The Impossible Dream

There are a lot of theatre songs that a lot of people fundamentally misunderstand, like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy and "Life of the Party" in Lippa's Wild Party, neither of which is happy, in case you're not sure.

But the one that hurts me the most is "The Quest." What? You don't know that one? Yeah, that's 'cause the pop singers called it by its subtitle, "The Impossible Dream." So many people perform it like this big, majestic anthem, with a shameless "money note" at the end. That's the opposite of what this song is.

(FYI, a "money note" is a changed final note to a song, changed for no reason other than to show off the singer's voice. It's never appropriate in the theatre. Never.)

"The Impossible Dream" is a prayer. It's about humility. Don Quixote would never approve of a show-off who goes for a money note at the end of a prayer! The life of a Knight Errant is about service and humility, not ego.

One of the central questions of the play is whether it is crazy to see only the best in people and in the world. In Quixote's case, part of what people find insane about him is his utter selflessness, that everything he does is for others. It's not his optimism and his idealism which make people doubt his sanity; it's his extremism. Nothing in his life is done in moderation.

As he sings in “The Quest,” Quixote's goal is:
To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go.

To right the unrightable wrong,
To love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star.

Think about that lyric. These all sound like noble aims, but they are aims which cannot be realized. What does it really mean "to fight the unbeatable foe"? If he is unbeatable, why on earth would you fight him? Why should a person attempt something at which he can never succeed? Quixote (and the musical's creators) believes that by setting your goals low, you won't achieve everything you're capable of, that the struggle is more important than the achievement.

That's also the point of every story based on the classic Hero Myth. It's the journey that shapes us, not the destination. Or as a shared Facebook graphic puts it, "Maybe it's not about the happy ending. Maybe it's about the story."

But also notice that in context, this is not a show-off song. He's not bragging. He's alone at night in a courtyard, keeping vigil in honor of His Lady. This song is a prayer to give him strength. Not accomplishment, strength.

He sings:
This is my quest,
To follow that star --
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far.
To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause.

The point is you have to attempt what you cannot achieve, to be the best you can be. The dream that carries you the furthest is the impossible dream.

What's in it for us? Well, for Quixote...
And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest.

The payoff is the peace and joy that comes from knowing you've contributed to the world, that you have filled the world with your passion and commitment. As someone who makes art for our community, I really understand those lines. As John Adams says in 1776, there are only two creatures of value, those with a commitment and those that require that commitment of others. Sounds like what we do.

And the song ends with a more universal perspective. Living life this way is not just good for each of us personally, but also for everyone around us. The world is a better place when we strive for greatness, partly for its own sake and partly because it inspires that same striving in others.

Believe me, I know.

That insistent pounding bolero beat in the accompaniment is a reminder that this is not a song about romance, fantasy, or love. This music is driving. This is a serious song about the serious endeavor of giving yourself over to the service and good of others.

WIth all this richness, complexity, humility, spirituality, who could cheapen this beautiful song by going for a loud, high "money note" at the end. That short-circuits everything this song is trying to do. The other, more practical reason singing the "money note" is a bad idea, is that almost all melodies (in western music) end on the root of the key they're in (i.e., a melody in C Major almost always ends on a C). A "money note" is never the root, so it makes the melody sound less resolved, less finished, less satisfying.

It's simple. A "money note," by definition, is not good music, and it's not good storytelling. As the song's composer Mitch Leigh told actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, "The song is about trying to reach the unreachable star, and that note makes it sound like you've reached it." Money notes are never humble; Don Quixote embodies humility.
And the world will be better for this,
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.

The world will be better because of this man. Isn't that what we all want? The next time you hear this song, listen to it. It has so much to teach us.

Long Live the Musical!


jjluner | July 21, 2019 at 1:37 PM

I love "... strove with his last ounce if courage.."

Chris Tracy | November 9, 2021 at 11:15 PM

I'm in my seventh decade of studying Joseph Cempbell, Scott, even sending my son to his Sarah Lawrence (much as JJ Abrams sent his) in hopes that his resonating legacy will imbue him with such wisdom, and I firmly believe he would stand with you, Kiley, Quixote & Cervantes on that Quest. Thank you for your barbaric "YAWP", sir; keep on sounding it.