A Brief History of the Industrial Musical

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Post-WWII, behind closed doors in the United States' bustling businesses, a peculiar bit of showbiz was born: the industrial musical. These lavish shows were put on to boost the morale of a workforce while imparting brand platitudes. If you've never heard of industrial musicals, you're in good company. None of these elaborate productions were ever meant to be seen by the public, even though the creative minds behind them had names that lit up Broadway.

Why would companies put on shows for employees who'd probably rather see a bonus?

In today's less secure economy, an expenditure like a musical seems downright gauche. In the context of post-war America, however, the atmosphere was quite different, largely because of the surging economy, which was helping the musical theater industry experience its own boom. Productions like West Side Story, Damn Yankees, and Guys and Dolls achieved mass popularity and made it to the silver screen. Corporate America noticed and figured that shows tailor-made for their companies would have similar appeal. What better way to liven up stodgy industry events than to put on a big, rollicking show made by bona fide writers, performers, and musicians?

What workers got were shows like this one from the mid-1950s, put on for the Chevrolet sales force (never mind the guy at 2:24 celebrating his grandmother's curvy physique):

Who Produced These Shows?

The thought of "selling out" didn't worry the talented and well-known theater professionals who put on these shows—they were happy to take the job. People like Kander and Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) and Bock and Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) penned industrial musicals extolling the virtues of General Electric, Oldsmobile, Coca-Cola, and more. This illustrious pool of talent wrote songs that could have easily passed for traditional musical theater numbers, had they not been about lightbulbs or family sedans.

The 1966 industrial musical Go Fly a Kite, presented by General Electric and written by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Walter Marks, was performed at that year's Electric Utility Executives Conference. It featured the catchy song "PDM Can Do," about the exciting world of power distribution management:

Can you spot and forecast trouble,
Switch equipment in and out? -- Can do! Can do!
Can you sense things well enough to make reports about? -- Can do! Can do!
We can read folks' meters and make out the bills they get!
What can't we do? -- The waltz, I bet.

It's not easy to find material from these shows, but bits and pieces are out there, including this gloriously weird (and flat-out politically incorrect) short film made for Dodge starring the great musical satirist and scientist Tom Lehrer (writer of "The Elements," sung here by Daniel Radcliffe):

Note the Dodge-friendly jabs at their automotive competitors: "Only squares today drive a Chevrolet!"

The Bathrooms Are Coming!

Sometimes, industrial musicals were downright bizarre. In Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, authors Sport Murphy and Steve Young reveal rare lyrics and promotional materials for tons of these shows, including the 1969 American-Standard production, The Bathrooms Are Coming!, which featured catchy tunes about toilets. Murphy said that Young recently found a full-length film of Bathrooms and described it as "fascinatingly awkward." This is certainly apparent when you consider the privacy of your everyday commode while listening to the ballad "My Bathroom."

The best resource for industrial musical media is the companion site for Everything's Coming Up Profits, which features a handful of songs and links to even more on iTunes. The book is a wealth of information about this genre of shows and discusses the many recognizable names involved. A pre-Brady Bunch Florence Henderson got her start in industrial musicals as well as Ernie Cefalu, whose album design for the International Paper Company show Dolls Alive! led to his later work, the Rolling Stones' Forty Licks cover.

Murphy says that we outsiders are not the only ones who might find the industrial musical genre a little bit ridiculous. These shows were really meant to serve as a "pressure valve" for everyone from the CEO to the workers on assembly lines, providing some "gentle ribbing" that was just self-aware enough to make it easier to look each other in the eyes at meetings.

The Death of the Industrial Musical

Like many fads, the industrial musical faded. Rather than go through the trouble of staging a whole show, celebrity appearances became the preferred corporate attraction, a practice that has survived, but nowadays can be met with minor scandal and resentment. But fans of nostalgia, musicals, and good ol' American industrial might should be tickled to learn about this oddly glamorous mid-century movement.

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March 17, 2014 - 1:00pm
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