The Broadway touring production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” opens tonight in the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. The animated feature and its musical theatre spin-off are both immensely popular for many reasons—enduring source material that goes back to 18th century French folk tales and engaging characters, including a feisty and brainy heroine, plus imminently hummable original music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (“Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” the title track). Nowhere in the film are their skills musical storytellers more evident than in the big opening number “Belle.”
“Belle” does double-duty as a world-builder—we learn all about the daily rhythms of the small French town where the eponymous heroine lives—and as the show’s “I Want” song. Here’s an explanation of how the “I Want” song functions as a crucial component of the musical theatre score from John Kenrick’s “Elements of a Musical” (rev. 2003), using the work of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for examples:
These tell us what characters desire, what motivates them. Most love songs fit into this category. “Something’s Coming” and “Tonight” are examples, with the ensemble reprise of “Tonight” giving a rare (and dramatically powerful) opportunity for every major character to simultaneously express what they want. In “A Boy Like That,” we see two “I Wants” clash, only to wind up in harmonious agreement on the undeniable power of love.
In “Belle,” we meet the town, some of the key players (including boorish would-be suitor Gaston), and we learn what Belle desires most: “there must be more than this provincial life.”
The “I Want” song is important because we learn what a character yearns for, and from desire comes motivation. For the occasion of the Louisville run of “Beauty and the Beast,” here’s a look at some great musicals and their “I Want” songs.
Little Shop of Horrors: “Somewhere That’s Green”
Audrey dates a sadistic dentist but dreams of a white-picket fence life with a nice guy like Seymour. From the film:
My Fair Lady: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”
Similarly, Liza the flower shop girl also longs for a life of plenty. From the film:
Oklahoma!: “Lonely Room”
Dirty old Jud Fry wants to leave his squalid smokehouse and find a girl like Laurey Williams to love. From the London cast:
Pippin: “Corner of the Sky”
Pippin wants to find his purpose in life, somewhere he can belong. From the Broadway cast:
The Little Mermaid: “Part of Your World”
Mermaid Ariel longs to move up to dry land. Another great Menken “I Want” song. From the film: