My Favorite Things: “I Want” Songs
When Howard Ashman came to Disney to work on The Little Mermaid, he brought his years of theatre experience with him, and he shared his expertise with the animators on the film. In an interview taken from one of his impromptu “lunchtime lectures,” Ashman described the theatrical idea of the “I Want” song:
…Early in the evening, the leading lady usually sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life — and the audience falls in love with her, and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.
The tradition has served well for writers and audiences alike. From a composer’s perspective, the “I Want” song is a moment to solidify who they want this character to be. As a listener, we respond to a character opening up and sharing their hopes. Some of the most beloved theatre songs are about people and what they want — a girl who wants to find a nice guy, a red-haired orphan who dreams of finding her parents, starving artists and newsboys who imagine a better life in a certain city in New Mexico — all of these characters invite an audience in, simply by telling us what they want.
“Part of Your World” – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s “I Want” song is “Part of Your World.” This is the moment that decides if we as an audience are going to care enough about our hero to watch what happens to her. Though Ariel’s specific dream of ditching her fins for legs isn’t exactly relatable, her yearning for love and acceptance is a universal one, and by the end of the song we are totally on her side.
“Picture Show” – Frank Wildhorn and Don Black
When the “I Want” moment is a duet, it highlights the similarities between two characters, which is handy if you want them to fall in love later. Both title characters of Frank Wildhorn’s bio-drama Bonnie and Clyde want bigger and better things for themselves. The main pair’s deep and instant connection drives the musical’s plot, and it’s easy for the audience to believe in it when we realize that they’ve shared the same dreams their entire lives.
As an example of one of the many creative uses of the “I Want” song, listen at 3:12 for the totally AWESOME transition from young to adult Clyde. Having the song start with the characters as kids and ending with them grown-up sets up the rest of the show on so many levels. From the get-go, we see that neither Bonnie nor Clyde has gotten what they wanted, so we root for them immediately. As the show continues, the audience will always have those adorable kids in the back of their minds, and that makes it easier to sympathize with the choices that Bonnie and Clyde make as adults.
[As a side note, let’s take a moment to appreciate the perfect casting choice here – – I’m convinced that the girl who plays Young Bonnie is not a child actor but that Frank Whildhorn actually went back in time and gave the part to a young Laura Osnes.]
“Sal Tlay Ka Siti” – Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone
Sometimes, the main character wants something so ridiculous that you can’t help but fall in love with them. The Book of Mormon’s leading lady Nabulungi is so earnest and hopeful, you almost don’t want her to find out the truth about her dream home. (But you might laugh about it.)
“Don’t Wanna Be Here” – Adam Gwon
Despite the title, this piece from Ordinary Days is a great example of the classic “I Want” song. Though Gwon trades in sweeping generalizations of love and adventure for the matter-of-fact musings of a cynical grad student, the moment still serves its purpose. On the surface, Deb is sarcastic and skeptical. Hearing what she’s been through, we realize she is also smart, ambitious, and hard-working. In less than three minutes, the audiences knows who she is and we want her to succeed.
Watch Kate Wetherhead perform the heck out of this song and you can’t help but root for her to get to the place she really wants to be.
“Monticello” – Pasek and Paul
At first, this next song seems like the classic “I Want” moment. In Pasek and Paul’s “Monticello,” our narrator declares, “I know this might sound crazy but I’m not like other people–” no, it’s just you and every other character in a musical ever. Like many characters before him, he has dreams — not just dreams, PLANS. He details how he’ll run away to California and as an audience we’re with him – kiss Indiana goodbye!
Take a minute to listen to this (if you’ve never heard Steven Booth’s performance of this song, you’re welcome).
I’m gonna stop you at 2:58. “If I keep treading water here in Nowhere, Indiana… I know exactly who I would become” is such a DELICIOUS dramatic moment. All of a sudden we have so many questions about the narrator’s life. Someone has obviously made an impression on him — who? Where does this sudden doubt come from? What kind of future does he really envision for himself? The narrator, so sure a second ago, is ready to give up his plans and stay stuck with everyone else. As he picks back up for the final chorus, somehow the promises he made before feel hollow. We want him to succeed, but we’re not sure if he’s going to.
The “I Want” song has been around as long as theatre, but it’s getting used today in new and interesting ways. It’s a perfect example of how writers of new musical theatre can embrace the traditions of the past to create something totally original.