The Fourth Messenger: A Short History of a Long Journey

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for The Fourth Messenger! My name is Tanya, and I’ll be your tour guide for today’s journey, a quick junket through the 15-year history of the musical The Fourth Messenger, by myself and Vienna Teng.

Vienna Teng and Tanya Shaffer at Zoo Labs, where they recorded The Fourth Messenger album.

2000: During a 9-day meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I get the idea to write a musical inspired by the Buddha’s life and legend. I’m so seized by this idea that my brain gallops ahead, generating scenes, writing my Tony Awards acceptance speech, casting the film version that I forget to focus on my breath until hours later, when my reverie is interrupted by the dinner gong. Doh! Irony, anyone?

2001: For inspiration, I travel to Nepal and India where, among other things, I do a self-guided “Buddha circuit,” visiting the Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini, the ruins of the palace where he grew up in Kapilavastu, the site of his enlightenment in Bodhgaya, and elsewhere. I also travel to Dharamsala, where I shake hands with the Dalai Lama.


2002: The play I find myself writing following my India trip is not the Buddha musical I’d envisioned, but a romantic comedy called Baby Tajinspired by a family I stayed with in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

Baby Taj, TheatreWorks, 2005, directed by Matt August

Cast of “Baby Taj,” TheatreWorks, 2005, directed by Matt August.

I still want to write the musical, I just can’t figure out how to tell the story. I know that a historical pageant set 2500 years ago is not my way, but I’m not sure what is. I want it to feel personal and relevant, without losing the mythic elements that give it scope, universality, and magic; to incorporate the Buddha’s ideas within the story, in a way that feels utterly organic and true to the characters’ experiences; to be as complicated as actual life, raising questions about how to live without offering easy answers; to be funny and surprising, defying any pre-conceptions of what a “Buddha musical” might look like. I want the audience to leave the theater thinking, talking, even arguing; I want those who witness it to emerge changed.

2003: Still puzzling over all this, I start casting about for a composer. My friend Noel Wood suggests Vienna Teng, whom he knows through a former roommate. I rarely go to concerts, so it’s a remarkable coincidence that not only have I heard of Vienna, I’ve seen her open for Shawn Colvin, bought her CD, attended a show of hers at the Freight and Salvage, and had a song of hers performed at my wedding. Her music is gorgeous; it sticks to the soul. ViennaTeng.FANG-5“That’s a cool idea,” I say to Noel. I’m not ready to reach out, though, until my idea is more fully formed. Meanwhile, I have my most productive year ever, giving birth to my first child and my first book, Somebody’s Heart is Burning, a memoir of a year spent in West Africa.


2005: Moving closer, circling. There are elements of the Buddha’s story that have always troubled me. They cling to the edges of my mind and won’t let go. People don’t talk about these much, and I wonder how they’d be viewed differently if the Buddha were a woman. I realize that this is my way into the story: I will probe the humanity of this legendary figure within a contemporary Western context, and in my contemporary retelling, the awakened one will be female.


Cathleen Riddley as Mama Sid, Playwrights Foundation reading, 2008.

2006: With a first draft nearly complete, I ask my friend Noel to put me in touch with Vienna.  Six months later, we meet at a cafe in San Francisco. “What makes you think I can do this?” she asks. “Your music is theatrical,” I tell her. “Your songs tell stories, they have dramatic arcs. And besides, it sounds like you’re a meditator.” She gives me a funny look. “Your song Feather Moon? ‘Breathe in; breathe out; exhale and inhale?’ I thought it was about meditation?” Though I’m wrong about this, but the themes of my musical interest her, particularly the way Sid (the central character) wrestles with the choice between her sense of a calling and her responsibilities to others. Plus, Vienna has never written for theater before, and she likes a challenge. We agree to try working together and see where it leads.

2007: The first public readings of the script and lyrics, without music, take place at Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco and Stanford University, directed by Playwrights’ Foundation Artistic Director Amy Mueller, with the working title Sid Arthur. The script is over three hours long, but people stay to the end and respond enthusiastically.

Still 2007: Vienna and I attend the TheatreWorks Writers Retreat, where we work together for the first time. Tanya&ViennaVienna is so easy to work with – I tell her she’s the most egoless collaborator I’ve ever encountered. She tells me that she gets more attached to her ideas when she’s doing her own singer-songwriter work, but since she’s writing for theater for the first time, she feels very open to the process. She has great theatrical instincts, and we really enjoy working together. The first song we write is Raina’s heart-wrenching ballad, What About Me? Next is Bois Riche, a satirical, doo-wop-inspired paean to the gated community where Sid grows up. A difficult aspect of musical theater writing is that beautiful songs are frequently discarded as the demands of the script inevitably change. But although a whole album’s worth of songs end up on the cutting room floor over our years of development, these first two remain.

2008 – 2011: Vienna and I meet when our schedules permit, working in brief, intense spurts. We have several readings and workshops, sponsored by Playwrights Foundation and TheatreWorks, and we present a 15-minute excerpt at the San Francisco Theatre Festival.   During this time, over 50 extraordinary artists – actors, directors, music directors – lend their heart and skills to the development of this piece. sidarthur2-72 sidarthur3-72

 2012: We’re workshopped out – time for a production. We start fundraising for the premiere, organizing several public events and a highly successful Indiegogo campaign. Through the incredible generosity of over 300 people, we exceed our financial goals.

2013: Production! We premiere our musical, now called The Fourth Messenger, at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, directed by my old friend and veteran Broadway director Matt August. Annemaria Rajala plays Sid, and Anna Ishida plays Raina. Cathleen Riddley, who’s long been involved in the development of the piece, plays the fortune-teller, Clara. We get great reviews, and every night of our 5-week run sells out. At the end of each performance, the audience is on its feet. Some people return 4, 5, even 6 times. I collect 4M_production4_600x400 4M_production7_600x4004M_production3_600x400 4M_production5_600x400 over 100 emails from folks who want to see the show but can’t get tickets. We’d like to extend, but the theatre is booked, and I can’t find a suitable venue to move the show to, so we close.

Still 2013: So many audience members email us asking where they can buy the music that we decide to record an album. In December, we kick off our fundraising campaign with a joint Vienna Teng/Fourth Messenger concert at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage. FreightPhoto

2014: The Fourth Messenger is accepted into the New York Musical Theatre Festival. At the same time, a promising co-production opportunity arises, and we decide to focus our energies there. The production is postponed twice and ultimately fizzles. Frustration! Undeterred, we move forward with the album.

2015: For the album, we assemble a spectacular cast and creative team, helmed by director Matt August. Vienna sings the role of Mama Sid, and Broadway veterans Cailan Rose and Pierce Peter Brandt sing the roles of Raina and Andy. The young and extravagantly talented Ryan O’Connell joins the team as orchestrator and music director. The rest of the cast includes actors who have worked on the piece over several years (Anna Ishida, Cathleen Riddley, Robert Brewer, Daniel Olson), cast members from the production (Annemaria Rajala, Barnaby James, Reggie White), and a host of amazing newcomers from both the theater and music worlds, including Indie singer-songwriter Noe Venable and Bay Area R & B favorite Fred Ross. All told, 19 singers participate in the album, backed by a world-class band comprised of music director Ryan O’Connell (keys and bass), Anthony Blea (violin), Freya Seeburger (cello), and Ken Bergmann (drums). AnneLeandraLaughing  ViennaLaughingCailanEmoting   MeInBlissRyanAtPiano


MattViennaWorking EnsembleGigglefest




This Very Moment: Recording is complete! Mixing and artwork are in process, and we’re taking pre-orders here and here.

From Here On Out: We’ll release the album Oct. 27, 2015. Concerts are scheduled in Berkeley and Mill Valley, and we’ll organize concert readings as well. (Sign up for our mailing list to be notified of events.) We hope this album will travel outward, bringing this music and story to people and places beyond our imagining, moving and inspiring people, touching hearts and minds. We hope too, that it will spark more productions, small and large, in the U.S. and beyond. And then… who knows? 4mHeaderThanks for reading the first Fourth Messenger blog post! In the coming months, we’ll use this space to discuss more of the ideas in the musical, and to introduce you to our cast and creative team through artist profiles and interviews. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for more updates!

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