Books for the News, History, Music, Sociology

The Wonderful World of Chemistry

“With Antron and Nylon and Lycra and Orlon and Dacron, the world’s a better place. You know we all have a smile on that started with Nylon and stretches across each happy face.”
King of the jingle (and prince of the cabaret), Michael Brown wrote and directed DuPont’s “industrial musical” The Wonderful World of Chemistry, which would air an unprecedented 14,600 times, or 40 times per day, during the two-year run of the 1964–65 World’s Fair in New York City.
(It should be pointed out that a bit of research on Timothy D. Taylor’s forthcoming The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture led us here. The book hones in on the indiscriminate blurring between advertising copy and popular music, unearthing an as-yet unclaimed piece of our cultural history—the musical aesthetics of consumerism, and its buzz-buzz-buzzing.)
Brown was a children’s book author, lyricist, and producer, who penned tales about Santa Mouse and put the words, literally, in Carol Channing’s mouth during a run of Sugar Babies. The Wonderful World of Chemistry was his masterpiece, among songs scribed for notable Broadway musicals (like “Lizzie Bordenin Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952) and other “industrial” pieces. Even his more recent letter to the editor of the New York Times name-dropped Truman Capote, all with the humble-brag sensibility of P. T. Barnum directing a song-and-dance revue for daguerreotypes, if you can imagine.
Brown’s thoughts on the company, as published in an official World’s Fair press release:
“The ancient Greeks thought but did not experiment,” he pointed out. “The alchemists of the Middle Ages experimented but did not think. Chemistry’s wonderful world started with an eighteenth-century French genius named Lavoisier combined experimenting and thinking. It was this great chemist’s young apprentice, E. I. du Pont, who left France to establish the company on the banks of the Brandywine in Delaware.”
“Every day that we are living is such a thrill that we can’t stay nonchalant! Better Things For Better Living are coming still—that’s the promise of DuPont!”
Besides the electric energy that the lyrical program for The Wonderful World of Chemistry delivered, Brown made yet another dazzling contribution to American popular culture: he and his wife were the “brilliant and lively” friends of Harper Lee, who famously gifted her with a tidy sum during the 1956 holidays ( “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”), which ultimately made it possible for her to write To Kill a Mockingbird, as she recalled in this terrific essay for McCall’s.
A wonderful world of chemistry, indeed.