When Madison Avenue Met Broadway: The World of Industrial Musicals (An Encore Broadcast)
This week, we explore the little known and surprising world of Industrial Musicals. In an unexpected collision of Madison Avenue and Broadway, companies in the '50s began staging full-fledged musicals in an effort to inspire their employees, parade new product lines and boost morale. We'll look at one company that tripled the production costs of My Fair Lady to inspire its sales team, another that unknowingly funded one of the most iconic novels of our time, and the handful of companies that still practice the art of Industrial Musicals today. Nothing inspires a marketing department quite like choreographed tap dancing. Hope you'll join us.
This ditty is from an elaborate J.C. Penney sales conference in the early '60s.
It's an important little piece of marketing history.
Because without that J.C. Penney tune…
…the iconic novel To Kill A Mockingbird might not exist.
Composer Michael Brown met James Cash Penney in the early 50s.
James Cash Penney, also known as J.C. Penney, established the J.C. Penney chain in 1902.
Penney hired Brown to write Industrial Musicals for his company beginning in 1952. In the postwar days, corporations like J.C. Penney would stage elaborate musicals to motivate their sales force.
These were big song & dance shows penned by the top Broadway composers, performed by top Broadway talent on big stages.
They were on par with the biggest Broadway musicals of the day – with one big exception - Industrial musicals were written to sing the praises of companies.
And that's how Michael Brown came to meet J.C. Penney.
Meanwhile, Brown and his wife, Joy, had met a new neighbour of theirs in New York. She was an aspiring writer from Alabama, who worked the ticket counter at Eastern Airlines.
Her name was Harper Lee. The Browns liked her a lot.
One Christmas, Michael and Joy Brown took some of the money from one of Michael's lucrative J.C. Penney industrial musicals, and gave Harper Lee a gift.
It was a cheque worth a year's salary tucked inside a card that said: "You are free to take one year off to write whatever you like."
With that incredible gift, Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird…
The era of Industrial Musicals is an interesting chapter in the world of marketing.
From the early '50s to the late '80s, corporations staged elaborate, full-scale musicals that often cost more than the biggest Broadway shows.
They had all the same ingredients – singers, dancers, sets, costumes and orchestras.
Except for one thing.
It was less Guys & Dolls, and more Guys and Plumbing Conferences…
Thomas Watson Sr. was a man with a future.
Recently fired from the National Cash Register Company in 1914, he knocked on the door of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company in Endicott, New York, and was hired as General Manager.
Eleven months later, Watson was promoted to President. One of the first things he did was change the name of the company - he didn't like the hyphenated Computing-Tabulating-Recording moniker - and changed it to International Business Machines, which he took from the name of a Canadian subsidiary.
International Business Machines eventually became known as IBM, and in Watson's first four years, revenues doubled to over $9 million.
He not only implemented systems, sales conferences and customer service standards, he was evangelical in his belief of instilling company pride.
One of the ways he did this was through company anthems.
Watson called them "fellowship" songs. The melodies were stirring and the lyrics inspired loyalty and high ideals. In 1927, he began collecting them in a company songbook, with the odd title, Songs Of The IBM.
One of the most popular songs was the 1931 IBM rally song, Ever Onward, sung at company conferences and workplace gatherings.
Trainees were required to sing March On With IBM every morning while attending the IBM salesmanship school.
You may think it odd that a workforce would sing earnest anthems to the man who hired them and the company that paid them, but you have to put this practise in context.
These were the Depression years, and one quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed.
Company employees embraced the singing because they were simply grateful to have a job.
When Thomas Watson Jr. took over IBM after his father died, he started to eliminate the anthems.
He believed their time had passed, and even felt his father had taken them too far, citing an IBM classical symphony Watson Sr. had commissioned in 1936 as an example.
But Thomas Watson Jr. quickly realized that many employees loved the joie de vivre the songs inspired, and getting rid of the anthems wasn't easy. People loved musical get-togethers.
During the '40s, the war-weary public flocked to theatres to see glamorous Hollywood musicals for fun and diversion. When the war ended in 1945, six of the top ten movies were musicals.
When television arrived in the '50s, Hollywood started to feel the pinch at the box office. But musical theatre was alive and well on Broadway.
Crowds were drawn to the uplifting energy, emotion and spectacle of big musicals.
Like Thomas J. Watson Sr. before them, that phenomenon didn't escape the attention of corporate America, and companies wondered if tailor-made musicals could work the same magic on their workforces.
In their terrific book titled, Everything's Coming Up Profits, Steve Young and Sport Murphy chronicle the emergence of Industrial Musicals. According to the authors, three trends converged to create business-themed musical theatre.
First, postwar America was booming, turning out two-thirds of the world's manufactured goods by 1955.
Second, companies started to turn to new psychological methods to motivate employees.
And third, musicals were now mainstream entertainment and the soundtrack could be enjoyed at home due to the advent of long-playing 33 RPM records.
Corporations were looking for ways to spice up their annual sales conferences, and they were flush with money.
That meant they could afford to hire the top Broadway composers, singers and dancers.
Many of these talented artists were happy to take the industrial gigs, because it allowed them to hone their skills and make good money between Broadway shows.
As authors Young and Murphy say, Industrial Musicals were amazingly well done, but sound somewhat ridiculous when viewed from the outside.
Instead of singing about love and romance and the human spirit, they were singing about diesel engines, floor product divisions and electric utility executive conferences.
Take one of the earliest Industrial Musicals on record, created for Oldsmobile in 1953.
The show was titled, The Mighty "O".
It was the first all-musical announcement in Oldsmobile's history, and it would set the stage for splashy new automobile launches for decades to come.
The Mighty "O" was introducing the 1954 models, and had a big orchestra, sets, costumes, dance numbers and a cast that starred a very young Bob Fosse, who would go on to become one of Broadway's foremost choreographers.
One of the big showstopper numbers was The Demonstration Blues, sung by the supposed girlfriends of Oldsmobile salesmen, who keep canceling dates because they have a chance to sell an Olds 88.
The Mighty "O" had a cast of 24, elaborate sets and a big orchestra. It played to Oldsmobile dealers, managers and salesmen.
The following year, Oldsmobile staged another big musical theatre show for its Olds 88 model.
The show cost $250,000 to tour around the country and the cast of 17 included Chita Rivera and a future Riddler, Frank Gorshin.
In 1957, Olds unleashed the musical, This Is Oldsmobility, with songs belted out by a young Florence Henderson, who would one day become Mrs. Brady on The Brady Bunch.
On the back of the soundtrack album, which was handed out to the Olds dealers, was the line: "Use this record again and again as the rousing start to YOUR sales meetings!"
You gotta love the optimism.
And the budgets.
Chevrolet staged a 1957 musical with a cast of 36 performers that cost $3 million to mount – six times what it cost to bring My Fair Lady to the stage that same year.
In 1959, Ford rallied the troops with a big Industrial Musical, titled, Ford-ify Your Future.
The musical was composed by the Broadway songwriting team of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.
A few years later, this same team would have a slightly bigger Broadway success with this musical:
But before Fiddler On The Roof, Harnick and Bock were fiddling with a musical for the Ford Tractor and Implement Division.
This show featured the classic structure of a typical Industrial Musical.
The first number was a showstopper that celebrated the brand, and was titled The Answer is Ford.
The next number was about the relentless workload of a typical farmer – that only a Ford Tractor could lighten.
Then comes the answer, Ford Tractors:
Can't you just see him, standing beside his tractor, hands on hips, farmer's hat tilted rakishly to one side, looking out over his… furrows?
Just when you thought industrial musicals were merely entertainment, they also snuck some marketing lessons in there…
In 1961, Coca Cola staged a huge musical called The Grip Of Leadership to celebrate its 75th anniversary.
As you can hear, the shows weren't just mounted for entertainment, but also to reinforce some Coke marketing strategies:
Five years later in 1966, the General Electric Utilities Executives Conference is a standout musical because it was written by John Kander & Fred Ebb.
This was no run-of-the-mill songwriting team. Kander & Ebb would write this musical while writing the General Electric show:
Kander & Ebb would also go on to write the Broadway smash, Chicago, and this little number:
But for General Electric, Kander & Ebb wrote a musical called Go Fly A Kite.
As silly as these tunes may seem, you get an appreciation for how skilful these superstar composers were at putting very difficult lyrics into musical numbers.
You have to remember you're not listening to a jingle, you're listening to a stage show, with singers and dancers and sets. That same lyrical skill was on display with the slightly suggestive, Be Direct With Me.
But when it comes to the best Industrial Musical of all, most ad historians are unanimous.
It was a 1969 show for plumbing giant American Standard, called The Bathrooms Are Coming!
It was staged in Las Vegas at American Standard's Distributor Conference.
The purpose of the show was to dazzle distributors with the new line of American Standard fixtures and toilets.
A bathroom storage cabinet for martinis and cigarettes. Ah, gotta love the '60s!
When Industrial Musicals moved into the '70s, the subject matter changed somewhat.
The Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation did an entire show about birth control, for example, as the Pill was one of its leading products. Here is a song that was adapted from the musical South Pacific, titled There's Nothing Like A Dame – with slightly altered lyrics.
Note the lyrics only referred to a "married female" as it was still politically incorrect for single women to use birth control in the early '70s.
When disco hit in the late '70s, Industrial Musicals slipped into their platform shoes, and used musical numbers to introduce sales managers just before they gave speeches. Oh, those poor music writers.
All good things have to end, and the curtain started to fall on Industrial Musicals in the late 1980's.
The cost of mounting big stage shows was becoming prohibitive. Recessions and cyclical layoffs made workforces too cynical to sing along with company musicals.
Coincidentally, the commercial jingle business had its last gasp at the same time, too. It seemed in an age of David Letterman irony, belting out a tune about dog food or a show-stopping dance number about industrial flooring would induce more eye-rolling than sales.
But… just when you thought corporate tunes were dead….
I recently discovered this ditty. It wasn't a big stage musical, but a corporate anthem for the accounting firm, Ernst & Young:
When you think about it, Ernst & Young's Oh Happy Day was a slightly funkier version of IBM's Ever Onward:
From Thomas Watson's fellowship songs to Industrial Musicals to corporate anthems.
What's old is new again.
Back in 2014, a Dallas travel agent decided he wanted to celebrate travel companies in this world of plan-your-own-trip Internet sites.
So he mounted an off-Broadway show called Craving For Travel. He hired a Tony-winning producer, a playwright, and found backing for the $300,000 production.
The 85-minute show got a lot of attention for its novelty, but what the press didn't realize was that it was a throwback to the era of Industrial Musicals.
When Madison Avenue met Broadway, it was an odd collision, because the resulting musicals were never meant to be seen by the public.
That's why a song titled My Bathroom Is My Special Place can be sung irony-free.
It was a way to celebrate the company, parade new product lines, and boost morale. Author Steve Young says those shows were a kind of "pressure valve" for the workforce. A way to kick back and have some fun.
But I can't help feeling those shows were more of a hot poker. Because the underlying message to every show, from Ford Tractors to Coca Cola was to sell, sell, sell.
Music has the potential to rouse. And storytelling set in spectacle has a hypnotizing effect.
Maybe that's why corporate anthems haven't completely gone away.
Walmart employees sing a chant-song every morning before the doors open.
And the folks at Ernst & Young can still break it down.
But that's the power of industrial musicals, they can fuel loyalty, enthusiastic salesmanship and every once in a while, even a Harper Lee…
…when you're under the influence.