American Studies in Sondheim: how we can help finish the hat

By Matthew Pozzuolo

Education is constantly calling for new ways to keep students engaged, professor Jack Sullivan’s “American Studies in Sondheim and His Influences” provided just that. This course tackled the incredible and impactful life of the late great American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim passed away on Nov. 26 of this year at the age 91, but he already carved his name in history and made his way into so many hearts with his countless hit Broadway musicals such as “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “Into the Woods”and “Sunday in the Park with George”. 

Sondheim is considered by many to be the Shakespeare of musical theater, as his impact on the industry has been unlike any other. But, as composer Lin-Manuel Miranda stated via Twitter, “Some may theorize Shakespeare’s works were by committee but Steve was real and he was here and he laughed so loud at shows and we loved him.” Sondheim held an exceptional presence due to his pure genius and success, however he was also extremely relatable because of the way he was able to connect with audiences through his work. 

This course gave students the opportunity to connect with Sondheim even more through his work. Students not only learned about the life of Sonheim, they also got to appreciate his work through a hands-on approach. Each class opened with student’s singing songs from one of Sondheim’s shows. There was never any pressure to perform, but everyone was encouraged to sing any song that resonated with them personally. 

Similarly, students were invited to write papers about any Sondheim show or topic that interested them, which was a freeing experience for several students. There is a family-like energy created in the classroom and made it less like a class, and more like a club of Sondheim appreciators. 

Junior elementary education major Moe Mahmoud said he “loves the idea of a student-guided class with the overall direction of the professor. I liked the freedom and liberty to express ourselves through word and song and how the overall class climate allowed everyone to feel comfortable to participate.” 

However, this is not where the innovations for education stop in this course. The class also took a trip together to New York City to see the Broadway production of “Company,” which is one of Sondheim’s most famous shows. The experience was a way to have  students appreciate Sondheim’s work both inside and outside of the classroom. 

A class like this couldn’t have come at a more relevant time, with Broadway finally reopening after over a year of being shut down and the sudden unfortunate passing of Sondheim. Sondheim paved the way for so many performers, theatergoers and appreciators of musical theater.  Sondheim had a huge impact on the lives of many. 

Freshman acting major Liberty Ashe said, “Sondheim has been such a comfort for me during the most difficult times in my life, especially recently. His words and music are always there to remind me how to find light in the darkness and find the beauty and joy in the most simple of things.” 

With his recent passing, the appreciation that so many have for Sondheim’s influence on musical theater is clear. While Sondheim may be gone, he lives on through his work and the impact he’s had on countless lives. 

As he wrote in the song “No One is Alone” from “Into the Woods,” “sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods. Do not let it grieve you. No one leaves for good.” Courses like this one can keep Sondheim’s work alive forever, thus keeping the legend that was Sondheim alive for future generations so that both he and his work can go on exhibition.

Matthew Pozzuolo,

senior English major

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