This week we’re discussing Chapter 3: “The Wizard and I” – The “I Want” Song from Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical.
The “I Want” song is usually the second number in a show and often becomes one of its signature songs. They are quite often used for audition pieces because they’re usually sung by a single character and are exciting for an actor to throw themselves into.
A couple of ideas felt fresh and new on my re-read of this chapter. Let’s talk about a few.
1. The “I Want” makes the main character relatable.
Viertel states: “The hero has to want something that’s hard to get, and go after it come what may…. If the hero doesn’t have to work very hard, we won’t care very much.” 1
The audience doesn’t check their life baggage at the door. They bring it into the theatre with them. How can one character on stage be relatable to each audience member individually?
Make their want hard to achieve.
If it’s too easy for the protagonist to get what they want, the audience will lose interest.
They can’t relate.
So in the end, when the hero gets the “thing,” they audience is left with more than resolution. They also leave with hope. If the main character persists through all the twists, turns and obstacles and failures and still is able to achieve their goal, then maybe…just maybe…it’s possible for the rest of us.
Help us fall in love with the hero.
While Annie in the musical Annie doesn’t actually do (in action) a lot to get what she wants, her heart-wrenching “I Want” song “Maybe” makes the audience want to hold her hand and go on whatever journey she’s about to embark on. It also helps us understand how she endears the world around her so that they do the “doing” to change her world and provide what she’s been longing for.
In conclusion of this chapter, Viertel expounds on its namesake and perhaps one of the greatest “I Want” songs ever: “The Wizard and I” from Wicked. In Wicked, the setup of the main character is solid, and from Elphaba’s first arrival in the theatre (to grand applause without fail), her shortcomings and insecurities resonate with the audience. No, we’re not green or magical, but when Elphaba powers in to the second verse of “The Wizard and I,” her words begin to penetrate the surface of our heart and find the deep hurts we’ve all experienced in one way or another.
“No father is not proud of you, no sister acts ashamed.
And all of Oz has to love you when by the Wizard you’re acclaimed.
And this gift or this curse I have inside…maybe at last I’ll know why…
When we are hand-in-hand, the Wizard and I.”
Matched with the spectacle and dazzle of the score and the performer’s vocal prowess, we are all smitten and ready to champion Elphaba’s cause, no matter how uncertain, unwieldy, or unsuccessful it may be.
2. A good “I Want” song creates a “hill behind a hill.”
This was my favorite part of this chapter. The multi-layering of story, musical motifs, double-meaning lyrics and clever foreshadowing have always been something I geek out on.
So I love this idea of hiding the grand intangible theme inside the immediate want of the main character.
“There is a deeper, greater desire hidden behind the first one…. If you consider the initial desire as a hill to be climbed, [Little Shop of Horrors and Hairspray have] a hill behind the hill—and a more interesting hike in store than you might have imagined.” 2
Referring to My Fair Lady, Viertel helps us realize that initial “I Wants” can morph into something much bigger, or change altogether. Or the initial “I Want,” if achieved, can create a whole new problem to be sorted out.
“The original I Wants are suddenly forgotten and irrelevant. The problem is much bigger than anyone imagined. The second hill is spectacularly more interesting than the first, but the first was interesting enough to start us eagerly climbing.” 3
Does your “I Want” song imply a double-layered want? Can you plant in there some potential for a bigger hill to climb?
“I Want” songs referred to in Chapter 3
For more articles on the “I Want” song, see: