Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng's musical "The Fourth Messenger" offers a contemporary view of the Buddha
Meditation is meant to focus the mind by clearing away random thoughts. But sometimes meditation may inspire a radical new idea.
Playwright Tanya Shaffer had such an inspiration that led to the creation of The Fourth Messenger, an unusual musical about the Buddha that will be given a concert staging at The Ark on March 14 as a fundraiser for the venue's Spotlight Series.
“The idea came to me on a nine-day silent retreat when I was supposed to be clearing my mind,” she said. “I was thinking about the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, where he sat under a tree and vowed not to get up until he found enlightenment. Then for many days and nights, all the temptations of the world are trying to get him up. And it came to me that would be cool as a song and dance, the temptations standing under a tree and then thinking the whole story would be a musical because it has that scale of a hero’s quest and so I got excited on the retreat and for many hours forgot about my breath and I thought about the musical.”
Shaffer didn’t pursue the idea for another five years. She said she had trouble deciding how to handle the story about the historical Buddha and his teachings.
“I started to think how would people view this story if it was a woman and I wanted to update it and make it feel very relevant and contemporary,” Shaffer said. “So it took me five years to find my way into it and then many years to workshop.”
The Fourth Messenger features book and lyrics by Shaffer and music by award-winning singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It premiered at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, California in 2013 and was presented at the New York Musical Festival in 2017. Both productions received enthusiastic reviews.
The musical is set in current time and centers on a religious leader called by her followers Mama Sid (her name echoing the Buddha’s given name, Siddhartha). A young, aggressive reporter for a scandal sheet called Debunk Nation thinks the guru is hiding something and is determined to find out what it is. Mama Sid weighs the costs of being a spiritual teacher and forsaking the norms of a personal life. Her story is told in flashbacks.
The reporter Raina is a challenge to Mama Sid and her followers.
“I wanted it to feel very contemporary. Here is a world-famous spiritual teacher with something to hide,” Shaffer said. “ I wanted a character to stand in opposition to her, I wanted both sides of the equation to be represented in this piece, both the faith she’s had in what she’s teaching and another voice to stand against that and to see how they might come together, so there would be an inherent conflict. And also to kind of be the voice of the audience who might be skeptical of this person. Can Raina be won over, can we be won over?”
The play grew from Shaffer’s personal interest and involvement with Buddhism.
“I have been studying Buddhism for a really long time,” she said. “Everything I’ve written has originated with my own interests and experience, which is true of most people. I had already been studying Buddhism for at least 10 years. I used to live in the Bay Area in California and I used to go to Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin where Jack Kornfield is a famous teacher. I went to his classes every Monday night for five years.”
Shaffer relocated to Ann Arbor two years ago from the Bay Area. She has written several plays that have been produced throughout California and in more than 40 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Shaffer set out to be an actor. She acted in college productions and regional theater. At Oberlin College, she took creative writing classes. She wrote and performed solo plays but a trip to Central America led to her first multi-character play, which premiered in Ann Arbor.
“Before I became a mom, I have two kids now, I used to do a lot of travel,” Shaffer said. “So I would take these incredible experiences I had traveling in other countries, some fiction but mostly real stories and make them into plays.”
Shaffer hadn’t worked on a musical before. She had the script and lyrics but she needed a composer. Shaffer was familiar with Teng’s music but had never met her. A friend suggested contacting Teng and offered to introduce the playwright to the songwriter.
“I thought, 'Wow, that’s a cool idea.' I went back and listened to her stuff and thought about it, for another year -- I don’t move that fast -- and I called my friend and said, 'Yeah I want you to introduce me Vienna Teng,' and six months later we sat down and had our first conversation,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer called Teng “amazingly gifted and a lovely person to work with.” But there were some roadblocks. From that first meeting, it took the two women seven years to complete the work.
“She hadn’t written a musical before, and I think probably for her it was a shock to see how long it took and to realize how many songs wouldn’t make it into the production,” she said. “I had the idea because I hadn’t worked on a musical before, that I would give her the lyrics and she would write the music to them. But she would change them and I was like, 'Why are you changing my lyrics?' Then I kind of learned that was the way to get the best results. She needed to find her way in. It ended up being more of a collaboration than I realized.”
Shaffer said the music is varied to fit the stories within stories of the narrative about Mama Sid’s life, which mirrors the story of Siddhartha’s life from cosseted prince to wandering spiritual leader.
“A lot of the music doesn’t sound exactly like a Vienna Teng concert," Shaffer said. "She stretched to a more theatrical version of herself, to playing with more variety of styles and moods.”
Shaffer called the finished score “gorgeous, melodic and lyrical. ... Vienna’s just so amazing with harmonies. Her harmonies are so gorgeous, layered and complex."
The concert staging at The Ark will be directed by Rick Sperling, the founder of the Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit. Shaffer said they have been friends since college.
“Just as every other director I’ve worked with on this piece, he had his own ideas on rewrites, even though it’s had a thousand workshops and three productions. I’m doing more rewrites. But I’m happy with the rewrites,” she said.
Ben Cohen, artistic director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Ann Arbor, is the musical director.
The 10-member cast features two University of Michigan faculty members with Broadway credits, five students from the U-M Department of Musical Theatre, and other local singers. Chelsea Packard, an assistant professor of musical theater at the University of Michigan, will sing the Mama Sid part.
Shaffer said that she hopes play generates compassion.
“The Buddha’s teachings have a lot about compassion. It’s a story about two characters whose visions are very divergent and are coming into conflict with each other, and it’s a question whether they can come to a middle ground,” she said. “So, I hope people come out seeing both perspectives and arguing about it and seeing that there isn’t always a right and a wrong. There has to be a middle way, which is also a Buddhist idea. I want people to have a lot of fun because there is humor in it.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.