Anti-Theme Songs are the ones that interest me most, but the most important song in a musical is usually the “I Want” Song. Described by Howard Ashman:
“In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place, it’s usually about the third song of the evening–sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth–but it’s quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something, sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of a garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors, but the leading lady 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.” (Waking Sleeping Beauty).
Ashman famously had to fight Jeffrey Katzenberg for the inclusion of “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. That song became one of the most memorable parts of the movie. It shows us who Ariel is and makes her instantly likeable.
From that point, almost all Disney musicals have had “I Want” Songs in the first act.
In fact, the step became a cliché. When Pixar set out to make their first movie, “I Want” Songs were one of the things they vowed to avoid. And then the studio told them to add one!
In the end, Toy Story did not end up with an “I Want” Song. The clarification of Woody’s drive comes when he’s knocked off the bed, replaced by Buzz. It’s instantly clear how he feels and what he wants, without a song and dance.
But sometimes, a song and dance with a clear desire can be the best part of the story.
In the next post, I’ll discuss why a character’s desire is so important in driving plot.