Today’s mad skill comes to us via Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for one of my favorite musicals, Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire’s bestselling novel of the same name. The show tracks the early life of Elphaba, the girl who is destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West. On an episode of American Songbook at NJPAC (full episode here), Schwartz spoke of including, early on in his musicals, what he calls the “I want” song. I think we novelists can learn something from contemplating the intent of this song, which in this case is the protagonist’s first.
On the show, Schwartz demonstrates how his first two attempts at writing Elphaba’s “I want” song fell flat. His son Scott, a talented theater director, pointed out why: the lyrics were generic to the point of cliché.
Make the desire specific
The audience didn’t need Elphaba to explain that she wanted to do good things in order to feel significant; they needed to know what achieving significance would look like for Elphaba. She is not “everywoman.” She is a witch. From Oz. Reviled for her green skin. The twist in Maguire’s telling is that she is also the story’s protagonist, so Schwartz had the challenge of creating a psychological bond between the audience and teenage version of the wicked witch who would one day send flying monkeys after Dorothy.
His son’s advice: “Have her show up at school and do something that earns her the right to sing.”
Schwartz gave it a try. After Elphaba performs an inadvertent act of magic in class, her teacher decides to tutor her in sorcery—with an eye toward introducing her to the great wizard. Everyone in Oz wants to meet the Wizard so he can fix what’s wrong with them. Now Elphaba might get her chance.
She hangs hope for her future on the imagined details of this interaction in the want song, “The Wizard and I,” made all the more stirring because we know from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that her name will not one day inspire the same kind of “celebration throughout Oz” that she envisions.
That little bit of story packs so much power: someone has seen through Elphaba’s skin color to a “talent” she’d been timid about exposing, but which has now been deemed brilliant. Her dreaming offers more than a peek at her soft underbelly; she exposes her most desired life story, full monty. Even if you haven’t seen this show, I’m sure you are already anticipating—perhaps even wincing at—the ways in which Elphaba’s story will not unfold as expected.
So how can we grab the power of the “I want” song for our characters?
Keep desire at the core of your story
Since your character will arrive at page one of your story with his deep desire already formed, it’s never too soon to start orienting your reader to what she or he wants. Some authors foreshadow the desire in their opening lines, as Julie Christine Johnson did in her debut novel, In Another Life: [Read more…]