After an informative and robust opening number, a telling “I want” song, and potential romance introduced by the “conditional love song,” the audience may be ready for an intellectual and emotional break. In Chapter 5 of The Secret Life of the American Musical, Viertel introduces the concept he calls “The Noise.”
Musicals depend on rhythmic energy shifts. Quiet thoughtfulness must be followed by noisy energy, and vice versa.1
Purposes of Production Numbers (or “The Noise”)
Giving examples from South Pacific, The Book of Mormon, Hello Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof, Viertel shows there are three main purposes for these high-energy production numbers.
1. Shed a little light on the situation
In South Pacific, “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” is a fun break that’s loud and showy, but it also sheds light on the culture and emotion of the situation at hand—the loneliness of the soldiers in World War I. Even though the song doesn’t move the story forward per se, the sentiment was familiar and touching to those living in the post-war era.
2. Recharge the audience
The audience has been paying close attention to understand the setup of the story and the initial motivations of the characters. After an intense study session, who doesn’t need a good jolt of joe?!? Sometimes a production number is inserted only to provide a brain break and a fresh burst of energy! A big, showy dance number for pure enjoyment is a reward for the audience staying with you thus far. They won’t mind if it’s relatively independent from the main storyline. Remember—it’s a MUSICAL! The audience paid to have a good time!
Viertel mentions examples from the classics such as “Jubilation T. Cornpone” from Lil Abner, “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” from Damn Yankees, “With a Little Bit of Luck” from My Fair Lady, “A Bushel and a Peck” from Guys and Dolls, and the article’s namesake “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello Dolly!.
A couple examples from more modern musicals include “Turn It Off” from Book of Mormon and “The Bitch of Living” from Spring Awakening.
Writing Tip for Production Numbers: “Rate of Release”
As you map out your “noisy” production number, consider Jerome Robbin’s concept of “the rate of release of ideas.”
…as soon as the audience has understood a visual idea and taken pleasure from it, another idea has to be presented. As soon as the sound of a trio has been enjoyed, the quartet has to enter, then the octet, then the entire company. Timing is everything. If an idea overstays it’s welcome, the audience gets bored. If a new idea intrudes before the last one has been fully digested, the audience will be denied the proper introduction of a new pleasure and become confused or frustrated.2
Does it occur to anyone else that Viertel is describing something that, by and large, no longer exists? The notion that you start with a trio, move on to a quartet and then an octet is risible when shows today usually don’t have that many people on stage. These days, creating “The noise” involves mimicking the bigness of classic musicals using more modest means. E.g., the way the comedy builds in the Toad Looks Funny In a Bathing Suit sequence in the five-actor musical, A Year With Frog and Toad.