by Julie Rose, producer of “The Morning Show” on BYU Radio
“I’m free! I’m free! I’ve closed out the world, I’m free,” belts a woman on stage, admiring herself in a mirror.
It is 1969 and this is the 1969 American-Standard Distributors convention. You’re here to learn about the latest toilet and sink innovations.
“My bathroom!” croons the woman on stage. “My bathroom is my very special room where I primp and fuss and groom.”
Welcome to the world of industrial musicals, where major corporations like Sears, Ford and American Standard hired professional composers, lyricists and performers to stage full musical productions like “The Bathrooms Are Coming!” and “Diesel Dazzle” for use at company meetings and industry conventions.
How I wish I’d been a corporate salesman back then. Or, even one of the marketing minions in a Mad Men-like agency dreaming up the plot line for a musical to tout the versatility of silicone, the latest line of Keds sneakers, or the miracle of electricity.
That last one came with its own double-entre-laden ode to electrical current: “Please don’t alternate,” purrs a woman with a sultry voice over a bossa nova beat. “Please don’t vacillate. Please don’t start to purr and let your current variate! Cause I need to feel your spark, constantly.”
GE commissioned that musical (called “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”) from Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team behind “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” It was the show that first turned Steve Young onto the industrial musical genre. (He was trolling record shops for “unintentionally funny” music to feature in a segment on the Late Show with David Letterman, for which he writes.)
Young became obsessed with tracking down more recordings of these little-known industrial musicals. He met many of the composers and performers. (The woman who sang “My Bathroom” married another cast member of “The Bathrooms Are Coming” and danced to the score at their wedding!)
The best of these musicals are compiled in a new book by Young and Sport Murphy called “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of the Industrial Musical.” And since Young shared some of his favorite tunes on “The Morning Show” this week, I cannot get them out of my head! They’re so catchy and fun and well-written, you almost forget you’re swaying along to a tune about tractor.
They’re corny, to be sure. But Young says these industrial musicals embody an age when hope for prosperity and the American dream were in full bloom. A time when a woman could sing about being a farmer’s wife, proud that her husband has a Diesel tractor and now his business is growing. He’s no longer “a one man operation.” He’s always got a smile on his face and he has time for the kids and they go on vacation. See, the industrial musical wasn’t just about talking up the new product or sales strategy.
“Composers have told me about watching from the wings as managers and dealers just had tears streaming down their faces watching this stuff, because a really well-done song that hits home and tells them, ‘You guys are doing the job and we know it and appreciate you,’ that was powerful,” says Young.
Times have changed, to be sure. This week on “The Morning Show” we also talked with Dick Bolles, who wrote the best-selling book, “What Color is Your Parachute?” more than 40 years ago. It’s still an indispensable guide for job-hunters. Sure the internet has changed the way we apply for jobs, but the best way to get one hasn’t changed, says Bolles: Decide what you like doing and where you’d like to do it. Then go convince that company to hire you.
What’s really changed since Bolles wrote “Parachute” in 1972 is the relationship between companies and their employers. There’s not as much trust as there used to be, he says. People can’t count on having a job at the same company for their entire career. They can’t count on having a pension in retirement. They can’t even count on retiring at 65, anymore.
No wonder it’s hard to imagine a large corporation today getting anything but scoffs from employees for staging an industrial musical to rally the troops at a company meeting.
And yet . . .
“I do think that we might turn the corner and get back to a world where America manufactures stuff and feels like we’re charging ahead and walking into a better future,” muses Young. “These shows were often a part of that feeling. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a return to exactly this stuff, but I hope the spirit of it will reassert itself.”