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.