What do audiences care about most in musicals? Is it an intricate, multi-layered plot with a great twist ending? Or might it be an array of interesting settings? Or is it crackling dialogue found between soaring melodies that have been coupled with ingenious lyrics? Of course, it’s all of those and a lot more. But what audiences demand most of all is to discover a unique protagonist to whom they can attach themselves and follow as he pursues a powerful goal. The goal is the hook. Pursuing it is what keeps the audience invested in the protagonist and his story.

What Helps Audiences Care about the Protagonist?

Of course, before we in the audience will commit our time and energy to follow a protagonist we must first identify with him. In the protagonist we must recognize something readily identifiable to us; we must see something in him that we know to be familiar or true for ourselves, something emotionally visceral. If you have ever felt trapped by a lousy circumstance that you knew to be untrue or horribly unfair then maybe you well may identify with a convict like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. 

If you have ever felt like your dreams were slipping away from you then maybe you can identify with Cassie in A Chorus Line. Identifying with the protagonist is requisite for us to be able to drop into the protagonist’s point of view. Once we can see ourselves living through the protagonist’s eyes we will willingly follow him almost anywhere. In plays, screenplays, and teleplays character identification can be established only through what we see and hear—action and dialogue. Novelists can take us inside of a character’s thoughts by simply telling us what he is thinking. Dramatists occasionally do the same through the infrequently used device of voiceover or by having a character break the third wall and speak directly to the audience, but most of the time a character must show us or tell us what he is thinking or else the audience can only guess at it. But writers of musicals have a special tool at their disposal in order to overcome this—it’s this awesome thing called a song. Music and lyrics can go way beyond a character’s exterior to dive deeply into his heart, mind, and spirit in a manner that is far more powerful than dialogue alone ever could.

Characters “Land” with Their First Song

One of the most successful composers in musical theatre history, Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked among many others), once remarked,

“It’s been said that a character in a musical doesn’t really land until he or she sings, and I think that’s true.”

For a character to “land” usually means we get who he is and he has hooked us to follow him on his journey. This most often happens the first time he sings, especially if the song gives us a glimpse into a character’s private thoughts and feelings and exposes his inner desires.

Many memorable, popular musicals have been purposefully constructed so that the protagonist’s first song creates a “wow” moment. Such songs can certainly be big, bold, spectacularly staged numbers, but as often as not these kinds of songs are solos—though frequently a solo sung in a crowd. It is fairly common for a protagonist’s first song to be what is better known in the business as an “I want” song. Why is this so? Such songs express a character’s desire, his want, therefore his major goal or superobjective. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a powerful goal, and so there is no one in the audience that cannot relate or empathize. This means these kinds of songs are often found circling the story’s inciting incident—which establishes the protagonist’s ultimate goal. “I want” songs may well appear to be about some surface desire for something mundane or tangible, like money or a job, but it might also be a more internal and emotional desire for love, power, respect, or perhaps a declaration of principle or a dream. Such “I want” songs are fairly easy to spot and are often highly memorable.

Think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof singing, “If I were a Rich Man”; or in Evita when Eva Peron sings, “I wanna be a part of B.A. Buenos Aires, Big Apple” in the song, “Eva, Beware of the City”; or in Gypsy when Momma Rose sings “Some People”: “I had a dream…all about June in the Orpheum circuit. Gimme a chance and I know I can work it.” Such lyrics, when coupled with unforgettable melodies, draw us to the protagonist’s desire. After all who among us has never dreamt of doing something bigger and better than whatever it is we’ve already done? Who among us has never wanted for anything beyond what we already have? When constructing a protagonist (or for that matter an antagonist or any character) show the audience from the start your character’s drive, ambition, and fierce will. Doing so will likely drag us inexorably into the world of the story and help us to willingly suspend our disbelief so that we can vicariously enter the life of another—the protagonist—for the show’s duration.

As protagonist Elphaba, Idina Menzel performs “The Wizard and I”

Idina Menzel performs “The Wizard and I” during the first act of “Wicked” opening night at the Curran theater in San Francisco in 2003. Photo: Kat Wade, The Chronicle 2003

Here are a few more sterling examples of first songs sung by protagonists: Princeton in Avenue Q sets up his life’s dilemma by wondering, “What do I do with a B.A. in English?”; in The Music Man Harold Hill delivers his swaggering con in the infamous, “Ya Got Trouble”; in Camelot King Arthur sings of his anxieties over marrying Guenevere in, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”; in Sweeney Todd Sweeney takes note of the befouled world around him in “No Place Like London”; in My Fair Lady Henry Higgins expresses his sense of superiority via his disdain for Eliza Dolittle’s accent in “Why Can’t the English?”; in Hello, Dolly, Dolly Levi first arrives on the scene by announcing her matchmaking abilities in, “I Put My Hand In”; in Wicked Elphaba’s first song, “The Wizard and I,” predicts her future, “…I swear, someday there’ll be a celebration throughout Oz that’s all to do with me.” This list could be made quite long, but I’m betting you get the idea.

Audience Empathy and the Journey to Resolution

Setting up a protagonist’s ultimate goal through an inciting incident early in a story’s first movement in conjunction with a great “I want” song sets up an audience for the singular thing that all of us go to shows to receive—a powerfully cathartic emotional release at the story’s resolution. But you can’t reach that catharsis without first building empathy for the protagonist. And we can’t build empathy unless we identify with the character. If you can achieve character identification early in your story, then you have a real shot at success. And if you can do this through the magic of a killer song then you may have the great good fortune to watch as people you don’t know line up around the block to buy tickets to see your show.

How have you helped the audience build empathy for your protagonist? Can they identify with his/her goal? We’d love your comments below, and feel free to share a link to your character’s “I Want” song if available!