I love quirky musicals to pieces and thought I’d heard most of them, but this superb documentary from director Dava Whisenant about The Late Show With David Letterman comedy writer Steve Young has opened up a whole new genre to me – that of the Industrial Musical, shows which were never on Broadway (or even off, off Broadway) but specifically written for corporate events, private meetings and business conventions which celebrated various companies and the products they made.
That means in charity shops and second hand record stores across America you can buy LP’s from the likes of Ford, tractor manufacturers Massey-Ferguson, Coca Cola, Eastern Antiseptic, Lyons Maid, Xerox and many others that have songs about the joys of bread, amazing refrigerators, dog food, silicon, toilets and various other products which sound shockingly boring but were made fun and exciting for a couple of hours. They weren’t by rank amateurs either, some of them written by highly acclaimed writers like Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock who were responsible for “Fiddler On The Roof”, presumably as they needed some extra cash and so turned to the corporate world.
The documentary begins with Young explaining how after having worked on Letterman for decades he felt exhausted by the comedy world, that his “comedy receptors” had been burnt out and nothing made him laugh anymore, and given that he worked on Letterman it’s easy to believe. But then by chance while in a record shop he discovered a recording of an Industrial Musical and found it hilarious, and became obsessed about collecting as many of them as he could. This lead him to finding other fans of the genre, including Dead Kennedy’s songwriter Jello Biafra and Ariel Pink drummer Don Bolles, and then he decides he wishes to track down the stars and writers of these musicals.
Fortunately for us Letterman decided to retire so Steve could spend all of his time on his quest, and the interviews with those involved with the musicals are fascinating to watch, as all involved are proud of their work even if very few people saw them. The real highlight is hearing the songs though, with those from “The Bathrooms Are Coming” and “Dog Chow Spectacular” being the funniest, and Young even managed to find video footage from some of them and they’re an absolute delight. Amazingly the budgets were often higher than those of a Broadway show, with one costing three million dollars, and you can see every penny on the screen.
Towards the end I was hoping that Young might stage one of the musicals himself, as surely that Letterman money was not inconsiderable, but it was alas not to be. He did do the next best thing though and perform the songs himself on stage in small venues, often with surviving cast members joining him, and it comes to a close with a gorgeously filmed and impressively choreographed video of one of the very best tracks the film offers up, and you can see the glee in the faces of all of those who take part, as if it were a long time dream that has finally come true.
A documentary free of cynicism Bathtubs Over Broadway is a joy from start to finish. If you’re a fan of musicals I have no doubt that you’ll find yourself trying to track down the soundtracks, and even if you’re not you’ll enjoy the film, the songs cover such inane subjects that it’s impossible not to find them hilarious, but they’re also often intentionally funny too. Young is an engaging guide to this previously unknown world and the talking heads actually have interesting things to say, unlike too many a film of this type, and all in all it’s a fascinating insight in to a beautifully strange and genuinely funny product.