One Man’s Quest to Spotlight the Unsung Stars of Industrial Musicals
Comedy writer Steve Young’s fascination with a peculiar oddity takes him on a personally meaningful and rewarding journey. What started as a segment on The Late Show with David Letterman making fun of goofy record covers, led Young down a rabbit hole of kitschy capitalism. In Bathtubs over Broadway, director Dava Whisenant follows the collector on his quest to track down rare vinyl records of Industrial Musicals, and the composers and performers who brought them to life. Young and Whisenant show the lengths these corporations would go to build company loyalty and instill pride in their employees. Young is at the center of the film, and his eccentric obsession is remarked upon by everyone else throughout—first with bewilderment, but later with much affection and admiration.
Most people have never seen or even heard of a corporate musical. That’s because they weren’t open to the public. Their purpose was solely to motivate the managers and salesmen within the company—kind of like a school pep rally. In fact, corporate shows made up the large majority of the show business economy. Broadway was only the tip of the iceberg. For a few decades from the 1950s to the late 1980s, corporate shows were plentiful and created jobs for a legion of performers, including future stars Martin Short and Florence Henderson, who appear in the film. The composers and lyricists for these shows were also extraordinarily talented, such as 93 year-old Sheldon Harnick, who co-wrote Fiddler on the Roof. It’s moving to watch legends like composer Hank Beebe playing his old tune ‘Diesel Dazzle’ on the piano while Young sings along.
The archival footage they dig up of these shows is laugh-out- loud absurd, such as Young’s personal favorite, “The Bathrooms are Coming!” One could argue that the current trend of brands’ social media accounts getting into twitter beefs is equally absurd, proving that every generation has its quirks. But a lot more time and artistry went into these shows than into Wendy’s tweets. The film has it’s own original musical number towards the end, reuniting a bunch of the old performers, which adds to the doc’s pizzazz.
Fans of Young’s popular coffee table book “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals” will be delighted to find out about the documentary. And anyone remotely interested in show tunes or easily amused by corporate pandering will be hard pressed to suppress a smile. Bathtubs over Broadway is a lighthearted trip down a memory lane less traveled by.
Reviewed on April 21st at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival – Special Screenings programme. 87 Minutes