On Wednesday, my class of 16 went into New York to meet Stephen Sondheim. Wearing his typically avuncular sweaters, he sat in front of us as he casually discussed his philosophy on lyric writing and music composition. We had been nervous with anticipation all morning on the train ride to the city, daring each other to tell him about our new idea to cast Sweeney Todd with muppet characters, or refer to him as “Uncle Steve” as an expression of our admiration.
Since when did my homework assignments turn into required meetings with celebrities?
I guess that’s the kind of homework you have when you take the kinds of classes I do. In shopping period, I stumbled upon Music 337: Stephen Sondheim and the American Musical Theatre Tradition. It was a random class for me: I didn’t need it for my major, didn’t need it for my distribution requirements, I didn’t need it for the number of credits to graduate. But I thought it’d be fun, so I I decided to take it.
I discovered it late in Shopping Period, so I had already missed the first class meeting before I enrolled. At the first class, the professor had gone through the introductory type stuff as well as getting to know each student’s background in music and theatre. He wanted to know the same stuff about me, so I was surprised that when I walked in on the second week he had already google’d me, learning all the musical groups and plays I had done–one of the many small ways professors have gone the extra mile for me.
The class is a fair amount of work, but then I step back and remember that my homework is listening to and discussing musicals, which hardly feels like work at all. At the culmination of the semester, after writing papers on the musical motifs of Company, debating the implied undertones of Into The Woods, and getting far too many songs stuck in our heads, the whole seminar got the chance to meet with the object of our study.
In addition to his insight on music writing, Sondheim shared anecdotes about working on Broadway, modern revivals and film adaptations of his work, and how he feels about his songs being used in Glee (he doesn’t really watch the show but is a fan of his music being used for the goal of something the new generation of non-theater-goers can have fun watching).
Fully funded by the Shen Curriculum, we took a quick ride on the Metro-North train line into New York, plus got tickets to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (the current production stars Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch). The class spent the train ride back to New Haven discussing the changes in this production from the original cast recording and libretto. When I finally got home, I didn’t care that taking the day trip meant I had to stay up late finishing an essay for another class. I had just finished the coolest homework ever.