Even if you're a fan of Broadway, you might have never heard of industrial musicals before. That's not unusual, though: they weren't designed for the public.
Between the mid 1950's up until the 80's large companies would entertain guests and employees at trade shows and conventions with elaborate, Broadway-style musicals. The songs were generally catchy, the production quality usually high and the lyrics and plot revolved almost exclusively around company matters: shoe design, toilet sails, tractors, new cars.
Steve Young — a former writer on the Late Show with Dave Letterman — is one of the world's leading experts on these mostly unheard of productions. He collects souvenir records given out to employees in attendance along with even harder to find video recordings of these musicals. He'll be showing both live on Tuesday, September 29 at Cinefamily on Fairfax.
All kinds of companies put on musicals. Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric, even McDonalds:
Young says companies staged productions like these in hopes they'd improve morale and teach its salesforce about new products in a fun, catchy way. But how do you measure that? "I don't know how you really make that a solid connection," says Young. "It seems very anecdotal."
For the performers and writers, though, there was no question: an up and coming actor could make much more money in a traveling performance paid for by Kellogg than on Broadway proper. Many writers cut their teeth in these shows before going on to successful careers—Young has found industrial musicals written by John Kander and Fred Ebb (of "Cabaret") and a Ford tractor show penned by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who'd later go on to write "Fiddler on the Roof."
The practice petered out by the mid-1980's and, with very few exceptions, remains a relic. Young believes these musicals died out partly because musicals in general became less popular, but they were a sign of a different corporate culture in America.
"It really was quite an innocent time," says Young. "There was this real feeling for quite a while of 'Well, we're all pulling together in the same direction. If we all do great, we all win together.' And there was a feeling among many of these companies that you're gonna come back to the show every year, for many years. Because you're spending your career with us."
Industrial Musicals comes to the Cinefamily on Tuesday, September 29 at 7:30pm. Eleni Mandell performs live and Germs drummer Don Bolles will DJ. For tickets and more info, check Cinefamily's website.