Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “I want” moments. As every musical theater writer knows, the “I want” song is central to our craft. It’s the moment when the protagonist steps to the footlights – sometimes metaphorically, often literally – and sings about what he or she wants. Not every musical has an “I want” song, but most do, and they often show up as the second or third song in the show.
Why are “I want” songs important? Jack Viertel has a great explanation in his masterful book The Secret Life of the American Musical:
The stage may be full of people singing and dancing, but the I Want song tells the audience, “Watch this one. This is the important one. This is the one with the superhuman passion.”
He’s exactly right, yet the best “I want” songs go beyond showing the audience whom to watch. They also enable us to empathize with the protagonist. The music helps us to feel the character’s desires, so we can relate to her or him on a deep, visceral level. That emotional connection, in turn, makes us want to go on a journey with the character. If the desire is strong enough, we’ll stay on that journey for the entire two and a half hours of a show.
For fun, I came up with a list of my top 5 “I want” songs. I chose them because I like them, and because I think they do something special musically and/or dramatically. These are my favorites…what are yours?
5. “Some People” from GYPSY (Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim)
This song deserves a spot because it does the impossible: makes us sympathize with a cruel, manipulative, abusive mother. After a scene in which Rose acts like a tyrannical b*tch to everyone around her – including her poor daughter Louise – this song shows us what’s behind the insanity: a strong urge to escape her hometown that we can, in spite of ourselves, connect with.
4. “Celeste Aida” from AIDA (Giuseppe Verdi & Antonio Ghislanzoni)
“I want” songs in opera? Sometimes! This one expresses Radamès’s love for the slave girl Aida (not the princess Amneris that he’s supposed to marry), AND sets up his eventual betrayal of his own people. The intense power of this love triangle carries us through four LONG acts of opera, including endless stretches of ballets and triumphal marches where NOTHING happens. Yet when he and Aida die together at the end, we’re weeping. It also comes at the perfect slot for an “I want” song – second song in the first act.
3. “The Wizard and I” from WICKED (Stephen Schwartz)
Like Elphaba, this song often gets overlooked. It’s not a showstopper (“Defying Gravity”) or a tear-jerker (“I’m Not that Girl), but it IS one of the most sophisticated “I want” songs ever written, because it does like five things at once. It simultaneously sets up Elphaba’s very clear surface-level desire – to meet the Wizard – AND the conflicting desires beneath it: she both wants to be accepted for who she is, and she wants to change and be just like everybody else. (And that IS what it’s like to be a teenager, right?) In the bridge, it also sets up the “Unlimited” musical and dramatic theme that recurs throughout the entire show, tying together her story and Glinda’s arc. The lyrics foreshadow her tragic end, including a neat trick where she “predicts” the opening number of the show, which the audience has already seen, and which we know is actually a celebration of her death (“A celebration throughout Oz/That’s all to do with me”). And if that wasn’t enough, in the coda Elphaba gets some medium-sized vocal fireworks that a) make us root for her, and b) set up both musically and emotionally the BIG fireworks when she defies gravity at the end of act one. Smart, smart, smart!
2. “Part of Your World” from THE LITTLE MERMAID (Alan Menken & Howard Ashman)
Many effective “I want” songs are not necessarily ear worms, but the melody of this song is soooo achingly beautiful and catchy. It captures Ariel’s hope and longing poignantly, yet sounds effortless – a clear, simple melody that could easily be sung by a teenage girl. The lyrics are fun, playful, and so full of character in how she keeps getting hung up on non-mermaid words. By the end, you know EXACTLY who she is and what she wants, and you’re totally in love with her.
Bonus: If you want a slightly different (irreverent) take on this song, check out the Exploding Disney Princesses video. But be warned: you can’t un-see this!
1. “Maybe” from ANNIE (Charles Strouse & Martin Charnin)
Orphan comes to the front of the stage and sings a lullaby about wanting parents. What could be more emotionally resonant? The song is clear, deceptively simple (the bridge has some surprising harmonic/melodic twists), poignant, and totally in character. No song is perfect (that rise of a major 10th in the opening phrase is a bit tough on a prepubescent girl’s voice), but every aspect of “Maybe” – melody, harmony, lyrics – is SO DIRECT in portraying Annie’s deep longing. By the time I hear the IV7 chord in bar 2 of the melody, I have tears in my eyes. BEAUTIFUL.
So that’s my list…subject to change, of course. ☺
Cover photo by Shane Summers Photography.
What are YOUR favorite “I want” songs??? Share your favorites in the comments section below!