If I Loved You
The Evolution of the Conditional Love Song in Musical Theatre
Early on in nearly every musical, there’s a moment where two characters sing together for the first time. We know their relationship is important, but they can’t start out in love, or where would the story go? Instead, we get a “conditional love song”: a song in which the characters sing about love that is most definitely not about each other (so they believe, but we know better). This moment has evolved over musical theatre’s history, resulting in three types: the romantic duet, the buddy duet, and the solo.
A conditional love song, in its purest form, is about hope
Rodgers and Hammerstein were masters of the conditional love song, and Carousel’s “If I Loved You” is the gold standard: the characters don’t say “I love you,” they say, “If I loved you.” Billy and Julie start out imagining what life would be like and how they would act and feel if they were in love, but constantly interject the spoken couplet:
But you don’t.
No, I don’t.
By the end of the song, they’re in love, no matter how many “if”s they say.
Although popular in Golden Age musicals, this straightforward conditional song is rarely found today; Once’s “Falling Slowly” is probably the closest relative. Much of this has to do with the onward march of culture: the conditional love song relies on a resistance to admitting attraction, but we don’t really do coy anymore. Perhaps this is why, when this song does show up in modern musicals, it’s colored with a tinge of cynicism. The young couples of Spring Awakening and Next To Normal both sing duets of tentative romance, but with an edge: “The Word of Your Body” suggests that, should “if” become “when,” the love will be not a completion, but “a wound,” while “Perfect For You” starts out with a litany of the ways the planet is self-destructing. These are more jaded, modern, self-aware youths whose reasons for romantic hesitancy have more to do with cynicism than coyness.
Cynicism isn’t entirely new in the conditional love song: not-love-love-songs include Oklahoma’s “People Will Say We’re In Love” and “I’ll Know” from Guys And Dolls. In both cases, the couples sing about what love will be like, but insist that it definitely won’t be with each other, because they don’t even like each other!
This love-hate song is the template for the second type: the platonic. As musicals stopped focusing on romantic leads, the form evolved to suit it. On occasion, as with “We Can Do It” in The Producers, the song is just a platonic version of the duet bonding of classic conditionals.
In many cases, however, the buddy duet focuses more on a comic clash. In Wicked, “What Is This Feeling” deliberately plays with this expectation, starting out with lyrics that resemble a love-at-first-sight song, and then the punchline is that Elphaba and Glinda really feel “Loathing! Unadulterated loathing!” Similarly, The Book of Mormon features Elder Price and Elder Cunningham deluding themselves into thinking they’re forming a good partnership in “You And Me (But Mostly Me),” but actually creating an imbalance of power bound to comically self-destruct. Like their romantic forebears, songs of this type set us up to watch the most important relationship in the show evolve from stubbornness to love, but reflect a changing society that does not subjugate friendships to romances.
When the conditional love song is a solo, the real subversions begin. Even the form signals a break from the traditional correlation: the very act of making characters share music is a musical code that signals their compatibility. Without shared music, the code no longer functions the same, and the content and linguistics shift to reflect new meanings. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder makes it a backwards conditional in “I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You.” Instead of being about how happy she’d be if a man loved her, Sibella sings a faux-lament about how miserable she’d be if her lover wasn’t at her beck and call, all the while taking advantage of him. The lyrics of Pippin’s “With You” resemble the hopeful longing of a classic conditional:
My days are brighter than morning air
Evergreen pine and autumn blue
But all my days are twice as fair
If I could share
My days with you
However, the show subverts it by having Pippin direct the song at no one specific; rather, it turns into a sequence of his meaningless encounters, while the real love interest, Catherine, enters the story much later.
Though many of these subversions can be comic, a solo conditional love song can be heart-wrenching as well. See “Satisfied,” Angelica’s star solo in Hamilton. This is the other side of the conditional love song: not an “if” looking to the future, but an “if only” looking regretfully to the past. We are quickly permitted to see the chemistry between Alexander and Angelica, her delight, her brief hopefulness—all the makings of a conditional love song. But then it takes a turn, and she hides her feelings for her sister’s sake. At nearly the end of the song, Angelica gives us the regretful form of the conditional love song for a love that never would be.
But when I fantasize at night
It’s Alexander’s eyes
As I romanticize what might
Have been if I hadn’t sized him
Up so quickly
A conditional love song, in its purest form, is about hope; subverting it to be about a lost hope is a power move on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s part.
The conditional love song is a crucial part of the audience’s experience of a musical. While many modern musicals play with the form, the classics are beginning to reappear (see: Waitress’s “It Only Takes A Taste”). By setting up the most important relationship and its status quo, it begins the satisfying arc of watching characters come to know what we already do: they belong together.