×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Bathtubs Over Broadway’

Steve Young, a comedy writer (and record collector) for David Letterman, indulges his obsession with the unsung world of industrial musicals in this entertaining delve into way-off-Broadway arcana.

Director:
Dava Whisenant
With:
Steve Young, Sid Siegel, Hank Beebe, David Letterman, Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Susan Stroman, Sheldon Harnick, Jello Biafra.
Release Date:
Nov 30, 2018

1 hour 27 minutes

Anyone who loves musical theater owes it to themselves to see “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” a delightful deep-dive documentary into one man’s obsession with the obscure world of industrial musicals — corporate-sponsored song-and-dance revues from the golden age of American capitalism. Think of it as “big-brand music,” commissioned for company retreats where they would be performed just once (sometimes by such entertainers as Susan Stroman, Martin Short, and Chita Rivera, who fondly recall performing in such “sold-out” shows) and then forgotten. Well, almost forgotten, since a handful of collectors have developed a kind of ironic affection for these loony tunes, which makes for an outrageous but never-less-than-reverent tour down the back alleys of Broadway.

Turns out a clever cleffer (vintage Variety slanguage for a professional songwriter) can fashion a witty ditty about pretty much anything, from the profitability of Purina Dog Chow to the joys of Surg-O-Pak sterile hospital sheets. Don’t believe me? Witness “It’ll Change Your Life,” one of two original musical numbers Steve Young — a comedy writer for “Late Night With David Letterman” and the top collector in question — penned in the style of those vintage industrials tuners: “Soon you’re itchin’ to sell a new kitchen / They put the dazzle in diesel, they add the ooh to shampoo.” That song opens this daffy project, paired with a playful animated sequence that sets the stage for what’s to come.

As Young explains it, one of the perils of being a writer for Letterman is that “many of the receptors that would allow me to appreciate comedy would be burned out in my brain.” One of his jobs on the show was to find obscure, inadvertently funny LPs for the “Dave’s Record Collection” segment of the show, which is how he stumbled across industrial musicals in the first place, moldering among the bins of vintage vinyl dealers.

It was in that spirit, looking for records he could lampoon out of context, that Young brought albums such as “Number One Hard” (sample lyrics: “Wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat / It makes your life complete”) and “My Insurance Man” to the public’s attention. And thus an obsession with what Young calls “music I wasn’t supposed to hear” was born, compelling him to seek out the extremely limited-edition records presented to the salesmen attending these conferences as a kind of souvenir.

Now, as delightful as it is to dive down that rabbit hole with Young, interfacing with fellow collectors and reaching out to the singers and songwriters who worked on some of these shows, director Dava Whisenant deliberately misleads her audience, withholding early on that Young is compiling an entire book on the subject — a novelty coffee-table tome called “Everything’s Coming Up Profits” (for which Amazon offers three streaming music collections spanning the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when these shows were in their prime) that he suddenly unveils fully written and researched during the film’s shmaltzy final third.

There are scenes in which he refers to the Holy Grail of industrial musicals, a sparkly ode to tubs and toilets called “The Bathrooms Are Coming” (“My bathroom, my bathroom / Is much more than it may seem / Where I wash and where I cream”), speculating on how the various songs might have been staged. The next thing we know, he’s opening a package to reveal a rare DVD on which the entire production has been preserved for posterity. The vinyl albums are scarce enough that it’s a real treat whenever Young discovers a vintage film recording, and Focus Features absolutely owes it to audiences to make this extra available on home video.

Though Young was initially drawn to these recordings for their sheer absurdity, he developed a sincere appreciation for their craftsmanship, and this mix of humor and humility is what makes the surrounding documentary so special, especially as he sets out to meet the people responsible for such work (reader be warned: There are a few light spoilers ahead). Like a cross between Broadway legends and Madison Ave. jingle writers, composers such as Michael Brown (“Put Payoff Punch in Your Selling”) and Sid Siegel (“I Never Enjoyed My Operation More”) were hardly hacks, writing catchy songs with seemingly impossible sales pitches. After all, how many words rhyme with Xerox?

Young manages to find Siegel — who wrote more than 250 industrials — before the composer died, and it’s touching to watch them seated at Siegel’s piano, singing the lyrics to “The Distributors.” Young gets along so well with Hank Beebe (“Diesel Dazzle”) that they wrote the film’s closing number together, staged in grand Technicolor style with all the friends he has met through this crazy journey into way-off-Broadway history. It all speaks to an era when salespeople dedicated their entire lives to a company like Chevrolet, which might repay that loyalty by shelling out $3 million for a one-off musical — compared to less than $500,000 to launch a show like “My Fair Lady.” It’s high time this unsung phenomenon reached the public’s ears.

Film Review: 'Bathtubs Over Broadway'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival, April 22, 2018. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Focus Features release of a Producers: Amanda Spain, Dava Whisenant, Susan Littenberg. Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Jason Blum, David Letterman, Daniel J. Chalfen, Marci Wiseman, Jeremy Gold, Charles Layton. Co-producer: Ozzy Inguanzo.

Crew: Director: Dava Whisenant. Writers: Ozzy Inguanzo, Whisenant. Camera (color, HD): Natalie Kingston, Nick Higgins. Editor: Whisenant. Music: Anthony DiLorenzo, Steve Young, Hank Beebe. Animation: Anton Goddard, Syd Garon, Christopher Kirk.

With: Steve Young, Sid Siegel, Hank Beebe, David Letterman, Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Susan Stroman, Sheldon Harnick, Jello Biafra.

More Film

  • Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne'

    Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne,' Kurosawa Screening Series

    The upcoming Beijing International Film Festival will give space to high profile Hollywood franchise movies with screenings of all films in both the “Mad Max” and “Bourne Identity” series. Classic Hollywood fare will also feature prominently in a line-up that, as usual, features an eclectic grab bag of titles. The local government-backed festival opens April [...]

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church

    SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius'

    Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some [...]

  • 'Roll Red Roll' Review: Piercing Documentary

    Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll'

    “Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild, Hollywood Agents Negotiate With Deadline Looming

    The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood agents have held a sixth negotiating session with a deadline for a new deal 16 days away — and it’s uncertain whether progress is being made. The Association of Talent Agents made counter-proposals at Thursday’s session that contain provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

    Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands [...]

  • Alan Horn Disney

    Disney Clarifies Film Leadership After Harrowing Day of Fox Layoffs

    Following the dismissal of top executives in distribution, marketing and strategy on Thursday, new 20th Century Fox owner Disney has clarified its new top leadership. Five distinct Fox labels and a portion of their leadership have been welcomed into the Disney fold, the company said. This includes Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Family, Fox Searchlight Pictures, [...]

  • Janelle Monae

    Film News Roundup: Janelle Monae to Star in Film From Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

    In today’s film news roundup, Janelle Monae will star in a Lionsgate movie, Bill Nighy joins “Emma,” and documentaries on surfer Bethany Hamilton and Asbury Park are dated. CASTINGS More Reviews SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius' Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll' Janelle Monae will star in an untitled [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content