I want a new “I want.”

There’s a classic musical theater axiom that states within the first fifteen minutes of any musical, the lead character or protagonist must have what is known as an “I want” song.  Click here for a more thorough analysis or here to read Stephen Schwartz’s commentary on the subject.

I’m definitely a subscriber to this Lehman Engel school of thought, and look for it in all the musicals I read, write and produce.

But lately I’ve been thinking that as much as I love the strength and determination of a “want”, what seems to be necessary for a musical is more than just a “want”.  I can want an ice cold coke.  I can want to take a vacation.  But that doesn’t seem like enough.

For a character to break out into song, the themes must be grander.  Love, adventure, immortality, revenge, justice and so forth are more the kinds of things necessary to start a musical engine.

So, I’ve stopped thinking about what a character wants . . . and have started thinking about what a character dreams.

Since audiences love to watch a character’s dreams come true (because it gives them the hope that theirs may come true as well) it seems more fitting to hear about these in the first fifteen.

It’s a subtle difference, mind you, but an important one in my “book”.

Dreams are worth dying for.  And it’s those kinds of grand themes that make for the most compelling musicals.

(BTW, if you’re looking for a great book on writing musicals, read Mr. Engel’s classic, Words with Music.)


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.