5 Classic Broadway Song Types

The West Side Story cast at the 2009 Tony Awards
The 2009 Tony Awards (Photo credit: Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images).

How do composers and lyricists go about writing songs for stage musicals? Well, there are as many different methods as there are writing teams, but it often comes down to sitting down and looking at what that particular moment in the show requires. 

Classic Broadway Song Types and Themes

A hundred years ago, when musical theater was still finding its footing, composers and lyricists began to discover certain song forms that proved useful for particular places in the show and for particular needs -- "best practices," if you will. More recently, musical-theater writers have tried to move beyond the standard tropes and explore other, more flexible song forms. However, some of these songs have proved continually useful to even the most experimental writers because they're so ingrained in public consciousness that they can be used to convey some of the most important parts of a musical. Here are five song types that show up in everything from old-school musicals to modern scores.

"I Want" Song

As the name implies, an "I Want" song expresses what a character is looking for and longing for, typically within the first fifteen minutes or so of the show. This is the one song type that even the most experimental musicals still embrace, because writers use it to connect audiences with the protagonist and get them rooting for the character's journey right away. A good "I Want" song lays the foundation for strong character development and sets the audience's expectations for where the show might be headed. Examples include:

  • "Something's Coming" from West Side Story
  • "Some People," from Gypsy
  • "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," from My Fair Lady 
  • "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin
  • "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid
  • "The Wizard and I" from Wicked
  • "My Shot" from Hamilton

Conditional Love Song

How do you get your characters to sing about being in love at the beginning of the show? You make it conditional, writing the love song with an "if," a technique pioneered by the great Oscar Hammerstein II. Sure, there's such a thing as love at first sight, but it's a lot easier to buy with a little dramatic irony: the characters don't know they're in love, but we know what's going to happen. Modern musicals have explored different variations on this song type, from making it more cynical (often in experimental or rock musicals) or shifting it to be a "buddy" duet instead of a romantic one. Examples include: 

  • "Make Believe" from Show Boat 
  • "If I Loved You" from Carousel 
  • "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma! 
  • "I'll Know" from Guys and Dolls
  • "Falling Slowly" from Once
  • "Perfect For You" from Next To Normal

Comic List Song

Before musicals became more integrated and cohesive, it was common for lyricists to create songs that simply gave them a chance to show off their comedic rhyming skills. These songs were often catalogs of one-liners and topical references, and as such don't always age very well, although they're still fantastic fun just for the wordplay. The undisputed king of the comic list song was Cole Porter, although Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin certainly gave Porter a run for his money. Although the kinds of references have changed, modern composers and lyricists still can't always resist the temptation to write one of these songs. Examples include: 

  • "You're the Top" from Anything Goes
  • "Friendship" from DuBarry Was a Lady 
  • "To Keep My Love Alive" from A Connecticut Yankee
  • "Zip" from Pal Joey 
  • "La Vie Boheme" from Rent
  • "A Musical" from Something Rotten!

Plotless Act Two Opener

Intermission at the theatre has always been a huge pain, and the likelihood of everyone getting back to their seats on time is pretty small. What's a writer to do? In many cases, musicals will feature some sort of "bonus" number at the start of the second act. These songs usually have only a little to do with the plot, might involve secondary characters, and are more likely to be entertaining, dance-heavy numbers to ease audiences back in. Examples include:

  • "Masquerade" from The Phantom of the Opera
  • "It's You" from The Music Man
  • "Paris Holds The Key (To Your Heart)" from Anastasia
  • "Try Me" from She Loves Me
  • "Fidgety Feet" from An American In Paris
  • "One By One" from The Lion King
  • "Take Back Your Mink" from Guys and Dolls

11 O’Clock Number

It used to be that Broadway shows started at 8:45 pm (as exemplified in "A Quarter to Nine," in 42nd Street). This meant that most shows would be wrapping things up at around 11 pm, and it became a common practice to craft a penultimate number that would really stop the show, often allowing the star a chance to shine, downstage center. In many cases, these are emotionally rich moments, often at a character's lowest or most deeply-felt point in their arc, and so this is a song type that has endured across all eras and subgenres. Examples include:

  • "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music 
  • "Lot's Wife" from Caroline, or Change
  • "Being Alive" from Company
  • "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy
  • "What You Own" from Rent
  • "It All Fades Away" from The Bridges of Madison County
  • "Gimme Gimme" from Thoroughly Modern Millie
  • "She Used To Be Mine" from Waitress