I want a new “I want.”

There’s a classic musical theater axiom that states within the first fifteen minutes of any musical, the lead character or protagonist must have what is known as an “I want” song.  Click here for a more thorough analysis or here to read Stephen Schwartz’s commentary on the subject.

I’m definitely a subscriber to this Lehman Engel school of thought, and look for it in all the musicals I read, write and produce.

But lately I’ve been thinking that as much as I love the strength and determination of a “want”, what seems to be necessary for a musical is more than just a “want”.  I can want an ice cold coke.  I can want to take a vacation.  But that doesn’t seem like enough.

For a character to break out into song, the themes must be grander.  Love, adventure, immortality, revenge, justice and so forth are more the kinds of things necessary to start a musical engine.

So, I’ve stopped thinking about what a character wants . . . and have started thinking about what a character dreams.

Since audiences love to watch a character’s dreams come true (because it gives them the hope that theirs may come true as well) it seems more fitting to hear about these in the first fifteen.

It’s a subtle difference, mind you, but an important one in my “book”.

Dreams are worth dying for.  And it’s those kinds of grand themes that make for the most compelling musicals.

(BTW, if you’re looking for a great book on writing musicals, read Mr. Engel’s classic, Words with Music.)


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  • Ellen Burns says:

    I love that “I dream” is a childhood rite of passage…it’s how we begin to imagine a future and realize ourselves as part of the the “big world” around us…whether it’s dreaming or wishing for impossible things (a la the line from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”)…or, as they begin to really take shape, dreaming of perhaps more realistic, even if not actually attainable, goals (“I want to star in a Broadway musical someday!”).
    So, it makes sense that a great musical begins as a child does, dreaming of something that is a start to our story…and that, just as in real life, we don’t know if it’s possible or how it will turn out…or what we (or the character) are willing to do to make it happen…
    When that curtain (real or suggested) rises, the thing I am most excited about is finding out what journey I will be taking with the characters — so, it’s important to know early why I want to go along for the ride…and, to your point, the grander the journey, the more compelled I am to join in (and suspend disbelief where necessary :))!

  • Michael Dale says:

    I tend to think of it as the “This is the reason why you will want to spend the next 2 1/2 hours with me” song.

  • Eli k-w says:

    the name i have always known for this song is the “i am/i want” song, which works better as a description because then we remember that this is not about characters wanting small things but rather its about something essential to their being, something that will set them apart during this story, something about them that is interesting enough for us to want to pay attention as their sense of self propels them on this journey

  • John says:

    “I WANT MORE” from Lestat.

  • Michael says:

    You say ” I can want an ice cold coke. I can want to take a vacation. But that doesn’t seem like enough.” Of course it’s not enough. What turns an “I want” song into an “I need” song is the obstacle. There has to be something or someone standing between the character and his/her goal. Overcoming that obstacle to achieve the goal is what the show is all about.

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    The trouble with “I Want” songs is, they have become such a cliche. I groan when I hear one starting. But the function they serve is still vital. I got around the problem in my new show with a number in which the hero complains about his current situation – amusingly, I hope. The “I want” is implicit. We know what he doesn’t want, so it’s pretty clear what he does.

  • The truth is, pedestrian writing is pedestrian writing– so it will show up in any kind of number, though it may be more obvious in an I want song. (On the other hand, if you take me to a strange world where the wants are different than I’m used to, you don’t have to work too hard on your I want number to make me love it– see “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”
    On the other hand– R and H were very sophisticated in Carousel. The first I want song goes to Carrie, the secondary character. Then there’s the revolution in form known as “If I Loved You” that invented the musical scene. That’s an “I don’t want” song, or perhaps a what if song.
    It’s not until the end of Act I that a leading character, Billy Bigelow gets an I want song– Soliloquy.
    And the wants are tricky– first the ideal son, then the ideal daughter, (I’m assuming the imaginings are a form of expressing wants) and then finally the recognition that he really wants money to raise his little girl, and he’s willing to die trying.
    That’s sophisticated–and certainly a model for creating an I want song that defies expectations.

  • themelissabell@live.com says:

    Mama Mia begins with “I Have a dReam” and it is very effective. Sets the tone right away.

  • Christine says:

    Perfect example….Stranger In This World from Taboo

  • Alex says:

    great conversation

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