In a way, I was a witness (standing way, way on the side) to a key moment in the popularization of one of the most basic tenets of musical-writing, the proper use of the I Want song.
In any beginning playwriting class (or story-writing class), you’re told to give your protagonist some burning desire. And then you throw some wrenches in his way, probably including some villain poised to stop him. In extremely basic musical theatre writing, the character’s intentions are baldly stated in a song, the I Want and, often, it’s too honest and obvious. As I write this, I’m listening to a recording of George Gershwin playing Looking for a Boy from a 1925 musical called Tip Toes. “I am just a little girl who’s looking for a little boy who’s looking for a girl to love.” We get it.
By the Golden Era’s heyday – and did any year have more great shows open than 1956? – authors like Lerner & Loewe were using the device in a subtler fashion. Eliza Doolittle – “All I want is a room somewhere far away from the cold night air” meets Henry Higgins – “Why can’t the English learn to set a good example to people whose English is painful to your ears?” The goals of the two leads are accomplished fairly quickly. Higgins works his magic on Eliza, transforming her cockney into something that sounds acceptable at Ascot. Eliza gets her room. But notice she never gets the goal from the end of her song “someone’s head resting on my knee, warm and tender as he can be, who takes good care of me.” Of course if she’d married Freddy… Ha!
In the 60s, Broadway conductor Lehman Engel started the BMI workshop, and taught a generation of would-be musical theatre writers a set of principles, including the I Want song.
I was his youngest student (by some stretch of years) and his star pupils – Ed Kleban, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken created musicals that were hugely influential. That is, writers saw Kleban’s A Chorus Line or Yeston’s Nine and, with those examples, the Gospel according to Lehman was spread. The largest influence was the work of Alan Menken, since he’s written smash hits for the theatre and a set of animated movies that everyone (under a certain age) knows intimately.
Many theatre fans are aware of Part of Your World’s similarity to Menken and Ashman’s earlier I Want song, Somewhere That’s Green. The tag’s almost identical, but what’s most similar is the song’s function in the story. One of my most cherished memories of early adulthood was the day Menken and Ashman brought in several songs from Little Shop of Horrors to the BMI workshop. Lehman particularly loved Somewhere That’s Green, the very model of an I Want song. It has clear AABA’ structure, each A ending with the title. The title has a second meaning later in the show, when the character ends up in a green place that had nothing to do with her dream. (There was a third meaning in the name of the actress who originated the role on stage and then on screen, Ellen Greene.) That ability to be simultaneously poignant and funny, to my ears, is the best thing about it.
But not everyone in the room that day was convinced of Little Shop’s viability. Carol Hall, songwriter of the then still-running Broadway hit, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, drawled “Why would you boys want to write a musical based on a crummy ‘B’ horror movie?” (At 2,209 performances, the show became the most performed of all American musicals from the 1980s.)
And so ends the small bit I witnessed, from the side of the room. Menken and Ashman eventually found themselves at Disney, where the studio was engaged in a new and concerted effort to do animated musicals right. They drew on their long history of story-boarding, while Menken drew on the teachings of Engel and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were the most successful Disney features, artistically and financially, in many a year. After Ashman’s death, Menken was stuck with sub-par lyricist Tim Rice, but, happily, moved on to team with Stephen Schwartz and then Glenn Slater, who certainly knows what’s what.
In thinking about my I Want songs, I’m struck by the fact that I’ve two shows in which the main characters have everything they want at the top of the show … and then things go to hell. The main character in Area 51 is ecstatic with his lot in life. “I don’t ever wanna leave, never wanna leave this place.” (Another character has a more traditional I Want.) For Such Good Friends, I felt I had to create a flashback in order to give the protagonist her I Want; we’d then have a greater understanding of the emotional cost of losing it.
I’VE GOTTA BE PART OF THIS CLUB, DANNY
THEN I’LL NO LONGER BE A SCHLUB, DANNY
THANKS TO YOU, I’VE FOUND MY DREAM:
I’M GONNA BE
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
PICTURE IT! ME:
THE BELLE OF THE BALL
PEOPLE WILL SMILE
THE MOMENT I ENTER
CLEARING AN AISLE
FOR ME STAGE CENTER
MY STORIES HOLD THEM IN THRALL
IF I COULD BE
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
THEN YOU WOULD SEE
A GIRL IN HER PRIME
JOKING AND JAZZ
TO MAKE THEM CHUCKLE
WATCHING THEM AS
THEIR KNEES ALL BUCKLE
EVERYONE HAS A MARVELOUS TIME.
Like Somewhere That’s Green, the tune repeats in dramatic contrasts later in the show. One of them I’ve previously quoted here.
But I don’t want to leave you with me. Instead, here’s another of those 1956 premieres, the ultimate want-free dude, Li’l Abner, wanly warbling If I Had My Druthers
And then, of course, all hell breaks loose.