Michael Brown, known for industrial musicals; at 93

NEW YORK — Michael Brown — a cabaret performer and songwriter known for his sprightly contributions to the industrial musical, an American entertainment genre that literally sang the praises of vacuums and zippers and autos and steel and who, as an improbable result of this work, bestowed on his friend Harper Lee the wherewithal to write her only novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” — died June 11 at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death, from lymphoma, was confirmed by his wife, Joy Williams Brown.

At midcentury, many US corporations put on Broadway-style musical extravaganzas for their employees. Typically staged for just a performance or two at sales conferences and managerial meetings and occasionally recorded for posterity, the shows were meant to rally the troops, a kind of “How to Succeed in Business by Dint of Really Trying.”


“They were entertaining, but they were also motivational,” Steve Young, the author, with Sport Murphy, of “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals” (2013), said in a telephone interview. “They presented the company as our great family that we’re all pulling in the same direction for.”

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Industrial musicals boasted professional casts — Florence Henderson and Dorothy Loudon are alumnae — and opulent production values. In an era when a Broadway musical might cost $500,000, its industrial counterpart could cost as much as $3 million.

They also had high-level composers and lyricists, including Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, known widely for “Fiddler on the Roof” and less widely for “Ford-i-fy Your Future,” the Ford Tractor show of 1959.

Mr. Brown was among the genre’s most sought-after creators. His shows — he supplied music, lyrics, and direction and often took part as a singer — were known, Young said, for “their high quality and general buoyancy and fun.”

For DuPont, Mr. Brown created “Wonderful World of Chemistry,” a show that in all likelihood has had the greatest number of performances of any musical in history.


It was the modest windfall from just such an industrial show — a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine in fall 1956, Joy Brown recalled this week — that let Mr. Brown and his wife to help usher “To Kill a Mockingbird” into being.

The Browns had met Lee through her friend Truman Capote. By 1956, Lee, an Alabama native, was living in New York. Her longed-for career as a writer was stymied by the need to pay the rent, and she was toiling away as an airline reservations clerk.

That Christmas, visiting the Browns, she spied an envelope with her name on it in the branches of their tree.

“I opened it and read: ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas,’ ” Lee recalled in a 1961 essay in McCall’s magazine in which she did not identify the Browns by name.