I Want Songs in Context

by Carol de Giere on May 3, 2013

The I Want Song, Call to Adventure, and Inciting Incident in Musicals

By Carol de Giere

“I don’t know who I should care about and why.” It may sound like an expression of personal angst, but it’s the kind of comment I often hear from panelists at feedback sessions for musical works-in-progress. It means the evaluator is unclear which character is leading the story and why an audience should care about him/her.

One way writers can avoid musical muddle is to write a good I Want piece, sung by the protagonist (or in a love story, perhaps two protagonists). The audience needs to know the longings of the central character by having him or her sing about what’s missing in their life. Since we tend to root for a character to get what they want, we become engaged. That’s why there’s a tradition that one of the early songs in a show is an I Want number.

I recently suggested to some composer-lyricist friends that they write about the I Want song in order to help writers understand what it is. You will find a post by Noel Katz I Want song post and by Paul Cozby at  I Want; I Don’t Want songs

As I approached the subject, I turned to some of my favorite books about story. Although the books are aimed at screenwriters, the reflections of Christopher Vogler and Robert McKee add depth to the meaning of those early moments of a musical.

I Want Songs and the Call to Adventure

Vogler: The Writer's JourneyChristopher Vogler, author of The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition
focuses on the journey that a hero/protagonist takes. Near the beginning of most fictional works, there’s something that launches this journey. “The Call to Adventure,” Vogler says, “establishes the stakes of the game, and makes clear the hero’s goal: to win the treasure or the lover, to get revenge or right a wrong, to achieve a dream, confront a challenge, or change a life.”

In a musical, some part of this call is usually musicalized. For example, in  Gypsy, the character Rose lets us know she wants a piece of the show business life (even if only as a stage mother). “Some People” is the second song in the show (not counting the Overture) and serves as the I Want song. Another example is from the musical Pippin. The title character is a young man who feels an urgent inner call to find his purpose and live an extraordinary life. He steps up and sings “Corner of the Sky,” the musical’s second musical number.

In musicals with a romantic storyline, a central character often sings of his/her longing for love, such Marion singing “Goodnight, My Someone” in The Music Man, or more obliquely, Curly singing “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” in a show focused on romance and the journey to a social event ( Oklahoma!).

Story, Inciting Incidents, and the I Want Song

Robert McKee's StoryRobert McKee, in Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
gives another context for the I Want song. McKee says that fictional stories need an Inciting Incident. It’s the writer’s job to set up something that will jolt the protagonist out of his or her usual routines of life. “The Inciting Incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life,” writes McKee (page 189). There needs to be an event that either happens directly to the protagonist or is caused by the protagonist. As a result of this event, this character starts seeking ways to restore the balance.

Musicals also need an Inciting Incident. The I Want song, in this perspective, might come before the Incident, in which case it would express a desire for change. Or it could come after the character has been stirred up. In My Fair Lady, by the time Eliza Doolittle sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” her little flower girl world has already been disrupted by an encounter with Henry Higgins. He has teased her with the notion that she could raise her status if she spoke better English. Shaken by this suggestion of a better life, she explores her response in song and dance.

When Stephen Schwartz was working on an I Want song for Wicked, he wrote two versions called “Making Good.” But at the developmental readings, he didn’t feel that either version of the song had enough of an impact on the audience. His son Scott suggested that he delay the song until after an incident so that the central charcter, Elphaba, had another reason to sing besides her personal longing. Stephen then replaced “Making Good” with a new piece, “The Wizard and I,” that Elphaba would sing after she inadvertently performed a bit of magic. This new song was not only more popular with audiences, but it more also successfully set up the rest of Act I and Elphaba’s journey to meet the Wizard of Oz. (For details on this, see pages 445 – 447 of my book, Defying Gravity).

The I Want Moment

It is possible to set up an I Want moment without a song. But often the emotions connected to longing, wishing, dreaming, and envisioning a better life are powerful enough that bursting into song can seem natural within the world of the musical.

Further Resources

TV tropes I Want Songs

Stephen Schwartz and I Want Songs


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