Steve Young never expected to become obsessed with industrial musicals, the sub-genre of original Broadway-style shows produced for corporate conventions. Originally, he just tracked down souvenir records of shows like toilet-maker American Standard’s The Bathrooms Are Coming or Ford’s Ford-i-fy Your Future as part of his day job as a writer for David Letterman, so his boss could make fun of them. Slowly, he says, he came to the realization that he was “still humming some of these songs to myself later on, about repairing Beetle engines or selling insurance. It seemed too good for what, at first, I thought to be just something to make fun of.” That ambiguous attitude is on display in the new book Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, co-written by Young and Sport Murphy, who met Young when they were bidding against each other for industrial LPs on eBay.
A companion website offers some of the songs, like Golden Harvest, an ode to tractors written by the songwriters of Fiddler On the Roof: “Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959! With the new Ford tractors, the future’s lookin’ fine!” And throughout the book, the writers evaluate the quality of every musical they can find, whether it’s Florence Henderson urging car salesmen not to let a customer leave without buying something, or the bluesy lament of An Exxon Dealer’s Wife. “One of my favourites is Follow the Road, for a Dominion Road Machinery, Toronto, 1975 sales meeting,” Young says. “It’s a fantastic musical about road graders. Canada can be proud of that one.”
He’s not kidding about the sense of pride. Young and Murphy are fascinated by the writers of these musicals and how seriously they took their work. Some of them went on to Broadway, others never got their big break, but all of them tried to turn out professional-quality work for a small audience of employees, and the authors find that a little bit inspiring: “They had a real determination to produce top-shelf work,” Murphy says. “Not only the work impresses me, but so does their cynicism-free attitudes about their careers.” Young adds that it’s a tribute to the talent of these songwriters that they were able to write “almost pretty good” songs about corporate goals: “It’s easy to write a song about love; it’s hard to write a song about spark plugs.”
The musicals, and the albums they spun off, may also be valuable as a cultural snapshot of corporate history. The phenomenon started in the 1950s, when corporations were much more respected than they are now, and when they were more likely to do things like create musicals to boost the morale of their sales and marketing people. “There was a sense in the ’50s and ’60s of a simpler time; people trust big corporations, we’re all riding this wave of prosperity and boom times,” Young explains. As the years go on, he adds, “you start to see a certain cynicism set in,” and by the late 1970s, when industrial musicals started to fade away, “there’s a sense that the world is changing. You feel nobody trusts big authority anymore, whether it’s government or big corporations.”
Today, when big corporations are no more trusted than they were in the late ’70s, the industrial musical is almost gone—but not completely. Companies occasionally revive the format as a way of demonstrating that they’re rich enough to mount these lavish entertainments. Actor J. Austin Eyer recalls playing the lead role in a Wal-Mart show from 2006: “I played Dennis, the slacker stock boy, who goes through a journey with an older and wiser employee who teaches him the core values of Wal-Mart.”
But that show was created for Wal-Mart’s shareholders, not its workers. The idea of a corporation spending that kind of money to entertain its employees seems to belong to a bygone era, which is why Everything’s Coming Up Profits has such a sense of nostalgia for a happier, sunnier time in corporate America. The musicals, Murphy says, “sold the sales force on the company mission and the need for teamwork. It’s easy to be cynical about it all, as goofy as these things are, but that spirit might be a component in what made American business what it was then, and no longer is.”