What’s that? Never heard of ’em? For decades, those songs were heard only by employees at morale-boosting events, plus a precious few record collectors enchanted by what are known as industrial musicals.
Now one of those record collectors, TV comedy writer Steve Young, has had his quest turned into a hilarious and sweet documentary titled “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” The movie has already been picking up awards on the film-festival circuit, and it’s opening this weekend in Seattle for a regular run at the Varsity Theater.
Ironically, the innovations that have allowed Young to flesh out the little-known saga of industrial musicals — including the rise of the modern tech industry, the internet and online video — also contributed to the decline of industrial musicals.
Times were different during the genre’s heyday in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. “The earlier generation of tech companies definitely loved doing this stuff,” Young told GeekWire. He’s not talking about Microsoft or Amazon, which didn’t exist back then. He’s talking about IBM and Xerox.
Those companies, and others ranging from Ford and Oldsmobile to American-Standard, commissioned musicals that were meant to be seen only by employees, and heard again only on souvenir vinyl records that were distributed afterward.
The performances sometimes served as training sessions made more palatable with a spoonful of sugary lyrics, but at their heart, they were bonding experiences for the employees in the audience. “Suddenly they were being shown a version of their world in which they’re the heroes, and it’s glamorous,” Young says during one scene in the movie.
Industrial musicals were by no means low-class productions. They tended to draw up-and-coming songwriters and performers who were just looking for a little extra dough-re-mi. Songwriters like Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who did “Ford-i-fy Your Future” as well as “Fiddler on the Roof.” And performers like Florence Henderson, Chita Rivera and Susan Stroman, all of whom were interviewed for “Bathtubs Over Broadway.”
In 1956, the same year that “My Fair Lady” was produced on a budget of $446,000, Chevrolet commissioned a one-shot industrial musical at a cost of $3 million. “If you could be in four ‘industrials’ in a year, you could survive in New York,” Stroman recalls in the movie.
Young was drawn to the phenomenon while he was a writer for David Letterman’s late-night comedy shows. It was his lineup of quirky, vintage LPs that fueled a long-running shtick called “Dave’s Record Collection.”
Among the quirkiest records that Young collected were those souvenir records documenting industrial musicals. Thanks to online forums and auction websites like eBay, Young gleefully built up a thick stack of hits like “Diesel Dazzle” and “Got to Investigate Silicones.”
Young lost his comedy-writing gig when Letterman retired from late-night in 2015, but by then, his search for industrial musicals had become his passion. He wrote a book about the genre, titled “Everything’s Coming Up Profits,” and worked with film director Dava Whisenant to document the hunt for the people behind the productions.
Along the way, Young forged friendships with legendary figures on the industrial-musical circuit who are little-known today, such as songwriters Sid Siegel and Hank Beebe, and performers Patt Stanton Gjonola and Sandra Geller (stars of “The Bathrooms Are Coming.”)
“I found myself very inspired by the lessons of these writers and performers,” Young told GeekWire. He came to see strong parallels between the fleeting nature of industrial musicals and his own ephemeral craft of TV comedy writing. Both have their moment in the spotlight, but can “quickly be forgotten,” he said.
Today Young continues to take on TV gigs, but he’s also writing songs, teaching TV history at New York University, and doing what he can to make sure that “Bathtubs Over Broadway” makes a splash.
“The movie being done so beautifully, I feel like the war has been won,” he said.
Because of the film and the book, recordings of the old industrial musicals seem to be coming out of the woodwork. “I usually estimate that I’ve come across 1 to 2 percent of what’s been done in this field,” Young said.
Young hasn’t come across anything from Boeing or other companies with Pacific Northwest roots, but “Bathtubs” has a strong Seattle connection in the form of composer Anthony DiLorenzo, who’s lived in Seattle for more than a decade. DiLorenzo teamed up with Young to write the movie’s opening theme song, “It’ll Change Your Life.”
DiLorenzo also wrote a musical score that knits together the documentary scenes with snippets from the old musicals. “It’s kinda like the peanut butter between the bread,” he joked.
The composer is also a trumpet player with the Seattle Symphony, and recruited some of his fellow musicians to perform the score. “For documentaries, it is really unusual to have a small orchestra for a score,” DiLorenzo told GeekWire. “It’s really a labor of love.”
So what happened to the industrial musicals? Has anything taken their place?
In the 1980s and ’90s, musical theater became less of an art form for the masses. Big-name corporations have turned instead to big-name concerts to entertain their employees. Amazon, for example, brought in Lorde for its big post-holiday party at CenturyLink Field in January, and signed up Demi Lovato and Ariane Grande for this summer’s post-Prime Day celebrations.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is known for creating videos that boost employees’ spirits and poke fun at its corporate culture. The best-known examples starred Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in spoofs of “Austin Powers,” “The Matrix” and “A Night at the Roxbury.” For Gates’ epic farewell video in 2008, Microsoft recruited a pantheon of celebs including Matthew McConaughey, Jay-Z, Bono, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, Jon Stewart, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore.
There is the occasional epic fail, of course: The most infamous example is the song written for Microsoft’s raunchy dance routine at the Norwegian Developers Conference in 2012, which included this line: “The words MICRO and SOFT don’t apply to my penis.”
That sort of thing would never fly during the golden age of industrial musicals. But is that age really gone forever? In recent years, musicals have been making a comeback on the big screen (as in “La La Land” and next summer’s “Rocketman”) and on the small screen (with live performances of “Grease” and “Peter Pan” on prime-time TV). Even Young acknowledges that there could be an unexpected plot twist ahead.
“It may be we’ll see a resurgence in this,” he said.
Check out IndustrialMusicals.com to learn more about the movie and Young’s book, “Everything’s Coming Up Profits,” and to listen to more than a dozen songs from industrial musicals.