I was sitting in my Creative Writing class this week when the idea we were discussing in class stuck me. My instructor was talking about the story arc and how most stories begin with a catalyst. Soon after, the reader learns what the protagonist wants.
This struck me because I remembered a quote I had heard years ago in a short documentary (titled Waking Sleeping Beauty and I highly recommend it) I watched about the making of The Little Mermaid. Disney was broke. They had been evicted from their animation studios in Burbank and were working out of trailers in Arizona. They were pumping out movies like The Black Cauldron that weren’t popular with audiences. They had one chance left to save their legacy. They decided to make Mermaid. They brought in the writing team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken — both of whom would go on to make more music for Disney. Ashman had penned Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway and had a background writing musicals. In this documentary I watched, he said that in every musical, there is a moment in the show where the heroine is featured, usually sits down, and sings about what she wants. This is the moment where the audience falls in love with her. Then he wrote “Part of Your World.”
I started thinking about all the musicals in which this happens — which is most of them, even if it’s not the heroine that sits. Sometimes it’s the hero. In the first three or four songs of a show, you’ll hear about what your protagonist wants and you’ll be cheering for them from that point on. “The Wizard and I” reveals that Elphaba wants to be remembered. “In My Own Little Corner” tells that Cinderella wants adventure. In RENT, the AIDS-ridden Roger only wants “One Song Glory” before he dies.
Musicals follow story arcs like any other short story or novel does. What gets us hooked is that we love living vicariously through a character’s adventure. That’s the whole point of storytelling.
Next time you watch a Disney animated classic that was released after 1989, think about Howard Ashman and the way he transformed the story. Post-Ashman heroines and heroes fight for themselves. They sing their own songs. They write their own stories. Then go watch the musicals that do the same.
Ashman tragically died at the age of 40 from complications due to AIDS in 1991. He died before the release of Beauty and The Beast, which is dedicated to his memory. You can visit his official website here, which is maintained by his sister, Sarah.