Daniel Carter’s journey with “The Other Wise Man” started on a scorching summer day in an Oklahoma antiques mall in the mid-1990s. Something about the 1896 Henry van Dyke novella — a sort of biblical fanfic about a fourth magus whose quest to deliver precious gifts to the Christ Child is repeatedly thwarted — spoke to him. Carter bought the book and immediately started scribbling song ideas in the margins.
This week, after several rewrites and personal setbacks including two periods of homelessness, the composer will present the latest and perhaps definitive version of “Artaban, the Other Wise Man, the Musical.” A portion of proceeds will benefit Family Promise, an organization that helps homeless families get back into housing.
After producing his third take on the story in 1998, “my life basically took a cliff dive,” Carter said. He lost his home, possessions and family relationships in the aftermath of a “horrific” divorce. Despite a full-time job as a music publisher for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Carter — whose compositions include the LDS hymn “As Now We Take the Sacrament” and the popular Christmas song “Shine for Me Again, Star of Bethlehem” — couldn’t keep up with the bills. He moved into a friend’s basement.
“I was not on the streets,” he recalled, “but I became familiar with a lot of different kinds of people as a result.”
Another divorce in 2004 led to another brief stay with his friend and a suicide attempt. Around that time, Carter — who had by then stepped away from his Mormon faith — returned to “Artaban” and did another wholesale revision, this one resulting in a CD.
Encouraged by audience response to an abridged version of the show in 2015, Carter hoped to make “Artaban” a Christmas tradition. But friends in the musical and theater communities, including singer and vocal coach Mindy Pack, advised him that his show — really more an oratorio than a play — would need more revisions if he wanted to bring it to the stage. So he went to work yet again, collaborating with Pack, who became the show’s music director; Karen Dodge, the stage director; and ensembles director Stephanie Bare. They changed some of the singing to spoken dialogue, fleshed out the staging directions and made other changes in the interest of dramatic flow.
“Dan was very trustful of me, Mindy and Stephanie,” Dodge said. “He did his part as composer and completely trusted us to turn it into a stage play.”
One challenge in adapting van Dyke’s story is that most of Artaban’s conflict is internal, which works better on the page than on the stage. Another challenge is the book’s 33-year leap in Artaban’s story. So Carter gave the wise man a best friend-turned-nemesis, a relationship that leads to political intrigue and makes Artaban a fugitive.
As in the original story, Artaban finally catches up with Jesus but is too late to stop his crucifixion. Having given away his ruby, sapphire and pearl to help strangers in need, Artaban despairs that he has failed in his quest. But, of course, his acts of charity tell a different story.
“It has something for everyone,” Carter said, noting that his cast members represent a full spectrum of religious belief and unbelief. Atheists in the cast were “compelled by the story about the love of humankind,” he said, while the scriptural overtones and symbolism spoke to actors from various faith backgrounds.
“There’s a reason I had to recompose it,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been the same story.” His struggles “deepened the story and gave it more compassion.”
Pack and Dodge believe he’s gotten it just right this time.
“It’s stunning,” Dodge said. “It’s as visually beautiful as the music is. … It’s the story of everybody’s journey, something we all can easily connect to.”
“It’s like a Christmas version of ‘Les Miz,’” said Pack. In addition to her role as music director, she’ll sing the role of Tziporah, whom she described as one of Artaban’s “sidekick, ‘don’t give up hope’ companions.”
“Even though it’s set in biblical times, people are going to … be able to self-reflect,” Pack said. “This story is for everybody. It’s a show about love. And who doesn’t need that in the world today?”
We four kings
”Artaban, the Other Wise Man, the Musical” will be performed as a benefit for Family Promise, an organization assisting homeless families.
When • Wednesday through Saturday, Nov. 29-Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Wasatch Junior High, 3750 S. 3100 East, East Millcreek
Tickets • $15-$20; danielcartermusic.com