Published on February 14th, 2013 | by Setsu Uzume2
Review: The Fourth Messenger
Talented writer Tanya Shaffer is back with a brand new musical that takes a refreshing, open minded look at spirituality in a modern era. As a local playwright and actor, Shaffer made a name for herself in the late 90s while doing a solo show about her adventures in Africa. In 2005, she honed her stagecraft with the romantic comedy, Baby Taj. Most recently, Shaffer joined forces with indie-pop veteran Vienna Teng to bring you the reimagined story of a modern Buddha in The Fourth Messenger, now playing at the Ashby Theater in Berkeley through March 10.
The story follows journalist Raina (Anna Ishida) as she returns to work at a failing newspaper after her father’s death. Seething, she takes on the next big story: discrediting guru Mama Sid (Annemaria Rajala). After Raina infiltrates Mama Sid’s ashram in northern Canada to learn Mama Sid’s secrets, her cutthroat professionalism begins to wane. Meanwhile, Mama Sid begins to realize that Raina, though a difficult student, helps her find the strength to tear down the last illusions of her own life.
Accustomed to more mainstream shows like Pippen, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, I was afraid The Fourth Messanger would be preachy or narrow in scope; however, the message is quite the opposite. It addresses spirituality with a gentle touch and saves the metaphysics for the last moments. To quote Mama Sid, “I’d offer you a compass but my path isn’t yours. You have to open your own doors.”
What sets The Fourth Messanger apart from other “spiritual” theater is the message of self-growth; Mama Sid’s journey from bourgeois to Buddha demonstrates that it is possible to be both flawed and enlightened. Her transformation asks what it means to be enlightened in a modern world saturated with class warfare, tabloid media and other forces trying to undermine true growth. Shaffer never quite answers this question, but implies that modern civilization tends to destroy goodness instead of learning from it.
“Nothing like a goddess falling down to earth to strike the nerve of the masses,” cry the reporters in the opening number.
Shaffer’s delightful existentialism is equally matched by Teng’s musical genius. The score has grit and determination: an alchemy of jazz and folk-rock that resonates from the first to final chord. Teng’s complex harmonies and inspired melodies in pieces like “The Human Experience” and “Look to the Thought” stick with you long after the curtain goes down.
A powerful duo, Shaffer and Teng make two hours feel like twenty minutes, and succeed at surprising their audience with a final reversal at the musical’s conclusion. Profound and profane, combative and compassionate, The Fourth Messenger has everything and more for a musical worth seeing.
Shaffer and Teng took a few moments to talk with Art Animal about creating the musical and what to watch out for next.
Art Animal: This retelling of the Buddha story is about an American woman. How did changing genders enhance or change the story? What was challenging about writing it?
Tanya Shaffer: Writing about a historical figure of such profound significance is daunting from the get-go. After conceiving the idea for this musical, I ruminated on it in the back of my mind for several years before actually starting to write it. Eventually, I took as my point of entry the elements of the Buddha’s life that I’d always found troubling. I was fascinated by the questions of how to reconcile the notion of this enlightened being and his teachings with these actions that I found questionable. These parts of the Buddha’s life had not been discussed much in the many Buddhist talks I’d attended, and I wondered whether that would be different if the Buddha were a woman. Are we more critical of women’s choices in certain areas than of men’s? Reframing the story with a woman as the central character threw those questions into relief in an interesting way, and, I hope, will cause others to view the story with fresh eyes.
AA: What sets a story about the Buddha apart from other spiritual musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell?
TS: Those are great musicals, and I love them. They tell a story that is much more familiar to a Western audience than the one we’re telling. I was really excited to bring the legends around the Buddha’s life, as well as aspects of his teachings, to a Western audience in a way that is fun, exciting, thought-provoking and accessible.
AA: What are you hoping the audience takes away from the show? What message are you trying to send out?
TS: I hope people will emerge from this musical reflecting on the nature of our humanity; what it means to be human, what we’re doing here, how we can accept ourselves and each other. I hope they will argue about the central character’s choices and whether or not they were justified. I hope that hearts and minds will be opened wide, and that the audience will have an experience that is both highly entertaining and deeply moving. And I hope they’ll walk out singing Vienna’s gorgeous songs!
Vienna Teng: I hope they’ll look at the imperfect teachers in their lives with more compassion and curiosity. We don’t know the full story of each other’s lives and ideas unless we ask with an open mind.
AA: What surprised you most about bringing this story to the stage?
TS: How hard it was! We went through so many drafts. Along the way I’ve learned so much about writing musicals. “In a musical, the music should do the heavy lifting,” Matt August, our director, repeatedly told me. I’ve stripped away a lot of spoken text to make that possible. It’s been a long journey, but I’m so proud of where we’ve ended up.
AA: Vienna, what surprises or insights did you experience while working on this show? Which song are you the most proud of?
VT: There are so many ways to structure a piece of music for theatre. I didn’t fully understand how to build songs effectively until Matt August started putting scenes “on their feet” in rehearsal — he deserves a lot of credit for making each number work. With “Monkey Mind,” for example, he wanted the ensemble to hum underneath each individual meditator’s outburst; it’s a subtle effect, but it makes a big difference in keeping the whole song cohesive and anchored in Sid’s winter retreat.
AA: Vienna, you mentioned that musical theater is way outside of your comfort zone. What interested you about the project? How did you prepare to write this score?
VT: I was drawn to the nuances and complexities of Tanya’s story. At the time, I was at a crossroads with my music career, wondering if it was a calling or an indulgence, and Mama Sid’s journey fascinated me. I just wanted to be involved in bringing it to life somehow. I had no idea how to write for a musical; I remember warning Tanya that I was a total novice. But she assured me that my instincts were good, and sent me examples from classic shows as a primer. I got a crash course from Wicked, A Chorus Line, Rent and a number of Sondheim shows.
AA: The music in The Fourth Messenger has the same powerful emotional resonance that your albums do; yet you have a computer science degree and are pursuing an MBA/MS. How do you balance right brain and left brain pursuits? How do they feed into each other?
VT: I love both the analytical and the imaginative realms, but each has its limitations, so I’ve tried to construct my life so that I can move between those worlds. Sometimes it’s a bit hectic — for the past several weeks I’ve been flying between rehearsals in California and classes in Michigan — but it’s totally worth it. Each gives me inspiration for (and time off from) the other. I’ve made spreadsheets to keep track of our song edits for the musical, and a songwriter’s eye for metaphor has come in handy for school presentations.
AA: What’s the harshest piece of criticism you’ve had that you learned from?
TS: There have been whole subplots that had to be removed because the piece just couldn’t sustain them. There’s a saying, “Kill your darlings,” which refers to the need for writers to cut individual scenes, speeches or songs that they love if they don’t serve the larger piece. Vienna and I have both had to kill a lot of darlings in this process in order to create a successful whole.
VT: I haven’t gotten much harsh criticism, but there’s been plenty of “damning with faint praise” over the years. It’s taught me two things: one, to keep nurturing my own sense of what’s good and what works; and two, to be fearless about going deeper. Sometimes I actually deserve the backhanded compliment because I was playing it safe, or stopping short of the heart of the matter.
AA: What advice do you have for others who want to break into your field?
TS: My advice for playwrights is always to get things on their feet. Find companies who will take an interest in your work and help you get it out there in the form of readings, workshops and productions. If those opportunities don’t present themselves, then take the reins and produce your own work. Plays are meant to be performed. Producing is not for the faint of heart, but if you can do it, you’re not dependent on the whims of others to find your audience. I always advise artists to take the power into their own hands if they possibly can.
VT: Advice for composing musical theatre? I don’t have much, except “find a talented playwright who believes in you!” As for music in general…it’s not very romantic, but I’d say this: find a way to make money that you genuinely enjoy, and that has flexible work time. That way you can pursue your creative passions on your own terms. And often the skills you pick up at the other job will come in handy — just ask Annemaria Rajala, whose other passion is teaching yoga!
AA: Do you have any upcoming projects that should we look out for?
TS: I’m asking myself that question right now! I have ideas for projects for both page and stage, but nothing far enough along to announce it at this point. The best way to stay apprised of my work is to fill out the contact form on my website (www.tanyashaffer.com). I’ll send an email when I’ve got something going on!
VT: I’m going into the studio next week to start recording my next album, which will be released in early 2014. And I’ll be going on tour across the U.S. and Europe this fall, for the first time in three years. So far it looks like the Bay Area tour stop will involve either multiple, smaller venues, or one show in a big beautiful theater. We’ll be announcing the full tour schedule in April.
See The Fourth Messanger through March 10 at the Ashby Theater, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are $23-40. For more information, visit www.TheFourthMessenger.com