The “I Want” song (also called an “I Wish” song) is a popular type of song featured in musical theatre, and has become a particularly popular term through its use to describe a series of songs featured in Disney Renaissance films that had the main character singing about how they are unsatisfied with their current life, and what they are searching for.
Knowing that Menken was classically trained in structure by his genius partner, the late Howard Ashman, not to mention his years with Disney, I looked for the “I want” song in the score. It was there, but it was that stupid western-fantasy number about going to Santa Fe. All right, I said to myself, time to squeeze this lemon. I devised a prologue to set up Jack Kelly as our hero and leader of the Newsies. I made him an aspiring artist who lives in a rooftop hideout. As the curtain rises he and Crutchie, a physically challenged boy, are just waking up to start their day. The boy worries that he won’t be able to keep selling newspapers because his bad leg is getting worse. Jack cheers the boy’s spirits with the promise that one day they’ll escape the city altogether and make a new life for themselves in the clean open air of Santa Fe. Cue the song! “You want to open with what?” Menken was perplexed to say the least. “‘Santa Fe,’ sung as a lullaby to Crutchie. Yes! It’s his promise to make life better for them”:
Don’t you know that we’s a family?
Would I let you down?
No way! Just hold on, kid, till that train makes Santa Fe!
“And then, at the end of Act 1, when the entire world comes crashing in on Jack, the battle is lost, his friends are defeated, he barely escapes with his life, he climbs back to his rooftop hideout and, in desperation, unleashes an emotionally charged reprise of the song, crying out to the skies for salvation!”
Just be real is all I’m asking,
Not some painting in my head!
’Cause I’m dead if I can’t count on you today—
I got nothing if I ain’t got Santa Fe!
Alan listened and nodded. He was sold. Jack was already adjusting the lyrics for both versions, and we were on our way.
For the record—if you think I was happy allowing a physically challenged child to be named Crutchie you still don’t know me. But, as I said, whenever possible, I had to respect the intangible magic that made the original so beloved. Hateful as I found it, I knew there were those who would miss a boy dubbed Crutchie if I renamed him.
I Was Better Last Night