5 Classic Broadway Song Types

Performance of Carousel
Performance of Carousel. David M Benett/Getty Images Entertainment/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. Here's a sampling: 

  • "I Want" Song - As the name implies, an "I Want" song expresses what a character is looking for, hoping for, longing for, typically toward the beginning of the show. A good "I Want" song can lay the foundation for strong character development, and set 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; "Somewhere That's Green," from Little Shop of Horrors; "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin; "Now/Soon/Later," from A Little Night Music; and "The Wizard and I," from Wicked. 
  • 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 do. 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; and "The Girl That I Marry," from Annie Get Your Gun.
  • 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. 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. 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; and "The Saga of Jenny," from Lady in the Dark. 
  • Dance Craze - This one's a little long in the tooth, but there was a time when Broadway was a launching pad for the latest dance sensation. Songs of this ilk would typically arise from some flimsy pretext -- if there was any justification at all -- and might involve some rambunctious supporting character enjoining the entire gang to join in on the fun. Examples include "The Varsity Drag," from Good News; "The Charleston," from Runnin' Wild; "The Lambeth Walk," from Me and My Girl; "Shipoopi," from The Music Man; and "The Time Warp," from The Rocky Horror Show. 
  • 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. Examples include "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," from Guys and Dolls; "I'm Going Back," from Bells Are Ringing; "The Brotherhood of Man," from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; "So Long, Dearie," from Hello, Dolly!; "Send in the Clowns," from A Little Night Music; "Memory," from Cats; and "Lot's Wife," from Caroline, or Change.