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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.

conditional love songs flow chart
Graphic by Amanda Prahl.

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.


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I feel like "Think How It's Gonna Be" from Applause also fits. Bill and Margo are already in love, but he's about to fly off to Rome, she's missing him before he's even left, and he sings to her that she shouldn't be sad because he'll be back. The entire premise is conditional: "Think how it's gonna be when we're together again." So maybe there needs to be a category for "Thwarted love - Duet" or something. They aren't bonding. And they aren't discovering their mutual loathing. There's probably a lot of songs like that one.

I've always liked Irving Berlin's number from Annie Get Your Gun:

They say that falling is love is wonderfulIt's wonderful, so they sayAnd with the moon up above, it's wonderfulIt's wonderful, so they tell meI can't recall who said itI know, I never read itI only know they tell me that love is grand, andThe thing that's known as romance is wonderful, wonderfulIn every way, so they sayTo leave your house some morningAnd without any warningYou're stopping people shouting that love is grand, andTo hold the girl in your arms is wonderful, wonderfulIn every way, so they say

Would "Something There" from Beauty and the Beast count as a conditional love duet?

Also, would "Think of Me" or "All I Ask of You" from Phantom of the Opera count?

Thank you for this excellent essay; this is something I've observed as well. Andrew Lloyd Webber famously remarked about Tim Rice (whose songs include "I Don't Know How to Love Him"), "Tim can never say 'I love you.' It's always, 'I love you, but..." I would submit that Oscar Hammerstein (and Hart, as noted by another commenter) created the prototypical "I love you, but" songs. (By the way, I wonder if Rice called Lloyd Webber and said "see?" after writing the Transformation number in "Beauty and the Beast," when Belle and the Prince sing, "I love you!")

This is such an insightful essay. Are you working on putting together a longer collection of thoughts on musical theater? I would read more of your thoughts on the subject. A book perhaps?

Great essay! And maybe it partially explains why I like classic musicals so much, since often my favorite songs (including, as you mentioned, "I"ll Know" from GUYS AND DOLLS "People Will Say We're In Love" from OKLAHOMA) are conditional. I also love "Goodnight My Someone" and "Till There Was You" from THE MUSIC MAN... would you say that either of those qualifies as a form of conditional?

And what about one of my somewhat more obscure favorites, "I Won't Send Roses" (from MAC AND MABEL) in which Mac -- after listing reason after reason why Mabel shouldn't get involved with him (all involving how he is just not the romantic type, even incapable of remembering her birthday or holding a door for her), sings the tremendously moving (because it is so unexpected) tag line: "...and roses suit you so."

Thank you so much; I'm glad you enjoyed this! Classic musicals really do build on these types of songs, and then their reprises (Oklahoma does the reprise structure very well by turning the statement, "People will say we're in love" into "Let people say we're in love" in Act 2).

Great question about the songs from The Music Man. I would say that "Till There Was You" is not a typical conditional love song, as it discusses a love that has already bloomed. If one interprets the song as being about how Marian's life would have continued in the same way had Harold not appeared, it might belong to the backwards conditional category, but the lyrics are more about a specific past, not a would-be/"if" future. "Goodnight My Someone", due to its placement relatively early in Act 1, is closer to a typical conditional love song, although even it is slightly unusual for being sung as a solo and not directly talking about what love would be like; instead, it reads like a conditional love song crossed with a lullaby.

I would say "I Won't Send Roses" is a sort of conditional love song, because it talks about what a relationship would be like. But it's another subverted one (I won't instead of I will), and the context is much darker- typical conditionals are about denying/postponing the inevitable (a happy romance), but Mack really is right that he wouldn't be a very good romantic partner.

Absolutely! Rodgers's collaborations with Hart are easily overlooked because his later collaborations with Hammerstein were so legendary, but the first R&H really did pave the way for the second partnership's work. "This Can't Be Love" would definitely be in the category of a "denying love" song, although it doesn't rest as heavily on the "if"s as some of the later songs of this type. Thanks for the addition!