NEW YORK — You might expect Steve Young to be at loose ends. After all, it’s only been two months since the job at which Young has spent more than half his life — writing jokes for David Letterman — came to an end.
But Young, 49, who grew up in Pepperell and graduated from Harvard, is consumed by a passion project that is as offbeat as anything he ever did for Letterman. He’s shining a spotlight on the strange-but-true phenomenon known as “industrial musicals,’’ which Young calls “the final major chunk of 20th-century pop culture that had never been examined.’’
Industrial musicals were original, Broadway-style productions commissioned by corporations and presented to employees, distributors, and industry insiders at conventions and sales meetings. From the 1950s to the 1980s, when they began to wane, hundreds of these live stage shows were presented each year, according to Young. They took place in hotel ballrooms, convention halls, auditoriums, resorts, and traditional showbiz venues like Radio City Music Hall, and the casts could include future big names, such as the 1956 Oldsmobile show that featured a pre-“West Side Story’’ Chita Rivera.
“It’s this lens on America from this angle we never saw before,’’ Young says. “It’s musical history, it’s social history, it’s business history. It’s everything. It’s this upside-down version of everything we think show business is supposed to be.’’
This Thursday at 8 p.m. at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre, Young will present film clips from this quirky genre in “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Film Show’’ (which grew out of a 2013 book he coauthored with Sport Murphy, “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals”). Along with clips of shows created for companies like Citgo, Purina, General Electric, Kellogg’s, and Hamm’s beer, Young will show the film version of an irresistibly titled 1969 American Standard musical, “The Bathrooms Are Coming,’’ along with a bit of a documentary on industrial musicals he and a team of filmmakers are making.
It’s a very specialized branch of scholarship Young finds himself in — “I’m kind of the Smithsonian Institution for this very narrow field,’’ he jokes — and he’s clearly savoring it, singing memorized lyrics at the drop of a hat. “I get so gleeful getting to spring these things on people,’’ he says in an interview at a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “We were never meant to see this stuff.’’
With titles like “Got to Investigate Silicones’’ (a 1973 musical for General Electric’s silicone products department), industrial musicals came complete with boosterish song-and-dance numbers about the products, operations, and ethos of the companies that produced them. “The juxtapositions just killed me: the peppy show tunes and the lyrics about selling ball bearings,’’ says Young. “I couldn’t write anything this hilarious. And it was real.’’
Indeed, the lyrics in industrial musicals could be very . . . specific. Consider the sentiments expressed in “Proximity Limit Switch,’’ a musical number performed at a machine tool forum held in Pittsburgh by Westinghouse in 1974: “What a nifty package! It does most any job! / You change the sensitivity with one adjustment knob! / To use the head remotely, no panel space required! / And here’s the plus, Gus — the head’s not DC wired!’’
Lyricists somehow came up with product-centric rhymes like “Slow speed fan, enclosed compressor / Make the customer say ‘Yessir’ ” (from “Up From the Valleys,’’ a 1968 York air conditioner show).
It was not unheard of for heavyweight songwriters to create an industrial musical. In 1959, the same year Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick were enjoying a Broadway hit with “Fiorello!’’ (and five years before their blockbuster “Fiddler on the Roof’’), Bock and Harnick wrote a musical for the Ford tractor and implement division called “Ford-i-fy Your Future.’’ One song, designed to inspire the sales force, proclaimed: “Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959! Gonna be a lot more buyers to sign that dotted line! With the new Ford tractors, the future’s looking fine!’’
The shows combined company propaganda, morale bolstering, and tips for productivity and career success, such as “Team on the Beam,’’ a 1962 Colgate-Palmolive household products division show with the song “Think Big, Mr. Colgate’’: “Think big, Mr. Colgate, think big! Think the biggest oak and not the twig!’’ But the musicals were also about employees’ work lives: Though some shows were revues, others had a narrative through-line that revolved around the challenges faced by those in the audience, be they middle managers or car dealers or plumbing fixture distributors or salespeople.
For example, there was “One Man Operation,’’ a song from “Diesel Dazzle,’’ created in 1966 for the Detroit Diesel Engine Division of General Motors, written by Hank Beebe and Bill Heyer, whom Young calls “the Lennon and McCartney of industrial musicals.’’ In the song, a wife rejoices that her husband’s crushing workload has been alleviated by the hiring of “two mechanics, a parts and service man, a girl to take the calls and keep the books . . .’’
Slowly, over time, industrial musicals began to reflect the growing diversity of the US workplace, adding African-American characters and elevating women to roles as executives or saleswomen. Sometimes they served as a way to throw a sharp elbow at the competition, such as the 1986 Pepsi show that mocked the debacle the previous year of the “New Coke.’’
Long before he became an expert on industrial musicals, Young had a well-developed sense of the absurd. Growing up in Pepperell, he honed his comedic sensibility by reading Mad magazine and the humor pieces of Woody Allen, and when he arrived at Harvard, Young joined the staff of the Harvard Lampoon, whose president at the time was Conan O’Brien.
“He was a very big early influence,’’ says Young. “He had this X factor. When he walked into the room, there was this electricity: Things were about to get really funny.” When Young married Revere native Samantha Shubert in 1989, the ceremony took place in the Lampoon building.
After graduation, Young tended bar in Allston and tried his hand at stand-up and improv before landing a writing position at HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News.’’ Let go after only six weeks, he rebounded with a job writing for The Comedy Channel, the precursor to Comedy Central. Then, in early 1990, Young heard that NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman’’ was looking for writers. He was 24 when he was hired and would remain with Letterman for the next quarter-century.
As Young continues to explore industrial musicals, he finds enjoyment in the genre’s dreck and classics alike. “The great stuff is fantastic,’’ says Young. “And the terrible, misguided stuff is fantastic in a different way.’’
Industrial musicals were not open to the public. On occasion, companies would have souvenir albums recorded and mail them to employees. Young started to collect the albums two decades ago, while compiling material for “Dave’s Record Collection,’’ a segment on the Letterman show. “Days and weeks later, I would find myself humming tunes,’’ he recalls. “I asked myself: Why is this stuff so good?’’
It probably had to do with the talent of the creative teams and the casts. John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,’’ “Chicago”) created an industrial musical. Martin Short performed in a 1974 Chrysler musical, and when Young interviewed Short in May for the documentary, the actor burst into a song from the show. Other stars included Valerie Harper, Hal Linden, Florence Henderson, David Hartman, and Mary Louise Wilson. Composer Cy Coleman wrote a musical for Ford. Before she directed the blockbuster stage version of Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,’’ Susan Stroman choreographed an industrial musical for Miller Beer.
Though many of the performers, directors, and songwriters viewed them as career steppingstones and/or a way to pay the rent, they generally gave it their all, out of professional pride and, often, a certain solidarity they felt with the strivers in the audience. “It was ‘OK, I’m going to do a show about lawn mowers, but it’s going to be the best show about lawn mowers I can do,’ ’’ says Young.
As with the mainstream branch of showbiz, a spirit of competitive one-upsmanship inevitably took hold, with each company determined to outdo the other when it came to the wow factor of their musicals, an attitude Young summarizes as: “If Plymouth had 12 dancers, we have to have 20.’’
However, after the 1987 stock market crash, and as tastes in entertainment and approaches to motivation changed, industrial musicals began to die out. By the 1990s, Young says, the genre survived mainly in productions commissioned and presented by car companies and pharmaceutical firms.
“In the last decade, though, there’s been a bit of a resurgence,’’ he says, sounding hopeful. “It’s come back a little bit.’’
EVERYTHING’S COMING UP PROFITS: The Film Show
At: Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, Thursday at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $11, 617-876-6837, www.brattlefilm.org