When Masi Asare was a Thespian at State College Area High School 11 years ago, her adviser knew she was destined to have a career in theater. “She and I often talked about writing a musical,” said Jill Campbell, a State High enrichment teacher and Thespian adviser. “That was just a goal that she had, even way back in high school.”
Last week, Asare’s latest project, “Sympathy Jones,” premiered in New York City. The musical, starring “Legally Blonde” actress Kate Shindle, is about a receptionist at an intelligence agency who steals secret information in her quest to become a spy.
“Sympathy Jones” isn’t the first musical Asare has written, said her mother, Fran Osseo-Asare, of State College, who flew in to see the show last Saturday. But she said the musical received a lot more funding, had a more well-known cast and received more publicity than her previous works. “It was a sold-out performance,” Osseo-Asare said. “They were turning people away.”
Asare, 29, said she developed the show in collaboration with Brooke Pierce at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing Workshop over the course of three years. She said the idea was for a James Bond-type story starring a woman.
There are some great roles for women, Asare said, but often they play ingenues whose goal is to get married.
“I wanted to write something for a woman character who wanted something more,” she said.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “Getting a first show to production is a very complicated process.”
Thursday night’s show was even more complicated — the star had an injured foot.
“It was a pretty funny version of the show,” Asare said.
On Thursday, Campbell rounded up a group of about 30 drama students to travel to New York City to see the musical. She said Masi Asare, a 1996 State High graduate, showed students how being successful in theater doesn’t have to mean performing on stage.
“The students are all in the theater program as Thespians or are very much interested in music and writing,” Campbell said. “None of these students had met her, but they were just excited about going and seeing something that came from their town.”
In fact, several of Asare’s high school friends have been successful in the theater business, too, she said. The Harvard graduate even collaborated with one of them on one of her earlier works, and Thursday’s show was something of an “impromptu reunion,” Asare said. Along with the drama students, a friend of Asare’s who is a State High graduate was at the show. Asare said she and Eamonn Farrell ended up in New York at the same time and collaborated on experimental off-Broadway work.
“Her mother told me it was all my fault that all these kids are living in New York City,” Campbell said.
At State High, Asare was an Outstanding Young Woman and member of the jazz band. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard and a master’s degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has written dozens of songs for children’s musicals and other performances.
Asare’s father, Kwadwo Osseo-Asare, is a professor at Penn State.