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‘Something just broke’: the musicals of Stephen Sondheim - MUS00139C

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  • Department: Music
  • Module co-ordinator: Mr. James Ball
  • Credit value: 10 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20

Module summary

This module explores the musicals of Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators, situating them in their historical context and examining them from different critical perspectives.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

No musical theatre writer has been more revered and more reviled than Stephen Sondheim. His work is considered intellectual enough for the opera house and the academy, but too emotionally cold for Broadway success. This module will examine his major works and the critical issues surrounding this notoriously “worthy” composer-lyricist.

The study of musical theatre necessitates an interdisciplinary approach, and the course will incorporate elements of theatre and performance studies, literary criticism, and historiography, alongside musical analysis and musicology pertaining to sexuality, gender and race. Selected works will receive in-depth focus to provide a model for students’ own further research. Screenings will be arranged to facilitate the required viewings between seminars.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the taught part of the project all students should:


  • possess critical knowledge of Sondheim’s work on Broadway

  • have gained an understanding of how Sondheim’s works are situated within the broader history of musical theatre

  • be familiar with Sondheim’s songwriting process and aesthetic ideals

  • be aware of Sondheim’s antecedents in 20th century avant garde theatre, musical theatre, and film

  • have a firm grasp of critical issues pertaining to musical theatre - including those which focus on non-musical aspects of this hybrid genre


On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-6.

Module content

Indicative list of works studied in class (including non-Sondheim musicals):

  • (The Threepenny Opera)

  • (The Cradle Will Rock)

  • (Oklahoma!)

  • West Side Story

  • Company

  • Follies

  • A Little Night Music

  • Pacific Overtures

  • Sweeney Todd

  • Merrily We Roll Along

  • Sunday in the Park with George

  • Into the Woods

  • Assassins

  • (Rent)


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Assessment is through an essay of approximately 2,500 words, on an appropriate topic of the student’s choice agreed in tutorial.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

Report form with marks to student no later than 20 working days after submission of assessment.

Indicative reading

Banfield, Stephen. Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c1993.

Goodhart, Sandor. Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 2000

Gordon, Joanne. Art Isn’t Easy: The Theatre of Stephen Sondheim. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1992.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Swayne, Steve. How Sondheim Found his Sound. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.