Three Years Later "The Fourth Messenger" Gets Midwest Premiere at The Ark on March 18
Three years ago, The Ark was set to be the venue for the Midwest premiere of The Fourth Messenger, a musical with a modern perspective on the life and teachings of the Buddha. Then the pandemic hit and the musical was canceled.
Now, almost three years to the day, The Fourth Messenger, with book and lyrics by Tanya Shaffer and music and additional lyrics by Vienna Teng, will finally get its Midwest premiere at The Ark on March 18. The concert-style performance will be a benefit for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s popular home for folk, jazz, and alt-country.
In an interview with Shaffer in 2020, she described what inspired the musical while she was on a spiritual retreat.
“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 was found 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 it 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 premiered at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, California, in 2013 and was presented at the New York Musical Festival in 2017.
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, who lives in Ann Arbor, 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 travel a lot,” 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 to 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.
Shaffer, herself, was new to writing a musical.
“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 said. “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. She stretched to a more theatrical version of herself, to playing with more variety of styles and moods,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer called the finished score “gorgeous, melodic, and lyrical.”
“Vienna’s just so amazing with harmonies. Her harmonies are so gorgeous, layered, and complex,” she said.
Fast forward three years and some changes were needed. Rick Sperling, director of the Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit, directed the scheduled production in 2020. This time around Shaffer will be directing with co-director Giovanni Rene Rodrigues. Shaffer will direct the actors and Rodrigues will direct the camera work for a livestreaming of the production.
Shaffer said over the last three years she’s been regularly making adjustments to the script.
“It’s been three years since this concert was planned, so I’ve had more time to think about changes, and I set it aside for a while but came back and made some more changes,” she said.
The cast will be different from the one scheduled to perform in 2020.
“We are still using really wonderful local actors, including students from the University of Michigan,” she said.
Anna Ishida is coming in from California to play the role of Mama Sid.
“I met Anna in 2008 when we were in the early stages of development of the script and she’s played almost every other role. The show has two leads, the older one and the younger one,” Shaffer said. “In our Berkeley (California) premiere 10 years ago, Anna played the younger lead. It’s cool that she’s aced up to playing Mama Sid. I love the full-circle quality of that.”
Ishida has performed in numerous productions and originally studied classical / bel canto singing.
Ann Zavelson will play Raina. Zavelson is a first-year musical theatre major at the University of Michigan and has performed in numerous productions.
“She is fantastic, so good,” Shaffer.
The concert version will not have an elaborate set and the cast will be reading from a script.
The real focus is on the storytelling,” Shaffer said.
The central theme remains the same.
“The core message of the show is really about compassion, about people with very different viewpoints coming together and finding a place where they can meet. That’s really what the heart of the show is,” Shaffer said.
The presentation is a fundraiser for The Ark.
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.