While summering in the New Ulm area a decade ago, a Las Vegas freshman English teacher with area roots was so taken by the Sleepy Eye Community Theater group, he decided to join it.
Besides teaching in Las Vegas, Sassenberg performed, choreographed and directed shows there and in other places.
"I like the genuineness of the people here," Sassenberg said. "I respect the fact that the community wants to keep its arts alive. It's just so nice to be able to come back here and work."
The Godspell cast stays on stage throughout the musical.
Sleepy Eye Community Theater Director Gary Sassenberg
Godspell cast members Joe Berdan, left, and Wyatt Smith.
Amy Surprenant (right) and other cast members rehearse a scene for the upcoming performance of ‘Godspell’
One of his former students - Vicki Pettersson, an accomplished fiction author including her "Signs of the Zodiac" series, cited him as being her most influential teacher because of the dramatic way he taught her to appreciate grammar and writing.
"He was the best teacher I had at any level in any subject," Pettersson said. "He demanded perfection and passion from his students. He had a reputation as the hardest teacher in school, but everyone would still flock to his classes."
Sassenberg recently bought a home in New Ulm.
If you go...
What: Sleepy Eye Community Theater's presentation of 'Godspell'
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday, July 8, 9; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 11
Where: Sleepy Eye St. Mary's Auditorium
This summer, he's directing and choreographing the Sleepy Eye Community Theater musical production of the 1970 musical "Godspell" by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak.
Opening off Broadway, May 17, 1971, a year after the rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," a similar story about the life and death of Jesus, Godspell has played in touring firms and revivals often since.
One of its songs, "Day by Day," reached #13 on the Billboard pop singles chart in the summer of 1972.
The musical is about a series of parables, based on the Gospel of St. Matthew and St. Luke including the prodigal son and of the rich man and Lazarus.
Originally Tebelak's master's thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University, it moved to LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club in Greenwich Village, then was re-scored for more than 2,600 off-Broadway performances.
Song scores written by Schwartz, another Carnegie Mellon theater department alumnus, used pop, folk, gospel and vaudeville.
"I think people will like the way the story of the Gospel is told in a new way in the musical. It gives a new meaning to experiencing it," Sassenberg said.
He urged musical goers to pay close attention to the production, which he said is one of the more challenging works he's done.
"It's so fast. One parable after another. Timing is crucial. We've spent a lot of time on it," Sassenberg said.
Jason Kim of St. Peter plays the role of Jesus.
Sleepy Eye High School music instructor Joe Kent plays Judas.
"He's a bad guy, but also goofy and funny," Kent said.
"You can see some of his (Judas') struggles with life," Sassenberg added.