Updated: Jun 19, 2019
"It's not really that there is a "formula" for these things [musicals], but I have learned over the years that pretty much any successful musical you can name has an "I Want" song for its main character within the first fifteen or so minutes of the show. I can think of exceptions, but frankly, I feel that the lack of such a moment is a weakness in most of those cases." -- Stephen Schwartz discussing Disney's Pocahontas 1995
Musicals exist for music and words. With recent successes on Broadway, dialogue simply exists to get us from one song to the next. The real substance of a musical lies in its songs.
And one song spot in particular seems to have designated itself as the "song" of a musical...
The I WANT song has been a staple of the American Musical since Oklahoma when Curly moseyed on stage singing "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'" which set the tone for his perfect day.
It's believed that Lehman Engel first coined the term.
In musicals, characters want something. Thus - the I WANT song. This song tells us, the audience what the character wants as well as what we should expect at the end of the story.
Some perfect textbook examples of I WANT songs:
Corner of the Sky (Pippin)
The story of Pippin is him looking for "the next best thing", this song encapsulates the entire story in one song.
Wouldn't It Be Loverly (My Fair Lady)
Eliza sings of having a warm place and a chair, but in order to get that dream, she has to learn to speak proper english.
Somewhere That's Green (Little Shop of Horrors)
Audrey wants out of the dreary, dirty skid row and into the green suburbs with Seymour. Ironically, she wasn't specific enough about where she wanted to go, just that it had to be green, which she gets when she ends up in the belly of a big green mother from outer space
The Music of the Night (The Phantom Of The Opera)
The Phantom wants to make beautiful music with Christine.
My Favorite Things (Sound of Music)
Maria sings of the things she wants to be surrounded by, but she also sings of positivity. She is a positive energy that finds the good in every situation, which comes in handy when they have to avoid the Nazis.
You and Me (but Mostly Me) (Book of Mormon)
He sings of his chance to prove how good of a Mormon he is, but forgets that they are sent in pairs and expected to work in pairs.
King of Broadway (The Producers)
Another unspecified wish, they became the King of Broadway when they landed in jail.
My Shot (Hamilton)
He sings of not giving away his shot, or his chance and ultimately a shot is what does him in.
Waving Through The Window (Dear Evan Hansen)
Sings about being in a forest with nobody around and when he falls he wonders if he will make a sound. In the story, he does make a sound - in more ways than one.
The Wizard and I & Defying Gravity (Wicked)
Two I WANT songs, the first when Elphaba can't wait to see and be accepted by the Wizard (The Wizard and I) and the second when the Wizard has not accepted her and it forces her to deal with the pain of it (Defying Gravity)
What is an I WANT song:
A direct wish, dream, question or statement that says, "this is what I want" or if the character doesn't know what they want, just that they want something, "'I'll know it when I see it"
An indirect wish to tell the audience that the character is unhappy in their current lives, situation or surroundings
A character establishing number - for shows that rely on the character, this song becomes their anthem telling us who they are. In most cases the anthem is reversed on the character at the end of the story. Such as "Waving Through A Window" from Dear Evan Hansen
Can also be a group of characters either singing for the same thing as in "Rock Island" in The Music Man and "I Hope I Get It" in A Chorus Line. Or they can sing of separate wishes such as "Let's Have Lunch" from Sunset Boulevard, or "I Wish" from Into The Woods.
The key to the I Want song is that it establishes the desire that will propel everyone - including the audience, through the story. They show us who to watch, and what to feel - we feel with them and follow them through the story.
I want, I wish, I've Got To, I Hope I Get It, I Don't Want, I'm Not Going To Let...
Get the point? It's a direct statement. Nothing wishy-washy such as "I want World Peace" - great if that's what your character wants, but as a writer, how will you show that they got World Peace at the end of the story?
Better to shrink the goal into something smaller, more concrete that you can dramatize at the end but still be as significant as World Peace.
The I WANT song generally happens in the first 15 minutes of the story. No always, but generally. It could be the first song, the second or even the fourth depending on the complexity of your story. But any longer and your audience may start to feel lost - not knowing who they should be investing in.
Are there shows without an I Want Song?
Concept musicals and many Sondheim musicals don't have traditional I WANT songs: Follies, simply because the characters are living in the past.
Merrily We Roll Along, because the I Want song comes at the end due to the end to beginning progression of the story.
But unless you're Sondheim, your musical needs an I Want Song!
Now, how do you write an I Want Song?
Start with your main character, even if you are writing an ensemble story, there must be one character that propels the story. Start with her. What does she want?
There are a couple ways to tackle it:
State it simply. I Want to Live in Florida
State why. The Weather's Better In Florida Than In Ohio.
Involve another character. My Love Lives In Florida. Or Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, you get it.
State it Indirectly. My Life Will Be Better with Disney World around the corner.
Negative Perspective. My Family Continues on in Ohio without me, while I melt in Florida.
No matter which perspective you choose, the goal is to establish something the character has, wants, needs or doesn't know will happen yet.
It doesn't have to be concretely stated. For example, in West Side Story, Tony sings "Something's Coming." He can feel it coming and doesn't know what it is. While he may believe it's positive, it may also be something negative resulting in his death later in the story.
Another similar example would be "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin. Pippin sings of trying everything until he finds what he is looking for. We, the audience know that's not possible (grass is greener on the other side of the fence thing) but the character does not. While the character believes he wants the whole world and all it's experiences, his lyrics suggest otherwise... "gotta find my corner of the sky" a corner does not suggest the whole world, rather a small spot just for him, which he chooses when he goes back with Catherine at the end.
On cautionary note. I believe it will ultimately lead to frustration if you start writing your musical without establishing a concrete Want for your main character(s). Make it crystal clear before you write. At least that way, you know where the story starts and how it ends. All you have to do then is fill in everything in between.
Of course, your I WANT song will go through several versions throughout the writing process as you learn more about the character and fine tune their desire.
What are your favorite I WANT songs? Tell me about them in the comments!
Alan Saunders, WRITEineer.com
Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.
Check out WRITEineer.com for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!