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Writing "I Want Songs" for Musicals

Notes from Carol de Giere and quotes from Stephen Schwartz.

Although musical theorists have laid out descriptions for various types of songs in a show, Stephen Schwartz doesn't use many of the labels. However, he does believe in the importance of what Lehman Engel called the "I want" number.

In the following comments,he answers a question about this type of song, as related to his work on Disney's Pocahontas.

Stephen Schwartz: It's not really that there is a "formula" for these things, 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. "Just Around the Riverbend" may not be a classic "I want" song, because the character doesn't really want anything that strongly until she meets John Smith, but it sets up her sense that she has another destiny to pursue than the one laid out for her by her father and society and her desire to go after it. Its closest equivalent in musical structure terms is probably "Something's Coming" from WEST SIDE STORY -- not surprisingly, since that's another Romeo and Juliet story.

The third number, "Mine Mine Mine", was basically supposed to introduce the antagonist, Ratcliffe, and what HE wanted, so that the central dramatic conflict could be established. Obviously, I tried to write his lyrics in a comic way (and I'm still pretty proud of getting "with all you got in ya, boys, dig up Virginia, boys" through the Disney hierarchy), but the storytelling purpose of the number was more important than its "production number" value.

More I Want Song notes

For more recent commentary on I Want song, please see our blog I Want Songs In Context posted in May, 2013. Here we explore where the I Want song fits in a show and what role it plays.

You'll also find links to posts about it from musical writers Noel Katz and Paul Cozby.

Stephen Schwartz's "Corner of the Sky" as an I Want song

"Corner of the Sky" is a frequently reported listing on "All Time Favorite Songs" lists of many Broadway music fans. Various Broadway Fake books include the sheet music.

Stephen Schwartz: "This song was written on a car trip from Washington, DC to New York. It replaced a song for Pippin I had been struggling with futilely for weeks. Starting with the line 'Why do I feel I don't fit in anywhere I go?' I asked my wife Carole, who was driving while I scribbled, 'What are some things that fit?' 'Well,' she replied, 'Cats fit on the windowsill,' and the rest sort of flowed from there."

Cats fit on the windowsill,
Children fit in the snow.
Why do I feel I don't fit in anywhere I go?

Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly;
I've got to be where my spirit can run free,
Got to find my corner of the sky.

The original lyrics include a verse, which Schwartz later rewrote to make it a more clear "I-Want" song. The new version is on the recording, while the original is in the sheet music.

Sheet music version:

And maybe some misty day, you'll
Waken to find me gone
And far away, you'll hear me
Singing to the dawn
And you'll wonder if I'm happy there
A little more than I've been
And the answer will come back to you
Like laughter on the wind:
Rivers belong where they can ramble ...

Stephen Schwartz: It was rewritten during rehearsals to be more specific as to Pippin's goal: "I won't rest until I know I have it all".Some of the vocal selections were published prior to the show opening, and thus were not in a couple of cases the final version of the songs.Of course, I do like this original lyric too, in fact perhaps I prefer it as slightly more evocative.So when the song is sung out of context, I certainly don't mind it being used.

Stephen has also responded to my comment that of his songs, the "I Want" numbers are the most frequently recorded: "Corner of the Sky" and "Meadowlark."

Stephen Schwartz: Idon't think it's surprising that "I Want" songs tend to be among the most recorded -- they are often somewhat more liftable than other songs in the show (that is, they make sense outside the framework of the show) and they give the singer something to act.

In classic terms, the job of an "I Want" song is not to move the action forward, but to set up the desire of the leading character that will drive the action for the rest of the show.

To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com

The only Stephen Schwartz biography - full of tips


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