life, and I am always really grateful for that. It’s a really interesting organization. Not everybody knows. And in fact, they just announced the new round. Applications are due August 23rd. So I just encourage all the women composers to apply.
JM: I’ll be applying.
Masi Asare: Yeah! So it’s founded by The Ziegfeld Club, which is an organization that was one of the first kind of…I think we can say feminist or women’s organizations in New York. It was founded by sort of a sisterhood of women who were in the Ziegfeld Follies. And often, these were women who didn’t have a lot of education prior to being spotted by Ziegfeld and put in the Follies. And so they formed a sisterhood so that when any of them left the Follies, if they came upon hard times, they would financially support one another. It’s kind of an amazing legacy.
JM: That’s incredible.
Masi Asare: It’s existed for decades. And then at some point, all of the Follies girls had passed on. And there was sort of this decision of what should they continue to do with this institution? And Laurie Sanderson, who is the executive director [of the Ziegfeld Club], had this idea and talked to some other people and decided that they wanted to give some award. So they gave an award to a woman composer…
JM: And that was you.
Masi Asare: Yes, and they also give an award for a female music educator.
JM: That’s awesome.
Masi Asare: So that award…you know, I kind of had some fatigue, like nothing had been happening in my creative life for a long time, I was going to grad school, trying to get myself a better day job…
JM: I can relate to that.
Masi Asare: And I was trying to think, “Well, what am I gonna do? This is the long game.” And I thought, “If there’s any award I should apply for, this is the one.” And so I did, and I don’t know that this is recommended, but I cried in both of my interviews, because it seemed so impossible that I could actually have a career in this business, and that people were asking me these questions with such genuine interest and valuing my process as a composer. The thought that that could actually be my life…well, I guess they realized that I really cared about it.
JM: You’re gonna make me cry.
Masi Asare: I don’t know, I’m just grateful. I don’t know. There are so many talented female composers. And I also think, you know…I think they really wanted to pick someone who had not had a lot of doors opened for them at that point, so that it would really have an impact. Which it did, for me. I’m just honored. And it was helpful to get more buzz. I got my first commission. I got an agent. People just started to know who I am. And I always am really grateful to, as I said at The Lilly Awards, to the women who have opened the door for me in this profession. Because that award, the Stacey Mindich Go Write a Musical Award…those are things that didn’t exist. So if someone hadn’t taken it upon themselves to invent them, those doors wouldn’t have opened for me. So I don’t take that lightly.
JM: Yeah. That really…that’s really meaningful. Like, these are all fairly recent. You won the first ever Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award, and with the Go Write a Musical Award, there have only been two so far, right?
Masi Asare: Yeah.
JM: So in both cases, they’re really new, and they’re essentially awesome women opening doors for other awesome women…because they can and they want to.
Masi Asare: It also makes you realize that there are…it’s not as if it’s only now that these kind of things have been needed. It’s just that they’ve only now been created. But it’s been a long time coming.
JM: There’s a nice symbolism, too, with the history behind the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award and how the Follies girls would support each other and lift each other up. And like…that’s what Maestra’s all about, too.
Masi Asare: Exactly.
JM: So when you won the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award, how did they present it to you?
Masi Asare: There was an award ceremony, and I shared a song from Sympathy Jones.
JM: And as part of the award, in addition to grant money, you received a year of professional mentorship from Jeanine Tesori and Daryl Roth?
Masi Asare: Yes. And that’s part of what was life-changing, I should have mentioned!
JM: I mean, that’s incredible.
Masi Asare: I feel like my conversations with Jeanine really helped me dig deeper, to think about what it means to be an artist, and not just right on the surface of things. And I will say that a lot of our conversations were about musical dramaturgy as much as about composing. And I think that’s the thing about writing music for the theater, is that it really is about the dramatic function of the music. And what Jeanine did was encourage me, but also push me to aim for a higher level than I might have otherwise. So the draft of the musical that came out of that year is what started to really open new doors for me.
JM: As a huge fan of Jeanine, I have to ask…what’s she like in person?
Masi Asare: What’s great about Jeanine is–I actually just gave this speech to someone today–I think it’s maybe worth mentioning that when I met with Jeanine I was like, “Oh, no, Jeanine, I feel kind of like I’m a songwriter.” And she was like, “You’re a composer,” and encouraged me to really own that and not soft-pedal it in any way. Which I have seen so many women do. I think there’s a lot to be gained, especially as a woman, in owning one’s knowledge of music, which others may be quick to disparage, and really standing in that authority. Jeanine is very direct, and it’s inspiring, because I think so many of us are brought up to think that we have to kind of soften the conversation and smooth things over, and that is not necessarily a skill that serves us well as artists. It doesn’t necessarily encourage us to go to the heart of whatever it is that we’re meant to be writing into. And so I find Jeanine really inspiring in those ways, to be direct as a person, and as an artist. In addition to her amazing music. And Daryl, I should say also, I adore. I’m just kind of a giant fan. She’s so smart. I was very intimidated when I first walked into her office–all the Tony Awards–but she’s so lovely, and she has such a depth of knowledge and experience in this field, and genuinely cares about lifting up women, which is amazing.
JM: And speaking of Daryl Roth, in April, you received an Emerging Artist Grant from the Theater Hall of Fame! Congratulations on that as well!
Masi Asare: Yes! I was nominated by Daryl.
JM: So what does that award entail? What does it mean for you?
Masi Asare: So that’s one of those wonderful things that it’s just…they give you a little money and you go on your way. But I will say, I was very razzle dazzled by the award function. Bernadette Peters was sitting at a table nearby. And I had my hair done to make sure I looked really nice that day, and Bernadette Peters complimented me on my hair, which was kind of awesome for me, because she’s, like, the curly hair goddess. There were some stars there who sang and performed. It was just a really…I don’t want to say insider, but…I felt welcomed into a side of the theater that I hadn’t necessarily been before. And so I’m grateful to Daryl for that.
JM: And we mentioned this briefly earlier, but in May, you won the Stacey Mindich “Go Write a Musical Award” at the 2019 Lilly Awards!
Masi Asare: I just want to say that I’m grateful for all these things, but they also are a GIANT to-do list. I’m just gonna put that out there. I have a lot of writing to do. Which is exciting, but also…I feel some pressure to live up to.
JM: Do any of these come with a deadline or an expectation of a timeline?
Masi Asare: You know, some music commissions do. The Lilly Award is very open-ended, which is really lovely. It’s kind of, “go off and write.” But other commissions, you know, there’s a time by which you deliver a draft, a time by which you do a rewrite, and sort of, it’s more phased.
JM: How did you find out that you were getting the award? Did you apply for it?
Masi Asare: No, Julia Jordan called me and told me that it was happening and said, “Will you be in New York?” And I said, “Of course I’ll be in New York!”
JM: So they just found you and they loved you and they picked you.
Masi Asare: It was just…it felt like it was out of the blue for me.
JM: That’s amazing. So as far as coveted musical theater writer experiences go, you’ve checked a lot of boxes! Workshops, fellowships, festivals, awards, grants…a lot of things that I know my musical writing friends and I have on our lists as far as goals go. So what goals are up next on the horizon for you?
Masi Asare: I have a lot of things in the works right now. I just wrote a play! I know we’re talking about music. But I just had a play published about a Marvel super hero, that’s been published by Samuel French.
JM: Oh, cool!
Masi Asare: That was the first time I was ever asked to write a play without music, so it just goes to show, don’t limit yourself, ever. And I’m working as a lyricist on a musical adaptation of the film Monsoon Wedding by Mira Nair, which is a really stunning film. So I was in India in December and January for a workshop of that.
JM: You were in India for two months for that?
Masi Asare: Yeah. It was over a seven week period. We were workshopping the musical and doing rewrites as well. And then in terms of other things I’m working on, there are a lot of things that are sort of in the works that may have a break, we’ll see. I’m looking to find a home for The Family Resemblance, so I’m talking to a lot of people to see what I could find Off-Broadway or regionally for that, and I’m rewriting right now a new musical that was commissioned–book, music, lyrics–by Barbara Whitman and Grove Entertainment, so I’m in the midst of that.
JM: Cool. Okay, now I have an interesting question for you. You’ve had a job working as a grant-writer and development professional. And obviously, you’ve won a lot of grants. Do you have any advice for early-career writers who are in the process of applying for grants and trying to develop their works, who are maybe looking at your career and going, “How can I be like her?”
Masi Asare: With grants, really read the directions. Sometimes people read them really quickly. The easiest way to cut yourself out of the running is if you don’t provide them with exactly what they want. Oftentimes people don’t realize this: you can call and ask questions. Usually there’s somebody, some designated person, a contact email or phone number that you can call if you’re not sure about something. And when you don’t get something, that’s a great time to call and find out why not. Because it will give you information that may help you adjust for when you submit next time. For many grants and many of these opportunities that we all apply for, it takes many times. And also, even if you don’t get it, maybe somebody will see your work and they become a champion of yours. So it’s not like all is lost. And also, in seeking support for your work, producers and funders need to know: why does this musical need to be in the world? Without the answer to that, no one’s willing to listen to anything else. There’s this idea that musicals are kind of like this escape, they’re this like, fantasy. We get swept away to these wonderful places. And I’m sure that’s true. But I guess the question is, swept away to what end?
JM: So now to go all the way back to the beginning: what was it like for you starting out in this industry?
Masi Asare: Well, you know, one thing I will say is that I had some great friends who always wanted to put up a show. And we found little places, little theaters that we could rent or that would give us space for free, and we would just put on a show. And I think that really helped me, because I did a lot of writing to the deadline, writing to get the show to happen, as opposed to just writing something and holding it in my hands forever, hoping someone would produce it. So I was grateful for those early experiences where we just put on a show.
JM: And how would you sum up your career path?
Masi Asare: There are no rules. There is no set of prescribed steps that you can follow. One of the things I’ve been most grateful for is all the people I’ve met along the way. So many of the opportunities that have come to me were because someone was looking out for me, or someone in this network of writers and artists opened a door for me.
JM: Okay, now the big question: Why did you join Maestra?
Masi Asare: I joined Maestra because I am so proud and excited to be a part of this group of amazing women who write music for musical theater and who support having women musicians perform our work. We are so underrecognized, in particular in terms of pit musicians.
JM: Why do you think Maestra is important?
Masi Asare: I think it’s important to create community amongst those of us who are women working in musical theater, and also to bring more awareness to the talent that does exist, the opportunities that have not always existed, and to try to really further the conversation around those things.
JM: And how has Maestra helped you or people you know so far?
Masi Asare: Maestra has helped me meet some really wonderful people, some of whom I’ve gone on to work with. It’s created an opportunity for some really great conversations with other women composers, and there are so many different ways that so many of us are part of this organization. Some of us are moms and some of us are not. And we all have kind of our own story, our own relationship to what is expected of us as women and where we have or haven’t met that, and we all love music so deeply. So I’ve had some really wonderful conversations with people as a result of this group convening.
JM: Why should people care about the services Maestra offers?
Masi Asare: I think this organization is filling a really important need in the musical theater community. And I think people should care because there are really amazing artists out there who we can become more aware of, who we can help to grow and support…so we could change the face of this business that we love so much, and have it be something more that reflects who we are as a world, who we are as a country, who we are as a city, as an industry, and who we can be. We can have a more expansive vision. I sound like I’m running for office.
JM: I’d vote for you. One more question: Why should people care about the goals Maestra is working towards?
Masi Asare: I think about this a lot. I think about who feels like she can call herself a composer, and who doesn’t feel like she can. I think about who feels welcome in a room, and who feels the authority to take up an instrument and show the skills that she has, and who feels like she should be more cautious, like she should not step forward, like she should let others go first. The goals that Maestra is setting are so important, so that women can step forward in confidence and know that there are women who have gone before us, there are women who travel beside us, and that there are women that we can bring on after us in this business that we love.
Special thanks to Masi for sharing her story.