Broadway's Best "I Am" Songs
What is an "I Am" song, you might ask? Many people also know it as the "I Want" song, a song that comes early in the first act of a musical and that establishes our catalyst's point of view and sometimes their goal. The term "I Want" is not one I feel truly encapsulates what this song is and how its placement in the musical affects the story to come. "I Am", which used to be how these songs were identified by scholars, can include "I Want", but not vice versa. What you "want" is a subcategory of who you "are". Not every song that introduces a catalyst tells us what they want, but it most definitely tells us who they are. So I choose the older term of "I Am" because I find it all-encompassing. I'm not trying to be difficult here, I simply prefer "I Am" because it better explains what the song achieves, especially to those just learning about musical theatre structure. But all semantics aside, some of the most memorable and most impactful musical theatre songs are the "I Am" song and today's blog is a celebration of some of the best.
I'm just going to get this one out of the way because many scholars and theatre fans alike point to "Some People" from Gypsy as the greatest among "I Am" song. Stage mother Mama Rose is determined to get her daughter June (and her less-talented sister Louise) on vaudeville's Orpheum Circuit. With the gusto of Jule Styne's music and the brutal tenacity built into Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, Rose establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with. She is not content to be normal, ho-hum, average and she isn't allowing that life for her kids. "Some People" paints an early portrait of the monster she will become.
"Wouldn't it Be Loverly"
My Fair Lady
Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle wants very little out of life: some basic household comforts, a person to come home to, to simply be warm in her cold flat. "Wouldn't it Be Loverly", with music by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, is Eliza's jaunty and gentle "I Am" song. It sets her up as both sympathetic and humble, the two things that will keep the audience cheering for her as she endures Professor Henry Higgins's tyrannical behavior as he tries to make her over into a duchess at a society ball.
West Side Story
Former gang member Tony is trying to live life on the straight and narrow, working a job at a candy store, keeping his head low and his hands clean. His "I Am" song "Something Coming" shows us that he feels like something exciting is coming. The Leonard Bernstein melody tingles with palpable anticipation, almost a vibrating frenzy. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics speak of Tony's optimism and willingness to accept a new adventure. His exuberance is electric, charged with a potential that we are unclear of. It is expertly ambiguous since what he is feeling is foreshadowing of a tragic romance to come.
"It's a Perfect Relationship"
Bells Are Ringing
“I’m in love with a man, Plaza O-double 4 – double 3”, is the repeated message of the Ella Peterson, an operator at Susanswerphone answering service. The sweet, but shy Ella pretends to be different characters for each of her clients. One of her creations is an old lady referred to as “Ma” whom she saves for the playwright Jeff Moss, a man she has fallen in love with over the phone, but that she has never met. She doesn’t, however, know how to tell him, especially since he thinks she is an old lady and she cannot undo the kindly character she’s created. The basis for her situation and who she is all comes to the surface in this “I Am” song by Jule Styne (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics).
"There's a Sucker Born Every Minute"
P.T. Barnum, the showman of all showman, was famous for tricking people, asserting that “There is a sucker born every minute”. It stands to reason that this would be the central mantra of his “I Am” song in the musical Barnum. Cy Coleman wrote the hectic melody that is accompanied by Michael Stewart’s carnival barker-style lyrics (fast and frantic). Barnum lays out his plan to paint the world with color by making life a little more exciting for the common man, even if he has to lie a little (or a lot) to make it happen.
"Corner of the Sky"
The title character’s raison d’etre, “Corner of the Sky” is the soaring song by Stephen Schwartz that lays the foundation for the epic journey that Pippin will take to find himself. Pippin, the eldest son of King Charlemagne, has just finished studying at university and now he is trying to figure out how to spend his well-earned knowledge to be someone incredible. “Corner of the Sky” is his exclamation of his self-assigned greatness, his determined promise to make the most out of his life.
"A Cockeyed Optimist"
Ensign Nellie Forbush, the nurse from Arkansas who serves in the South Pacific in World War II, considers herself a simple, naïve person when she introduces herself to us in the “I Am’ song “A Cockeyed Optimist”. She tells us that she remains upbeat, even in the face of naysayers. It is an interesting way of setting up a character who will eventually have to examine her own self-perceptions and admit that she is far more complicated than she initially thought. Soon, she will come face-to-face with her own prejudices and doubts which are at odds with this Rodgers (music) and Hammerstein (lyrics) song which is lighthearted and breezy.
"Dressing them Up"
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Molina is a prisoner in a South American prison who has been convicted for the corruption of a minor. When a new cellmate arrives, Molina tells him what his life had been like before going to prison. He had been a window dresser at a well-trafficked department store where he demanded excellence in every pose of the mannequin and the perfect accessories for each outfit. “Dressing them Up” is his “I Am” song, a Kander and Ebb ditty that colors Molina as creative, resilient, stubborn, and passionate. These are all attributes that will serve him well when he faces the horrors and torture ahead of him.
"Chief Cook and Bottle Watcher"
Another Kander and Ebb song that makes the perfect “I Am” song is “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink. Anna Antonelli is the put-upon wife and mother who has spent her entire adult life cooking, cleaning, diapering, and running a roller rink, the family’s main source of income. When we first encounter her, we find out that she’s done, had it, and is excited to be selling the rink so that she can finally have a well-earned life of leisure. The song seethes with anger and resentment as Anna recounts her story of being underappreciated and overworked.
"The Wizard and I"
Elphaba, from Stephen Schwart’z Wicked, is a complex woman with myriad talents, convictions, and dreams. Above all, she wants to be of great service to her leader of her country and imagines a life where people overlook the color of her skin and accept her for someone of value. “The Wizard and I” is a powerful “I am” song because it basically lays out Elphaba’s manifesto for inciting change. Schwartz’s music compliments her lofty plans with a melody that soars into the firmament, something she will someday do.
"I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?"
Such an unlikely “I Am” song to introduce the legendary King Arthur, “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?” is a deliciously ironic musical “episode” for the hero of Camelot to act out. It is the night before his wedding to Lady Guinevere, he’s never met her, and he’s twitching nervously in anticipation of what his nuptials will bring. The oft-married Alan Jay Lerner wrote the lyrics that expertly embody every thought a groom must have, and Frederick Loewe’s musical is equally as skittish. “You wonder what the king is wishing tonight? He’s wishing he were in Scotland fishing tonight!”
"I'm the Greatest Star"
Like “Some People” from Gypsy, “I’m the Greatest Star” from Funny Girl is an iconic “I Am” song and I would be remiss if I left it off any list of great songs that introduce a character within a musical. Fanny Brice is an awkward but talented young woman. She keeps having doors slammed in her face because she is not the typical ingénue. She remains undeterred, however, and foreshadows her rise to vaudeville greatness in this explosively dynamic “I Am” song. She lays it on the line: her perception of her talents is the only acceptable scenario for her future. Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) concocted what may be Broadway’s most high-octane “I Am” song ever!
"Look What Happened to Mabel"
Mack & Mabel
Though it comes from a flop musical, I include this Jerry Herman song because it is, in fact, my favorite of all “I Am” songs. Mabel Normand, a girl who works in a Brooklyn deli, is suddenly elevated to silent film star when she is caught on celluloid. “Look What Happened to Mabel” is the robust “I Am” song for Mabel when she sees herself on film and is shocked at how she appears. This song, which is full of some of the most hilarious allusions to her life as “the kid from the deli”, conveys both her self-doubt and also her great humor that allows her to become a big star.