How The 'Golden Age' Of Corporate Musicals Used Songs To Boost Sales
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BATHROOM IS A PRIVATE KIND OF PLACE")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) My bathroom, my bathroom is a private kind of place - a very special kind of place. The only place where I can stay, making faces at my face. My bathroom...
BIANCULLI: Why would someone write a sentimental ballad about a bathroom? For the same reason someone would write a rousing song about tractors - so the song could be used in an industrial musical. These musicals were like Broadway shows, but they were written for corporate sales meetings and conventions. And the lyrics were all about the products being sold and how to sell them.
And as ridiculous as the songs were, they often were written and performed by really talented people. A few had lyrics by the young Sheldon Harnick who later became famous for writing the lyrics for the Broadway hits "Fiddler On The Roof," "She Loves Me" and "Fiorello!" John Russell performed in dozens of them. And Steve Young, who used to write for the "Late Show With David Letterman," wrote a book about them. The book was called "Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age Of Industrial Musicals."
Young's passion for these industrial musicals is now the subject of a new documentary called "Bathtubs Over Broadway." Terry Gross spoke with Steve Young and with composer Sheldon Harnick and singer John Russell in 2013 when Young's book was published. Before we hear them, let's hear a little more of "My Bathroom."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BATHROOM IS A PRIVATE KIND OF PLACE")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) My bathroom, my bathroom is my very special room where I primp and fuss and groom - where I can get away from all and really feel in bloom. I'm free. I'm free. I've closed out the world. I'm free. I'm free. I'm free. Now at last I can really be me in my bathroom. My bathroom, my bathroom is much more than it may seem, where I wash and where I cream - a special place where I can stay and cream and dream and dream and dream and dream.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK. I love that song. Steve Young, Sheldon Harnick, John Russell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. Steve, you wrote the book "Everything's Coming Up Profits." Where is this song from?
STEVE YOUNG: This is from a 1969 American Standard convention show in Las Vegas. And it was for the distributors of all the American Standard bathroom fixtures. Many of the songs on the record are filled with details about the new line of shower stalls and tubs. But this was really more of an anthem...
YOUNG: ...An ode to the business as a whole - why they do what they do. And it's a remarkable piece of work that I've been humming around the house for 20 years.
YOUNG: And everybody who hears it is just floored by it.
GROSS: I love the subtext of this is - 'cause the subtext is, like, this poor woman has no privacy at home. Her family's driving her crazy, so she has to lock herself in the bathroom (laughter) to find any peace. Sheldon Harnick, you are such a brilliant lyricist. Thank you for coming. What do you think of the lyrics to "My Bathroom?"
SHELDON HARNICK: Oh, it's a very professional, romantic ballad about a bathroom so that I couldn't help but chuckle all the way through it. But it's extremely well-done. I would quibble with one rhyme. I think it was - the writer was a little stuck for rhymes for room. So he said, I'm in bloom or something like that...
GROSS: Yes (laughter).
HARNICK: ...Which I thought was a rather weakly - but aside from that, it's a very professional job.
GROSS: And well-sung. John Russell, you're the singer in this group. How would you grade her singing?
JOHN RUSSELL: Well, beautiful. It was terrific.
RUSSELL: I just thought it was spot on.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, before we talk with John Russell and Sheldon Harnick about their roles in writing industrial musicals, Steve Young, what's the history of these musicals? Where did they start? Like, what are they, and where did they start?
YOUNG: These are musicals, often full Broadway-style musicals, that were written for company conventions and sales meetings. They were never for the public to hear. They were only to educate and entertain and motivate the sales force so they would leave the business meeting - going out revved up to sell more bathtubs or typewriters or tractors or insurance plans or what have you.
GROSS: How did you even get interested in these?
YOUNG: It goes back about 20 years. I've been a writer for the Letterman show since the early '90s. And when I got to the show, I was asked if I could head up the old Dave's record collection segment in which - on the show, Dave would hold up strange, unintentionally funny records. We'd hear a little clip. Dave would have a joke. I was the one finding the strange records. And in these days when there were still used record stores in the city, I would come home with William Shatner singing or "Hear How To Touch Type!" I also started finding these very odd corporate artifacts that I didn't really understand at first. But I would find myself singing these songs to myself days or weeks later and thinking, why is this song about diesel engines so catchy?
YOUNG: Why am I still wandering around singing about my insurance man? And it was because they were fabulously well-done in many cases. And it was a hidden part of the entertainment world but huge budgets - professionals doing their best work, oftentimes. And I just decided I had to find out about this for myself.
GROSS: Well, Sheldon Harnick, you are so well-known and loved for your musicals, including "Fiddler On The Roof" and "She Loves Me" and "Fiorello!" How did you end up writing lyrics with your partner - your late partner Jerry Bock for industrial musicals?
HARNICK: Well, I only did one industrial with Jerry. That was for the Ford Motor Company. The other - I started writing lyrics out of desperation. I was broke and wondering where my next job - my next meal was coming from, although I had had several successful review songs on Broadway. And then I got a phone call from an advertising agency.
And it turned out that they were doing a new industrial. I think it was for the Shell Gasoline Company. And they knew my review songs. So I got a call to do an industrial. I had no idea what that was. And I said, how do I find out what I'm doing? And they referred me to their musical director - the wonderful musical director named John Morris, who later wrote several scores for the Mel Brooks movies.
Anyway, I went over to John's. He gave me a tutorial and told me how to write an industrial. And so I did the first one for Shell Gas, which was, thank God, successful. We had at that time - they did not use original music, or at least not the ones that I worked for. The theory was that the salesmen who were attending these conferences - they'd have enough work just to hear the lyric and absorb that without having to absorb new music, too. So I was told I could use whatever music I wanted to, which was great fun. I used my favorite show tunes. And then, a couple years later, I found out somebody had done an industrial and used Meredith Willson's "Trouble" from whatever that...
GROSS: "The Music Man," "The Music Man."
HARNICK: "The Music Man." And somebody in the show was a friend of Meredith Willson's and wrote to him, saying, Meredith, you would've been delighted to hear this new lyric to "Trouble." Well, Meredith was not delighted.
HARNICK: He sued. And after that, any industrial I did the music had to be original because they were just breaking the law by setting new lyrics to all these tunes. So at any rate, I did write about - I don't know - four or five industrials. And then Jerry and I got the chance to do this huge industrial for the Ford Tractor Company.
GROSS: I want to play a song from it, and this is called "Golden Harvest." And what was the goal of this song?
HARNICK: I no longer remember. Probably - it sounds like it must've been profit.
HARNICK: "Golden Harvest" suggests that whatever we were doing was going to make money...
HARNICK: ...Selling tractors.
YOUNG: Well, the whole theme of all these shows beyond entertainment was to boost sales and profits. The title of the book "Everything's Coming Up Profits" actually lifted from an industrial show in my collection for GAF Floor Tile.
YOUNG: It's a miserable show, but the title does really kind of set the scene for the whole industry and the genre.
GROSS: OK. So, Sheldon Harnick, do you actually remember this song? 'Cause if not, hearing it will perhaps bring back memories.
HARNICK: I don't remember, and I'm looking forward to hearing it.
GROSS: Oh, I can't wait to hear what you think of it. OK.
GROSS: So this is "Golden Harvest," a song from an industrial musical for the Ford Tractor Company.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN HARVEST")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959. Gonna be a lot more buyers to sign the dotted line. With the new Ford tractors, the future's looking fine. Now's the time to roll your sleeves up 'cause if you rise and shine, gonna be a golden harvest in 1959.
(Singing) Gonna be a lot more business, oh yes, oh yes indeed. Wait'll everybody hears you, got exactly what they need. Just like Jack and the beanstalk, you've got a magic seed. Now's the time to roll your sleeves up, go out and take the lead, gonna be a golden harvest with (unintelligible).
(Singing) Turn your tractors and implements to a bumper crop of dollars and cents. Turn your tractors and implements to a bumper crop of dollars and cents. Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959, gonna be a lot more buyers...
GROSS: OK, Sheldon Harnick, now that you've heard your 1959 song "Golden Harvest" from an industrial for Ford tractors, what do you think?
HARNICK: I miss Jerry Bock.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
HARNICK: I think that the music was exciting and just right. And I just remembered, at least in the shows I did, I did not have a totally free hand to create lyrics. They gave me things to say. They gave me slogans. They gave me information that they wanted in this song. And listening to that song, I was thinking, gee, I did a nice professional job. And in the first section there's - there must be about five or six rhymes for shine. (Laughter) And that's well done. And I love what Jerry, did some of those yum-budum-budum-bum-bah-dum (ph), those rhythms, they're very catchy. It's a good song.
YOUNG: Sheldon, I have to congratulate you on the rhyme of implements and dollars and cents.
YOUNG: It's one of the examples of the kind of rhyme that really appealed to me when I started collecting...
GROSS: Can we pay tribute with a whole line? Turn your tractors and implements to a bumper crop of dollars and cents. That is so great.
YOUNG: That's great.
YOUNG: That's what you don't get anywhere else but in these shows, is that sort of unexpected combination.
GROSS: And Steve Young, what was the point of spending so much money on these industrial shows?
YOUNG: There was the belief for quite a long time - I don't know if there was ever hard data to back it up - but if you bring everyone together for this thrilling theatrical experience - and it often actually was thrilling to the audience - then they would have a renewed sense of purpose. They would get out there. And many of the songs were packed with information about details of the new products or the marketing strategies that were being presented.
GROSS: And how was the money for you, Sheldon Harnick? Do you remember?
HARNICK: Oh, boy, I was so broke. It was very important for me. When I was doing them, they didn't yet have big stars. So I didn't get the kind of money that the writers got later. But later, they had people like Chita Rivera. They had wonderful performers and literally stars. But I was - as I say, I was so broke that whatever I got paid was very important and very impressive to me.
GROSS: We'll talk more about industrial musicals with author Steve Young, singer John Russell and the great lyricist Sheldon Harnick after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're talking about the golden age of industrial musicals, when musical shows were written and performed for corporate sales conventions with lyrics about new products and how to sell them. My guests are Steve Young, the author of the book, "Everything's Coming Up Profits," John Russell, who sang in dozens of industrials and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who wrote songs for a few industrials, including one he collaborated on with Jerry Bock before they became famous for "Fiddler On The Roof" and "Fiorello."
Let's hear another Sheldon-Harnick-Jerry-Bock collaboration. And this is also for Ford. And it's called, "More Power To You." Steve, what can you tell us about this?
YOUNG: This one is talking about the new range of tractors and their extreme competence in all the bewildering and constant tasks that bedevil the farmer. It was actually so popular, I believe within the Ford tractor division, it was brought back for the next year's show, even though Sheldon and Jerry were not on the next year's show. They reprised the song on the record I have from the 1960 show.
HARNICK: Oh my, nor were we paid for it.
YOUNG: Oh, yes, sorry to be the bearer of bad news here.
GROSS: Well, the good news is that the year that this was performed for the Ford tractor company, the Bock-Harnick musical "Fiorello" was staged on Broadway and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. So things - things worked out good.
HARNICK: And we had no tractors in that show at all. (Laughter).
GROSS: No tractors at all. (Laughter). OK.
YOUNG: They were cut in rehearsal.
GROSS: So this one's called "More Power To You." And after we hear it and it refreshes your memory, Sheldon Harnick, we'll ask you about writing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY BOCK AND SHELDON HARNICK SONG, "MORE POWER TO YOU")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The work of the world is never done. It never lessens, shrinks or diminishes. There's always mowing, towing, bailing, nailing, seeding, breeding, spreading, shredding, clipping, stripping, shaking, raking. It never finishes. But the work of the world is getting done with more efficiency and economy as Ford helps lighten each chore and this year more than ever before.
(Singing) More power to you with the Power Master, the Work Master and the Power Major too. More power to you. You provide the tractors that do more than any other tractors do. Endurance and mobility, power and versatility, safety, dependability, that's Ford. More power to you with the Power Master the Work Master and the Power Major too. Now let's hit the sunny trail to Yuma. Let's jump the gun on the consumer and see what's really new. More power to you.
GROSS: Stirring (laughter). A song by my guest, Sheldon Harnick, which was co-written with his late music partner, Jerry Bock. They also wrote - they also wrote "Fiddler On The Roof" and "Fiorello" and "She Loves Me." This is a song from a Ford tractor industrial musical. And also with us is Steve Young, who has a whole new book about industrial musicals called "Everything's Coming Up Profits." John Russell is with us, too. He sang in some of these musicals - not in the one we just heard.
So Sheldon Harnick, now that your memory is refreshed about this song that you wrote for the Ford tractor industrial musical, what do you remember about writing it?
HARNICK: I remember my heart sank when the company gave me the information that I was supposed to put into the song. I thought, oh, good gracious. How am I going to do this and make it a singable song? But I managed particularly because Jerry Bock was so clever at taking all these words and - some unmusical words - and finding ways to put them into singable songs. So as I was listening to the song, I was very impressed, especially by what Jerry had done.
I was also listening to that long string of rhymed words at the beginning, shaking, baking or whatever (laughter) that was. I don't remember - I wish I could - whether all of those words were words that I had been asked to put into the song or something that my thesaurus provided me along the way. And of course, the consumer rhyme is thanks to Yip Harburg.
YOUNG: Was it?
HARNICK: Well, I didn't take it from him, but the style that Yip Harburg had established.
HARNICK: And Ira Gershwin, that was very influential.
GROSS: You mean in making it consuma (ph) instead of consumer?
GROSS: So it can rhyme with Yuma? (Laughter).
BIANCULLI: Sheldon Harnick, Steve Young and John Russell speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. "Bathtubs Over Broadway," a new documentary about industrial musicals, is now in select theaters. We'll hear more after a break. And critic-at-large John Powers reviews the new film, "Vox Lux." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WESTINGHOUSE'S "EASY AS A, B, C (THE SHAPE OF TOMORROW, 1957)")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today we're talking about the golden age of industrial musicals, musical shows written and performed for corporate sales conventions with lyrics all about new products and how to sell them. These odd musicals are the subject of a new documentary, "Bathtubs Over Broadway."
Our guests today are Steve Young, whose fascination with this odd little corner of show business is explained in his documentary, John Russell, who sang in dozens of these so-called industrials, and Sheldon Harnick, who wrote lyrics for a few of them before becoming famous for co-writing the songs for such Broadway hits as "Fiddler On The Roof," "She Loves Me" and Fiorello. Terry spoke with them in 2013, when Young's book about industrials, "Everything's Coming Up Profits," had just been published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: John Russell, as a singer in these musicals, how did you get into the business?
RUSSELL: I had - I'm originally from Los Angeles. And after I got out of the Army, I came to New York to be an actor. And the first industrial I did was for Bell Telephone. And it was choreographed by a lovely man named Frank Wagner, who was my dance teacher. And I auditioned. And I got the job. And that's what started me doing - and that was in 1970. And over the next 25 years, I did 82 different industrial shows.
RUSSELL: Yeah, first of all, I must also say that any of my fellow performers who are listening to this interview know me as Peter Shaun (ph). That was my stage name.
GROSS: Why did you need a stage name? Why didn't you go with John Russell?
RUSSELL: Well, when you join the unions, you can't have the same name as another actor, and John Russell was an actor. He had a television series called "Lawman."
GROSS: Oh, I remember that.
RUSSELL: Yeah. So I had to completely change my name.
GROSS: OK (laughter) so let's...
RUSSELL: Oh, I...
RUSSELL: I just wanted to - while it's on my mind - you were asking Sheldon about parody lyrics in shows, and I did - the most awful show I ever did was for Maidenform bras.
RUSSELL: And to show you how tacky it was, the producer-director came to the rehearsal studio one day with a trunk full of costumes that he had accumulated over the years. And he dumped them out on the floor and said to me find something that fits.
RUSSELL: And the only thing that fit was a ringmaster's outfit. So - and we did the show in a resort in the Catskills, and it was - I was the only man. There were eight beautiful, young women who were brassiere models. And one of the songs that I had to sing was a parody of "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story." And instead of it be (singing) see that pretty girl in that mirror there, I sang (singing) see that pretty bra in that window there. Whose can that attractive bra be?
RUSSELL: (Singing) Such a pretty strap, such a pretty cup, such a pretty - and the girls would say (singing) such a pretty me, Maidenform, Maidenform.
RUSSELL: It was just humiliating.
YOUNG: Well, that one never made it onto a record album.
GROSS: Right now, I want to play a song that John Russell, aka Peter Shaun, is on, and this is a song called "Up Came Oil" from a 1976 Exxon show called "The Spirit Of Achievement." John, Steve, you want to fill us in on a little background of this musical before we hear the song?
RUSSELL: It was written by a wonderful composer and lyricist named Claiborne Richardson. And we did the show in about - I think it was eight different cities around the country.
YOUNG: This is another song that's sort of a big-picture anthem. This is the history of the petroleum industry in song. This is not about specific Exxon sales programs. They do have that as well. But this is a very stirring bit of infotainment about the petroleum industry.
GROSS: And the part where John Russell sings starts with the words spindle up because there's more than one lead singer on this.
RUSSELL: Exactly right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP CAME OIL")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Oil's been around for centuries, sure, floating in springs, in lakes and the streams. The Indians used it for a medicine cure but never in the wildest of dreams did anyone think that black, sticky stuff always in short supply would ever have power enough to gush its way to the sky.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) When up came oil, up came oil.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Once that Edwin Drake dude struck the bubble in crude as his drill cut through the soil...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Up came oil, up came oil.
RUSSELL: (Singing) Spindle top turned it around. The world soon saw just what oil could mean. Starting off slow, flowing out of the ground, then refining that crude to pure kerosene.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) Oh, we really started cracking with a process (unintelligible) when a guy named Burton appeared. The history of oil has kept us all surprised 'cause it's only been 100 years.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Since up came oil, up came oil...
HARNICK: I'd love to know who the orchestrator was on that because, whoever it was, to use a harp to suggest the bubbling of oil up out of the ground, that was brilliant.
RUSSELL: It was Bruce Pomahac.
GROSS: Oh, yes.
HARNICK: Oh, my goodness. And now he's in charge of music at Rodgers & Hammerstein.
GROSS: So that's Sheldon Harnick talking about the harp - the great lyricist Sheldon Harnick who wrote one of the industrial musicals. We heard my guest John Russell singing one of the vocals on that. Also with us is Steve Young, who wrote the new book "Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age Of Industrial Musicals." This is such a kind of post-rock musical musical.
YOUNG: Yeah. My co-author in the book, Sport Murphy, has a wonderful piece about this song in which he notes that it's really a collision of old-style Broadway with this newer 1970s semi-rock style, which the corporations were always trying to pick up on what's the trend in music and what's the latest sound and try to follow it as closely as they could. They're always a couple steps behind, and sometimes their attempts fall a little flat. And they're - what they think is rock 'n' roll might not qualify to most of us. But "Up Came Oil" - very, very satisfying piece of work.
GROSS: We'll talk more about industrial musicals after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are lyricist Sheldon Harnick, singer John Russell and writer Steve Young, and we're talking about industrial musicals. Sheldon Harnick used to write for them before he became a famous Broadway composer. These industrial musicals are musicals with songs about the company (laughter) that sponsors the musical, and they're performed at conventions and sales meetings to inspire the workers to go out and sell.
There's a song that you write about in your book. When I hear this one, honestly it almost brings me to tears. It's like, oh, a woman singing about her husband - about how her one man is no longer a one-man operation anymore.
YOUNG: Oh, yes, from "Diesel, Dazzle" - first of all...
GROSS: Yeah, tell us about this show.
YOUNG: A fabulous title, which really does combine the two worlds colliding in one phrase - heavy industry of the diesel engine and the dazzle of showbusiness.
GROSS: So this is about the importance of expanding your shop - is that it?
YOUNG: Yeah, it was about understanding the trials and tribulations of the guy who's running the franchise to rebuild and sell diesel engines - but through the perspective of the put-upon wife. You see this quite often in shows. Sometimes wives came to these shows. And it was nice if you could put in a song about - we know what you go through with your husband working very hard. So it was the overworked husband as seen through the wife's perspective.
GROSS: And a song that just fits so oddly into the genre of songs about women singing about their man. OK, so this is "One Man Operation" from the 1966 show "Diesel, Dazzle." Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MAN OPERATION")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (Singing) He's coming home again, just like other men. At supper, he'll walk through that door. For the one man in my life, he's no one-man operation anymore - anymore. He knows what hard work is, and its rewards were his till work became a weary chore. But now the one man in my life is no one-man operation anymore.
Once he thought he could do it. But once more business came - rebuilding, selling, taking orders too - workdays, holidays, they all became the same. And it was night when his day was through. He did it all alone - keep books, attend the phone 18 hours every 24. But now my one the one man in my life is no one-man operation anymore - anymore.
Now he has two mechanics, a parts-and-service man, a girl to take the calls and keep the books. He spends weekends giving the children all he can and telling me how young his wife looks.
GROSS: I have to say - you know, I listen to that song, and I kind of laugh and cry at the same time because it's really hysterical, but it's actually so well-written. It's very moving. I kind of tear up when the..
HARNICK: And beautifully sung.
GROSS: Yes. And beautifully sung.
YOUNG: About a parts-and-service man or rebuilding that collides with that kind of music and that kind of performance - that's what really knocked me out when I first started these - finding these records was the crazy juxtaposition of the subject matter and the execution. I just could not believe it was real.
GROSS: Can we play one of the sillier ones from these industrials?
YOUNG: And that's saying something.
GROSS: Well, yes. I mean, this does not have a beautiful melody. It's to the tune of "Old MacDonald." Steve, you know the one to I'm talking about. You want to introduce it?
YOUNG: Oh, boy. That's right. Strap yourselves in folks.
YOUNG: This is from a 1971 Keds sales meeting. Fred Tobias and Stan Lebowsky - respected composers but, boy, were they put to the test on this. Somebody handed them a pile of information about children's sneakers and said, oh, you've got to put this into a song. Do your best - good luck. And it's wonderful and horrible at the same time. But even something so awful, I love it so much because it's so far beyond what you think a showtune should be about.
GROSS: OK, so here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OL' DON HADLEY")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #5: We all know about "Old MacDonald Who Had A Farm." Well, today we're going to learn about old Don Hadley (ph) who has a line.
(Singing) Old Don Hadley has a line - E-I-E-I-O - a children's casual footwear line - E-I-E-I-O. With a grasshopper here and grasshopper there - here a sneaker, there a sneaker, everywhere a kid's Ked. Old Don Hadley has a line - E-I-E-I-O. Now, five more speakers join his line - E-I-E-I-O.
The first is called the new regatta. The new regatta, you'll sell a lotta (ph) - a molded rub, a boat shoe with two-color sole and foxing too, a round-toe last and wedge heel, the first children's wedge heel, four colors and durable duck, a natural to make a buck, children's retail 6.45. For misses, it will be 6.95, very attractive at that price. The dealer markup is very nice. Old Don Hadley's line gets hotter with the new regatta.
YOUNG: I'll just point out we only got through one of the five sneakers. This song goes on for over five minutes.
YOUNG: And you can just imagine the guys sitting in the audience at this starting to look at their watches in alarm and just thinking, oh, my God, are they really gonna go through five sneakers to the tune of "Old MacDonald"? And they did it.
GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, your take on the lyric - are you glad you didn't have to write this?
HARNICK: I am. But I was impressed by regatta and lotta.
HARNICK: That's another...
YOUNG: Desperation often inspires interesting escape routes.
GROSS: Well, thank you, Sheldon Harnick, John Russell, Steve Young. It's just been great to talk with you all. I really appreciate your time. And just thanks.
YOUNG: Very welcome. My pleasure.
HARNICK: Thank you.
RUSSELL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: And, Steve, do you have another favorite you'd like us to end the show with?
YOUNG: Oh, my goodness. What's a good juicy one full of hardcore selling? Do you have a York Air Conditioners song?
GROSS: Oh, I like that one. Yes, excuse me (laughter). Some of these are just so much fun. I like that one because it's like a lesson in - you know, when you're selling to a woman who doesn't understand air conditioning...
YOUNG: That's right - how to go door to door.
GROSS: These are the things you need to tell her. But there's this kind of, like, feminist thing happening, too, because then, like, women chime into the song and start...
YOUNG: That's right. We start seeing that.
GROSS: ...Singing about the more technical aspects of it (laughter).
YOUNG: And listen for the Hall of Fame rhyme - compressor and yes, sir.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, great. We will hear it. This has been great fun. Thank you all so much.
YOUNG: You're welcome. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LESSON")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) How to sell an air conditioner - that's a lesson for today.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Mrs. Housewife's coming to the door. Now, tell us what you're going to say.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) How'd you do? Nice day we're having, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) No, it's hot. What you got to sell?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) By chance, it's air conditioning.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) So far, he's doing pretty well.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Aren't they noisy as can be? Do they help humidity? I hear they cost an awful lot.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Well, I think - I would guess I ought to know exactly what's what.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Windows closed, the room is quieter. We remove humidity.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Sell your house, you'd get a better price. It's paying for itself, you see.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Would you recommend one model that'll do what it ought to do?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Let's see.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) How about...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) The York Champion II.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Oh, that's a pretty name. Tell me about it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing) I know all about it. It's got an external reset button, no non-profit service call to pay. You simply push, push, give a little push and everything's OK.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Oh, there's a horizontal coil. Don't you know a horizontal coil keeps the blow just 18 inches high? - no great, big, ugly looks to greet the eye.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Vertical air discharge fan - hot air since fans began - hit the shrubs, hit the neighbors. But today it's up, up, up and away.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Twelve-speed fan and closed compressor makes the customers say, yes, sir. Sealed off and slow speed we found means a quiet, whisper sound.
BIANCULLI: "Bathtubs Over Broadway," the new documentary about industrial musicals, is opening in select theaters. Terry's interview with Steve Young, Sheldon Harnick and John Russell was recorded in 2013. Coming up, critic at large John Powers reviews the new movie "Vox Lux" starring Natalie Portman.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing) Quiet whisper, quiet whisper, quiet whisper sound.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Shh.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER BAND'S "I WANNA GET OLD WITH YOU")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.