Verdi’s NABUCCO – and on Never Giving Up

I had the rare privilege to attend the marvelous opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi at the fabulous Tbilisi Opera House. It’s one of those old world European style stunners of a place as you’ll see from some of my photos of the evening. Nabucco is about the story of King Nebuchadnezzar from the book of Jeremiah. It was presented by the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre. A remarkable fact is that this opera company first produced Nabucco for their 1859-1860 season. The American Civil War hadn’t even begun yet. And here I am, in 2022, coming out of two years of pandemic enjoying this Verdi masterpiece in a truly remarkable place.

A few notes from my programme caught my eye. Nabucco was Verdi’s third opera. His second one was a failure and he was determined to never write operas again. How many writers and composers have been there? It took him five months to be convinced to take the libretto and try to compose for it. In his own words, “I took it home, and threw it on the table violently …” He was not optimistic. He persevered and composed it, and it became “a real watershed in Verdi’s creative life.” Again in his own words, Verdi writes, “My real artistic career started with this opera. And though I had many difficulties to fight with, one thing is certain, Nabucco was indeed born under a lucky star.”

And there you have it from an opera master. You do need talent. You do need perseverance. But even that sometimes isn’t enough. You sometimes need a lucky star to help the writer break out to career success. But the thing to remember is this: without the perseverance, the lucky star would not have appeared.

I was encouraged by these words and inspired by this opera. It’s a joy to see opera and ballet troupes still performing these classics and please try to support it whenever you can. You never know, you might just get inspired to compose something under your lucky star.

What Makes a Second-Rate Movie Second-Rate?

Flew home today. 11 hours. Means two things: I’m gonna be tired for the next week, and I had to endure a string of probably-not-great movies. The final film I chose to watch today was a 2021 western from Lionsgate titled “Catch the Bullet.” It was not great. It wasn’t even very good. I watched the whole thing. Thus, the life of a traveller. At least it scored me a blog post.

What is it about a movie that makes it second-rate? The acting? The story? The filming? The music? It can be all of the above. It was the acting which caught my eye (not in a good way) right at the beginning of the film. What makes acting bad or at least not good? It’s not always obvious right away. There’s a very subtle line between believable and not believable acting. After the first words of the film were spoken, I could tell there was something off. The intonation not right. The facial expressions flat. These were, for the most part, actors who would never make it into a big budget film. They had limited range and they were showing it off. The most well-known actor in the group was Tom Skerritt. Skerrit is a good actor, no doubt, but he wasn’t given much in the way of dialogue to show off his chops much.

The story? Cliched. I often wondered what the point of the movie was. Nothing original going on here. It could have been a ’50s B-movie western and it would have fit right in. A marshal’s son was kidnapped and I didn’t feel much of anything for either of them. I’m a sucker for an emotional film – especially involving children, but this was just flat. Why couldn’t they have contacted, for example, Mark Sasse and said: “Hey, Sasse, can you do something with this script for us?” I would have been delighted. Maybe could have even given it a theatrical release instead of straight to VOD. Yes, I’m that confident that I could have improved it. There was nothing much likable about any character, and the actors kept doing stupid things that seemed unrealistic. But my dark-pouched eyes watched every second of it. Couldn’t look away.

The filming? The Indian attack scenes were ridiculous. So simplistic. They didn’t even look like real native Americans, but I couldn’t tell for sure since the Indians all died very quickly without much fuss. For being excellent trackers and knowing the land like none other, they were not good at hiding from gunshots. It was like: I will stand up from this rock so he can shoot me. And he did.

But for me, the most cringe-worth part of this movie was the music. I pondered it this evening, and this movie made me create a movie-score rule of thumb, which I had never thought of before. The score of a movie shouldn’t set the tone of the film. It should accentuate the tone of the film. The film’s tone should come from the acting and the style of filming, and the music should add needed depth and warmth to it. But that’s not how this movie’s score played out. The music was so obvious that it was telling the audience directly what they should be feeling and what was coming. The music didn’t seem to be created specifically for this film. It seemed like stock music that was plugged in without much afterthought. When a viewer spends much of a film critiquing its music rather than the story, well, there’s a problem on the prairie. Call the marshal and arrest these film imposters! They are WANTED for poor film-making.

There are many facets which can make a movie second-rate, and “Catch the Bullet” had them all.

West Side Story: A Worthy Re-Make

I don’t make it to the movies much these days. Mainly because what Hollywood puts out typically bores me. But musicals, yes, I can’t resist. My last film was IN THE HEIGHTS which was fabulous. When I heard Steven Spielberg was remaking WEST SIDE STORY I had two reactions: 1) why? It’s such a great film as is 2) Hmmm, but I still want to see what the talented director does with it.

I’m glad I did.

West Side Story 2021 is a glorious pull-back to the original era. The scenes are gorgeous – the show-stopping dance routine in the street was mesmerizing. Of course, we know how good Leonard Bernstein’s music is and how invigorating Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are, but what would there be left to tell?

Plenty. There were some wonderful new settings to many of these familiar songs. Gimbel’s department store even made me “Feel Pretty.” The pacing, though sometimes a little bloated by Tony Kushner’s dialogue which could have been curtailed a little (but hey, he’s a dramatist and I know those dramatists love to drama, so I’ll give him a pass), there was a slow and steady build to the payoff. The tragedy of the rumble, the lies which were meant to protect which end up hurting, the almost horrific rape scene when the white Jets, minus their two leaders, almost do the unthinkable until Rita Moreno inserts some right-headed morality into the mix. Then the ending. The pay-off was worth it.

The film’s theatre roots are undeniable. You might catch yourself saying that is not believable, or they rushed that too fast, or how could they fall in love so quickly, or how could she forgive him just like that … but it’s theatre, man; it pushes the dramatic envelop for the wonderful feelings at the end. And by wonderful, I don’t mean happy. I mean tangible. It has heart, as all good pieces of theatre should.

This is a beautiful, well-made film. Spielberg showed his magical touch of heart and tenderness in bringing this to a re-birth. Both films tell the story in wonderful ways. Highly recommend.

Upon Reading the First Half of Atlas Shrugged

645,000 words. 1200 pages. Ayn Rand’s classic epic, first published in 1957, is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, patience, and – in my opinion – a thoughtful demeanor to allow it to resonate.

I’ve been wanting to read it for years. I had even bought a paperback copy and had it sitting impressively on the shelf for five years. A few months back, I decided that it would be my goal, my task, my yearlong commitment, if need be, to actually read the thing.

Well, I’m nearly halfway through it. And my thoughts?

It’s remarkable. The prose is not the most elegant. It can get bogged down at times with a lot of details. But my goodness, it’s easy to see why this novel has had such a profound impact on the 20th century. And reading this with pandemic America and runaway bureaucracy and businesses struggling to find workers as the backdrop, it is almost frightening to realize how this book saw into the future.

First the terrific title. What would happen if that which holds the world on its back (Atlas) decided to shrug with indifference one day? What would happen if the innovators were forced out of the market? What would happen if the great men and women of industry would cease to produce? What would happen if the visionaries of society would no longer – or perhaps more precisely – no longer be allowed to pursue their dreams? What would it do to prosperity? How would it affect society?

There are some truly remarkable passages that I have dog-eared so I can revisit at some point. Some that have sparked writing ideas of my own. Others which are stewing in my mind as I try to understand their philosophical underpinnings.

This is a book of passion: passion for work, passion for love, passions between two of the remaining pillars of industry who will not be bullied into kneeling to the alter of sacrifice for the common good. Because they know, that sacrifice for the common good never achieves its goal. It’s the great debate of intentions vs results. Intentions to improve society mean nothing if those actions actually end up destroying it in the end. You know, the old saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are some amazing speeches in this novel. A couple I wouldn’t mind memorizing myself and developing them into dramatic soliloquys. The messages of these speeches are unmistakably modern. Speaking directly to the vast entrenched bureaucracy which has been conditioned to ignore such messages and warnings.

I have chosen to read it slowly. I’m glad I did. I’m always eager to continue, but I also like to pause and allow it to ruminate. That’s a mark of a truly great book.

As I wade into its second half to truly discover “Who is John Galt,” I can’t help but thinking, with a sigh, where is John Galt? The world of 2021 might need your services.

(Full review when finished – Give me a few months.)

Non-Baseball Fan Review of A DIAMOND FOR HER

My goal in writing A DIAMOND FOR HER was to make the story interesting even for non-baseball fans. Well, according to Rose Auburn, who reviewed it for her website, I succeeded. Rose writes:

“I will confess that I know nothing about baseball (I’m English) and A Diamond For Her is steeped in baseball lore, knowledge and mechanics; it is a veritable homage to the sport. My lack of interest did not massively detract from my enjoyment of the novel.”

She ends her review by calling it “An endearing, light-hearted and original novel that is wholly accessible even if you do not have a keen interest in baseball. Highly recommended.”

Rose wrote a terrific and detailed review of the novel, and I highly encourage you to read its entire contents at her website https://www.roseauburn.com/post/a-diamond-for-her-myths-tales-of-the-winasook-iron-horses.

Only 9 more days until its release. It’s like one day is one inning. I can do this!

Review of MOSES THE SINGER

Author Colleen Chesebro posted a great review of my latest novel. Here’s her first paragraph:

“I’ve been a fan of Mark Sasse’s books for around six years, now. What makes his writing most memorable is how his characters often require lessons to learn and various problems to overcome before they reach redemption. Many of his stories take place in or around Penang, Malaysia where Sasse taught school, which gives his stories a unique Asian flair.”

Please head on over to her great site to read the rest HERE!

Check out the book in KINDLE or PAPERBACK here!

 

In Defense of: Cats?

The critics seem to agree. Tom Hooper’s CATS is a disaster, and it is bombing spectacularly at the box office. It is set to lose tens of millions of dollars and will surely never recoup its 100 million dollar budget.

I’ve seen the stage version of CATS once. It was in London’s West End many cat lives ago. I was in college. I was an English major. I had studied T.S. Elliot as any good English major would, and I was curious about his cat poems published as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I made sure to buy myself a copy when in London, and I made sure to go see CATS.

I wasn’t even much of a theater geek at the time, but I loved the musical. It didn’t have much of a plot. Just a loose look at different kinds of cats from TS Elliot’s mind and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical imagination. When those sleek clothed cats started dancing to that infectious beat of Jellicle Cats kicked in, I was hooked.

So when I saw Hooper (whom I respected greatly for Les Miserables movie and The King’s Speech) was bringing CATS to the big screen, I couldn’t wait to see it.

I had read some of the reviews before going. A certain NY Times columnist spouted some weird thoughts about how the “Milk Bar scene” was like cat porn. Others used the word “disturbing” — commenting on the weird fur. One complained how Jennifer Hudson kept “crying from her nose.” Reading the reviews for CATS was kind of entertaining in itself. I just couldn’t figure out how Hooper had messed it up so badly. I had to see it for myself.

I did.

And you know what? I loved it.

Hooper gets it. These critics can’t get over themselves enough to let the music take them away and relieve a truly ground-breaking musical. When the song Jellicle Cats started, I was captivated once again. And while it’s not a perfect movie, it recaptures all the emotions and joy, yes, joy, that I felt in the West End that evening a long time ago. So let me break this down into a few strengths and weaknesses of the show.

  1. The music is fantastic. I found myself tapping my foot, looking on in wonder, and enjoying most all of the numbers.
  2. Francesca Hayward. She played Victoria, a cat without friends who finds herself caught up with the Jellicle cats on the night of their annual ball. Hayward weaved the loose story together with her subtle expressions, fresh face, beautiful dancing, and lovely singing. Her performance itself is worth the price of admission.
  3. Tap dancing. I so enjoyed the tap dancing of Skimbleshanks, the mail train cat, and the inventive way Hooper brought the entire scene together.
  4. Hooper, himself. He’s been much maligned with this film, but he uses the set and music to recreate the world of the Jellicles in a vivid and lively manner. I found myself anticipating the next songs and wondering how the spectacle would be able to keep upstaging itself. It did.
  5. The cast. It is an extremely talented cast which, once again, brings the music to life. I was singing it on the way home. Heck, I’m still singing it.

Let me tackle a few weaknesses of the show before I surmise what went wrong.

  1. CGI. Hooper admitted it wasn’t ready. I went to the show with my daughter who noticed that the dancers feet kept disappearing and reappearing, making some of the scenes take a back seat to the bad graphics. Supposedly, the film has been patched which takes care of a lot of those problems, but that is a sloppy problem to have for an expensive film.
  2. Gumbie Cat. If any scene was disturbing, it was this one with dancing cockroaches which Gumbie cat would toss into her mouth. It was all a little grotesque. I didn’t exactly appreciate Hooper’s choices in this scene.
  3. James Corden’s overacting. He was a little over-the-top in his scenes. I would have preferred a scaled back version of raiding the garbage cans.

So the remaining question is this: Why was it panned so badly?

The only thing that makes sense to me is expectations. I saw the musical, so I knew what to expect. I knew it would be light on plot, big on spectacle, and really big on Weber’s pop-rock music.  Hooper delivered on these three, which made it work for me, but I’m a sucker for musicals. If someone walked into the cinema thinking they were going to be watching a cute, heartwarming story about cats, well, then I guess they might have been dumbfounded by what they saw. Make no mistake about it: Hooper created a piece of theatre. He just happened to put it on film, and in my estimation, it lived up to the musical. I recommend it if you are willing to suspend your disbelief and just enjoy a night at the theatre, in the cinema.  I look forward to seeing it again. Although I might just fast-forward through Rebel Wilson’s scene.

 

Album Review: Johnson & Keaggy’s Cappadocia

If one could wear out the ridges of a digital LP, “Cappadocia” might be reaching critical mass. Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy have created a lush, intriguing, and satisfying album that I can’t stop listening to.

“Cappadocia”, named after the semi-arid, beautiful region of Turkey, is really a stunning achievement. Johnson is a master of creating expansive moods and atmospheres on his magical keyboard and when coupled with Keaggy’s sweet melodies and amazingly textured guitar playing, you have an instrumental album that reveals new discoveries at every listen.

The title track is infectious with glimpses of Middle Eastern tones without being overwhelmed in the regional sounds.  Keaggy’s playing is always surprising.  There are times when a melancholic chord turns hopeful and surprisingly takes the music in a way I never would have thought of. I’m thankful that this duo are the ones writing the music and not me.

All of the tracks are outstanding, but I am literally hooked on Cappadocia and Quo Vadis. However, there’s this musical phrase at the end of Trinity which I can’t get out of my head – and that’s a good thing! It’s so beautiful.

If you love instrumental music by truly master musicians at the peak of their craft, you won’t want to miss this album. It’s a treasure.

Now let me delve back in and see what other gold nuggets I can find.

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First Review: A PARTING IN THE SKY (Forgotten Child Trilogy Book 3)

Book reviewer Michelle Clements James has become the first reviewer of A Parting in the Sky which releases on March 20, 2019.

In part, she says:

“With colorful characters and vivid scenes, the story has a bit of everything–riveting suspense, sensational action, plausible crime, and mystifying fantasy. I was genuinely sorry to finish reading A Parting in the Sky.”

And:

“[Sasse’s] work flows smoothly, and the carefully crafted characters and engaging plot jump off the page.”

Please head on over to her site to read the ENTIRE REVIEW.

A PARTING IN THE SKY – Kindle version on PRE-ORDER HERE!  

KINDLE and paperback versions live on March 20.

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Review of “The African Connection”

Lars from Brandywinebooks posted a review of book 2 of THE FORGOTTEN CHILD TRILOGY: The African Connection.

He starts with this line: “Mark Sasse’s bizarre “Forgotten Child” series continues with The African Connection. An unconventional fantasy in an unconventional trilogy.”

Intrigued?

Head on over to Brandywine Books to read the entire review.

Plus, watch out for news of book 3 – the final chapter – coming soon!

Review of THE AFRICAN CONNECTION

 

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