The industrial musical is one of corporate America's more innocent best kept secrets. Bolstered by a post-war economic boom, large scale companies such as General Motors, GE and even Marshal Field's financed and produced full-length, business-themed musicals for their growing businesses in the interest of boosting morale and unifying their workforce.
If all of this sounds a little odd, that's because it is. Often described as "in-house propaganda," the songs were rarely, if ever, heard by the general public and even the most cocksure crate digger would be hard-pressed to find copies today.
Steve Young accidentally got his first glimpse into the history of the industrial musical while doing research for 'Dave's Record Collection,' a recurring segment on The Late Show with David Letterman, where he was a writer for almost two decades. Since then Young's co-authored a book entitled Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, and has become a leading expert on the genre (there aren't many, admittedly).
Oh, he also wrote the famed Simpsons episode "Hurricane Neddy" but we didn't really have time (or justification) to discuss that unfortunately. Maybe next time.
We caught up with Young over the phone to talk about the industrial musical and the origins of his obsession ahead of his show tonight at the Heights Theater. At the Heights, he'll present rare clips, including a 1970 sales meeting film for St. Paul's own Hamm's Beer featuring animation from Hanna-Barbera. The "crown jewel," however, is the 1969 American-Standard musical, The Bathrooms Are Coming! How could that not be great?
City Pages: You originally came across these while working on a segment for Letterman. What about these albums originally drew you to them? What's your favorite thing about them?
Steve Young: When I started finding the record albums over 20 years ago, I loved the juxtaposition of peppy, catchy tunes and the wildly improbable lyrics about selling insurance or diesel engines or bathtubs. As a comedy writer, it seemed like a new, thrilling form of comedy, but it had been done in earnest (though often with humorous touches).
And while I was initially looking for records to mock on the Letterman show, I soon found that the great quality of many of the shows won me over. I began doing research and interviewing the writers and performers. I love that some of these shows were terrific, some not so terrific, but they all give us a glimpse of a world we, the public, were not supposed to know about.
CP: These productions were used to boost morale and motivate salespeople. Why musicals, though? Why not just have a company softball game?
SY: I didn't grow up knowing anything about musical theater. But I've come to recognize that when done right, with talented people, these shows had a power to thrill and bond together and motivate an audience that other kinds of entertainment don't have. Old-timers have told me of observing salesmen and managers watching these shows with tears streaming down their faces when some particularly powerful moment hit them.
Songs and stories that told them, "Your work is noble and important ... for yourself, your family, the company, even America ... and we're all marching together into a better future." Perhaps it may seem corny now, but at their best these shows could be very moving. I recognize that while still maintaining that at their core they're also fundamentally funny.
CP: I understand many of the people who helped write and orchestrate these musicals were Broadway composers and I know you've spoken to a lot of them. What did they have to say about their experiences working in this particular genre?
SY: There were a lot of big benefits to doing this stuff and it paid very very well. These jobs were sought after, they would treat you right on the road. it was excellent practice for your craft and it was an excellent way to write clearly and precisely. If you can write a song about a ford tractor you won't be intimidated by other subjects.
CP: Then given they often employed such a talented staff of writers, why are so many of these songs so objectively bad?
SY: If you have a vice president who wants a song about this and then 10 other people tell you what these one should be like. you're struggling with such a difficult situation to begin with. A fair amount of it was quite good, one of the films is the American Standard musical — The Bathrooms Are Coming! — 1969, very silly, amateurish in many ways but still very well executed, very good music.
CP: So, what about this should intrigue modern audiences who might know nothing about industrial musicals?
SY: They will see and hear things they were never meant to see or hear. They will enter a world where musical theater can be about gas stations or plumbing fixtures or dog food promotions, things that seemed crazy… and people with a straight-face and earnestness went ahead and produced it. Some of the moments are head-scratching and then some of are very, very catchy.
Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue., Dec. 1.
Where: Heights Theater.
Tickets: $11; more info here.